In summary

CalMatters talked to volunteer poll workers and full-time staff members in the aftermath of November’s contentious election to see how their job differed from past elections. San Diego elections staffer Andrew Pates said his job motivation was “to work on the truth.”

Andrew Pates toured Asia and Europe creating visuals and light shows for electronic ambient artist The Album Leaf. In between his gigs around the world, he coordinated logistics for democracy at home.

For the past 13 years, Pates, 47, has worked most San Diego County elections. He has worn many hats: signature verifier, poll worker trainer, ballot processor, and tallier. He was also project manager for the county’s first ever satellite poll centers in March, a pilot of the 235 super polls used this recent election.

“This was my, like, 20th plus election of some kind,” he said.

The election came with a national cacophony of baseless fraud allegations and voter anxiety. In the end, the vote count, considered to be the most secure in American history, revealed record turnout. The days leading to Election Day, however, were tense. The job of calming voters fell on election workers equipped with experience and facts, Pates’ weapons of choice against misinformation.

“When you see those things and you’re able to work on the truth,” he said, “that’s a great motivator right there.”

Anxious voters, some using mailed ballots for their first time, coped by asking workers nervous questions, making jokes, and sometimes directed outright skepticism at them. It took a toll on some workers, Pates said. 

“I could see people (saying), ‘you’re gonna check that signature, right?’ and different things… People were more comfortable with off the cuff negative comments than in the past.

Pates’ daughter visits him at a training location in 2014. Photo courtesy of Andrew Pates

“It was an individual challenge for everybody to keep the morale up in those situations. Luckily, you walk back in the building and you see millions of ballots getting counted.” 

It also helped to see some people celebrating outside. Some voters even wanted to take pictures with the registrar, something Pates said he had never seen before.

Despite the heightened skepticism, Pates said, “what I did see happen was it was able to be turned around by the great processes in place and the great customer service that we put forward.”

This fall, Pates helped the county shift from its usual 1,500 traditional polling locations to 235 super polls equipped with savvy technology. Sure, election technology might change, voters’ skepticism might become louder, but Pates sees some constants in the work: Give good customer service. Follow the election code. Be transparent. Invite voters to volunteer themselves. All to help voters understand how detailed and secure the process is.

“Your customer is everywhere you go,” he tells trainees. “Go stand in line at the grocery store and everybody in line is your customer. Everybody you drive past is somebody you’ve helped cast their vote.”

This coverage is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. In California, CalMatters is hosting the collaboration with the Fresno Bee, the Long Beach Post, and the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

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Michael is a reporter for CalMatters' Votebeat project. Covering immigration and diversity, his previous articles have been syndicated and translated into multiple languages via New America Media, ImpreMedia,...