By: Skye Witley
Note: Republican Glenn Youngkin won the governor’s race with 50.8 percent of the vote.
RICHMOND, Va. — Thousands of voters cycled through polling precincts in the early hours of election day in Virginia, filing their ballots under the watchful eyes of a growing cohort of election observers.
Keith Balmer, Richmond’s director of elections, said he saw significantly more poll watchers occupying his precincts this election cycle, with Republicans dwarfing Democratic observers by a ratio of 2-to-1.
“They’ve actually been asking a lot of good questions,” Balmer said. “There has historically been a bit of a mystery around the process and people just aren’t aware of what goes on and how elections are run.”
He said he often sat down with them to answer any questions or concerns they raised, turning many moments of doubt into educational opportunities. Balmer recalled one particularly curious observer who wanted to know more about inactive voters and the process by which they were still allowed to vote, which he explained to them in detail.
“It’s just a procedural thing that unless you are actually doing this on a daily basis, you would have no clue what that meant,” Balmer said.
Poll watchers are not authorized to interact with voters or interfere with the election process but can communicate concerns to the precinct’s election officer or call the board of elections, Balmer said. Observers are appointed by a political party or candidate and are prohibited from campaigning or wearing political gear inside the precinct.
Given the recent increased interest in poll watching, Balmer said he hopes to conduct future training sessions with election observers to bolster transparency and understanding.
This year’s rise in Virginia poll watchers was partly driven by the Republican party’s focus on “election integrity” after former president Donald Trump lost the 2020 presidential election and pushed false narratives about widespread voter fraud. During his primary campaign, Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin fanned the flames by attending an election integrity rally and calling for voting-machine audits, an annual process that already existed in the commonwealth.
In a state that is studied intensely every four years as a political bellwether, the Youngkin campaign’s strategic election messaging will likely inform Republican strategies across the nation for the 2022 midterms.
Patricia Manos, 61, volunteered as a first-time poll watcher at a local church in Chesterfield County, just outside of Richmond, on election day. A week earlier, she cast her vote for Youngkin and the rest of the Republican ticket on the last day of early voting.
Manos expressed serious concerns about voter fraud in the state, citing a debunked narrative about Maricopa County, Arizona, receiving tens of thousands of extra ballots during the 2020 presidential election. She said she hoped to make a difference by observing the polling process and personally ensuring the integrity of the election.
“Well, I found out that there was a couple [ballot] boxes in Richmond that aren’t manned, and I think that’s absolutely ludicrous,” Manos said. “I wouldn’t leave a $20 bill on my dashboard, and go into the store, and now we’re doing that for elections. So, yeah, that really concerned me.”
Manos attempted to register as an election official, even visiting the Virginia Department of Elections to get her application papers notarized so she could be the first to review the ballot machine’s results, she said. Instead, she was assigned as a poll watcher.
Although the poll watching training expanded Manos’ knowledge of the voting process, she said it didn’t increase her confidence in elections overall. In fact, she said her confidence in the election results would vary depending on who wins.
“If Youngkin loses … I would not be at ease with it at all,” Manos said, adding that if Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe lost, she probably would not have as many concerns about voter fraud.
Others attended precincts as nonpartisan poll watchers or were not driven by a mistrust of the system.
Joaquin Ross, the civic engagement campaign director for the commonwealth’s NAACP chapter, told The Wash that the organization trained and deployed Black poll watchers, as well as other “election protection” volunteers.
“Volunteers for the NAACP go around and … make sure no injustices are happening at the polls, make sure that machines are working properly, make sure that there’s no intimidation at these polling locations,” Ross said.
He added that the NAACP coordinated with several other nonprofit organizations in Virginia to ensure that enough volunteers were trained and knowledgeable by election day to cover most voting precincts in the state.
Meanwhile, Republican observers such as Bob Evans, 66, didn’t harbor severe concerns and simply thought it was important to have people observing the process to ensure nothing went wrong.
Evans said that while he was relatively familiar with the election process, the main thing he learned as a first-time poll watcher was who to contact about any issues he observed, including party leaders.
“I’ve got no reason to be suspicious of anything going on here anywhere in the state or Chesterfield; I’m just here to hopefully lend a hand,” Evans said. “I’ve been voting for a long time, so I believe in the process.”