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Election deniers worry Virginia poll workers, officials

Two people stand on their porch with dogs.
Sun and Erik Webb stand on the porch outside their Northside Richmond home. Erik is working as a poll worker for the first time this Election Day. (Photos: Ian M. Stewart/VPM News)

Sun and Erik Webb are new to their Northside home. The couple recently moved to Richmond from the Bay Area. Sun, who’s a registered nurse, was born in Chesterfield County while Erik, who works from home for a software company, was born in Atlanta. Both are happy to be in the Bellevue neighborhood. 

Amid renovations and caring for a new baby, Erik will take time to be one of Richmond’s 800 poll workers for the midterm elections. Poll workers in Richmond and counties like Chesterfield are paid for their work. Some of the poll workers began working as soon as early voting started. 

On his new home’s porch, Erik said he wants to become a part of the city. 

"I feel like people's voting is about as core to being a resident of a city or a state as anything else is,” Webb said. 

Election Day will be his first time working at the polls, and he said it’s a good opportunity to look behind the scenes. 

“Seeing what that's like firsthand, especially coming out of the last couple of years with all of the [opinions] around elections. So, it just felt like overall a great way to get involved and learn something in the process,” Webb said. 

Prior to Tuesday’s election, Webb attended training sessions both in person and online. They covered the different duties at precincts, like being a door greeter or checking people in. But what Erik really wants to know is how the voting machines work. 

“As much as obviously registration is extremely important, understanding where the actual physical votes go, and how they're counted, is very interesting to me,” Webb said.  

During the past two elections, Virginia poll workers had to wear masks and keep a safe distance from voters because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, officials are again turning their attention to poll workers' safety — only now it’s because of potential interference from people who don't trust the election process. 

“Unfortunately, the nature in which the political climate is, you just got to do everything you can to [protect] your staff, your election officers and yourself,” said Keith Balmer, Richmond’s general registrar. 

Security of voting machines, as well as the safety of poll workers, is on the forefront of Balmer’s mind. At a recent training session filled with both new and experienced poll workers, he said people who work at the precincts are dedicated civil servants. 

Richmond registrar Keith Balmer leads a traing, standing in front of a slideshow
Richmond General Registrar Keith Balmer leads a training for poll workers.

“They don't do it for the money, don't do it for any sort of glory. They do it because they feel that they are serving their community,” Balmer said. 

Balmer said a new security measure this year is that police will escort some of his staff to the polls. Officers will also be in and around polling places, which is typical.  

“People just don't have the trust that they should have in the job in which local election officials and state election officials are doing,” he said. 

Nationwide, registrars are telling news outlets like the Associated Press and NPR are preparing for possible issues with aggressive poll watchers after two years of false claims and conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election. 

For instance, according to NPR’s “Here and Now,” in Maricopa County, Arizona, there have been multiple allegations of voter intimidation. Some individuals — some of whom have been armed — have filmed, photographed, approached and harassed early voters at two outdoor drop-boxes in the county. 

There’s a difference between poll watchers and poll workers. As with previous elections, poll watchers and poll workers will be assigned to precincts. Political party officials and candidates send poll watchers to monitor the process on their behalf while poll workers are nonpartisan positions that registrars pay to conduct elections and assist voters.  State law allows election officers to remove poll watchers if they quote “impede the orderly conduct of the election.” 

According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, there is mounting concern that some election poll workers are being recruited and trained by organizations to undermine the election process. 

Because of the potential acts of violence or interference against election workers, the Department of Justice launched a task force to address the problem in July 2021. The task force will investigate threats made against election workers, in partnership with U.S. Attorneys’ offices and FBI field offices throughout the country. 

“We all follow the law as written in the Virginia code," Balmer said. “We're not in the business of changing votes, we simply count votes. But for some people, they're not going to believe it unless they see it. So, if you want to see it, then come work for us as a poll worker.” 

Robley Jones has been an election officer since 2008 and recently was promoted to chief election officer in his Forest Hill precinct. He said he has welcomed observers in the past and is happy to do so again because it’s a chance to educate them.  

“Some of them have come in predisposed to think that everything's crooked. I think I can honestly say by the time the day is over, they're pretty comfortable with the way things work in my precinct,” Jones said. 

Election offiicial Robley Jones smiles
Robley Jones is the chief election officer at Richmond's Forest Hill precinct: "Our democracy won't work without people on the local level volunteering to make democracy work in their neighborhoods."

Jones said it’s important to remember that poll workers usually live in the same town as their fellow voters and are taking time to help their community. State law requires poll workers to live in Virginia. 

“Our democracy won't work without people on the local level volunteering to make democracy work in their neighborhoods,” he said. 

Balmer, Richmond’s registrar, agreed transparency is crucial to building trust. He said he’s communicating with the public more than in past elections. 

“I'm posting information on our social media pages, posting on our website, sending out press releases,” Balmer said. “I think that that's the way in which I sort of push back against some of the climate that we're in right now.”  

Webb, the new poll worker, said he has no idea what to expect on Tuesday. And though he’s a bit apprehensive, he's just happy he’ll be there.   

“Am I really going to be able to show up to my polling place where I'm working, do my job and just go home? Or is there going to be distractions and complications, and who knows what, that just makes the day more difficult for everyone?” Webb wondered. 

Webb said he hopes Election Day is quiet, because at one point during his long shift, he wants his wife and daughter to come visit him for lunch.