Q&A with Bill Lewers, Author of “The Gatekeepers of Democracy”


[Image via Bill Lewers]

A few weeks ago, I did a short review for electionlineWeekly of The Gatekeepers of Democracy, a new novel about pollworkers by Bill Lewers of Fairfax County, VA. I recently followed up with Bill, who was gracious enough to answer a few questions about his inspiration and process for writing the book:

What was your inspiration for writing this book?

A dream that I’ve had for a number of years has been to write a novel. The idea of creating a story with characters that exist only in my imagination has always grabbed me as being the ultimate personal writing experience.

Over the years different ideas have occurred to me but never with sufficient intensity for me to actually begin writing. For the past couple of years I’ve been mulling over a plot having to do with an election. Two decades of experiences as an Election Day volunteer has certainly given me lots of ideas for a story. The problem that I always ran into however was, where would such a story lead? What do you do for a conclusion?

Well the obvious conclusion to an election story is that one candidate wins and the other loses. The problem here is that for those of us who have witnessed a few election cycles, that’s not an especially compelling conclusion. Every year we have elections and someone wins and someone loses. So what? Now I guess you could make one of the candidates a noble reformer and the other one a corrupt creep but that still didn’t grab me as much of a conclusion.

Gradually my focus began to shift from the candidates to the people who serve as election officers. Your interview with [Fairfax County’s Cameron] Quinn and her declared intention of writing her own novel increased that focus. A search of the literature failed uncover even a single fictional title that revolves around election officers. “Election officer fiction” is indeed a wide open genre.

But the question still remained; where does this all head? “A day at the polls” where everyone does their thing and then goes home might be fine for a blog post or a letter to the editor but it is not especially gripping as a story.

That’s when I realized that a story can’t just be about plot. It has to revolve around characters who will in some way be challenged and even altered by the events of the day.

We have a law/rule/tradition/whatever in Virginia that the Chief election officer should be of the same party as the sitting governor. During most of my time serving in Fairfax County it has been sporadically enforced. For whatever reasons, the most recent regime change (from Republican to Democrat in January, 2014) resulted in this practice being strictly enforced. All the chiefs are now Democrat regardless of the relative merits of the personnel involved.

In most instances this has not been a problem. Folks from both parties have realized that there was nothing personal in any of this and people performed well in their revised roles. We have had however a (very) few instances where this has not been the case. “Demoted” Republicans resenting their replacements. Zealous Democrats misinterpreting suggestions from Republicans as attempts to circumvent their authority. When this has happened the Office of Elections has made sure that these “toxic” combinations not be repeated in future elections so in the great scheme of things this has not been a big deal. It is however a perfect “conflict situation” for a novel. And from that conflict, the characters of “Carl and Cindy” emerge.

There’s a lot of detail about the process here – did you end up doing research or was most of this from your experience as a poll worker?

A little of each. Anyone who has served a few elections knows that there is a certain rhythm to the Election Day experience. Now each election; each polling place has its own quirks but the general pattern of the day is fairly consistent. When certain tasks need to be done; when certain types of voters will appear; the parts of the day that are the most challenging.

But while I retain most of this at a fairly detailed level, I wanted to be sure I had as many of the details correct as I could. For every election in Fairfax County, the chiefs, assistant chiefs, and rovers are issued a chief’s manual. At the end of the day we return the binder but are allowed to keep the pages as a souvenir of our day. So as I was writing the book I had a copy of the most recent manual on my desk which I could consult to make sure I had the details correct. In most instances the manual just confirmed what I already knew but in a few instances it corrected me or it filled in gaps in my knowledge. For example when Cindy tells Biff that he is in violation of sections 24.2-604 and 24.2-310 of the Virginia code; that comes from the manual.

One of your protagonists, Carl, seems like he was easy for you to write – how much of yourself did you put into this book?

I guess there’s a certain amount of me in Carl although I like to think that I’m not as preachy and judgmental as he is (however when I said that to my wife I got a rather raised eyebrow look). I’ve had a few “demotions to assistant chief” in my career and hopefully I handled it better than he did. I do believe however, that once we take that oath we need to adhere strictly to the law regardless of our personal beliefs so in that way I suppose I’m like Carl.

I loved the little human touches – like the pollworker who left the polling place to get Starbucks – is that all from experience as well?

Most of those “human moments” were inspired by things that I witnessed through the years. Like the woman from Reston who entered my McLean precinct to vote because she was driving past and saw the sign that said “vote here.”

The pollworker going to Starbucks happened, not to me, but to one of the chiefs on my rover route. At the time I wasn’t fully aware of the imperatives of the situation and we let it slide. The Office of Elections has since made it very clear that it can never happen again.  It of course served well as a flash point between Carl’s “letter of the law” approach to Cindy’s more humanistic view of things.

Incidentally the character of Theodore was based on an elderly gentleman who was on my team the first time I was chief. He was rather tentative and seemed frail but rose to the occasion with every new assignment and proved to be a valuable member of the team. Unfortunately I never saw him again.

The challenges in serving the senior citizen bus was taken from personal experience.

The scene where Cindy talks to the exhausted poll worker near the end of the day was inspired by a certain Ron Paul volunteer who remained at his post during a rain/ice storm, soaked to the bone, during the 2008 primary long after all the other poll workers had given it up.

Incidentally, the scene where Cindy suggests using the side door comes from an incident that occurred to me during Election Day 2008. For years I had the voters use the entrance door as an exit. However in 2008 voters started to ask if they could exit by the side door. When I said “no”, some of them pushed back and asked “Why not?” I suddenly realized that “because we’ve never done it the past,” was not much of a reason so I relented and made a battlefield decision to start using the door. (Score one for the people!). However it did take a few election cycles to adequately educate the poll workers outside that they now needed to be forty feet away from that door as well.

Any good “war stories” you didn’t put in the book?

Most embarrassing moment: November 1994. My first November election as an officer. This was the Chuck Robb vs Oliver North senate race with former Virginia Attorney General Marshall Coleman on the ballot as an “Independent Republican” (North supporters called him a “Country Club Republican”). I was assigned the “A thru L” poll book. It was my job to locate a voter’s name and address in the paper poll book when he or she presented himself/herself at the check-in table. Suddenly my eyes were blinded by an intense light. I realized almost immediately that must be part of some television program. The would-be voter stepped up the table and with a big smile politely gave his name: 

“Marshall Coleman.”

I realized immediately that this was the candidate himself. As quickly as I could I fumbled my way in the poll book to the “C’s” and looked for his name. There were about a hundred Coleman’s listed (OK, maybe it was ten but it seemed like a hundred). I search up and down the list. I could not find the name. I know that his full name was “John Marshall Coleman” so I looked for that name as well.  Suddenly my eyes became sluggish and my mind numb as I frantically looked up and down the page trying to locate the name. Mr. Coleman, to his credit, never lost his composure. He remained calmly in place with a pleasant smile on his face. I was sure however that he was thinking to himself,

“Who is this bozo who is ruining my morning TV spot?”

After what seemed an eternity the officer sitting next to me joined in the search and found his name in a matter of a second or two. I read off the candidate’s name and address and the entire entourage progressed to the voting machine area and out of my life. Of course I had no time to reflect on my performance, or lack thereof, as the “A thru L” line had grown exponentially during the Coleman episode.

Election with most unusual turnout: the 2000 Virginia Bush-McCain primary. All day long turnout was steady but nothing special. Then in the last 90 minutes the line just started to grow and grow. Usually the morning is when we get the big crowds and it’s just a trickle at the end of the day. This one was exactly the opposite.

Toughest election: the 2004 Bush-Kerry presidential. We were using touch screen machines then and we had been issued four of them. What killed us was that there were four bond issues and two constitutional amendments on the ballot. The voters took forever pondering these things and the line just grew and grew (yes, we did have sheets that explained these items in ‘plain English’ but it was tough getting the voters to read them). Eventually the line of voters inside the gym was so long (it snaked around the room several times) that we had to seal off the front door for a while. I remember saying to the folks on line outside the school, “The line really is moving; you’re just not seeing it move.”

Toughest close: November 2007. This is the every-four-year election in the cycle where there are a ton of local offices on the ballot with lots of candidates. We were still using the touch screen machines and we had the usual four. Normally through the magic of wireless communications all the votes were communicated to one master machine which gave us the final results. However someone apparently convinced the state that wireless communications was a bad thing so for this election it was disabled. The Assistant chief and I were left with adding up seemingly endless groups of numbers and recording them on the [statement of results]. We were in the middle of our slow grind when suddenly the gym door burst open and a number of young adults charged in dribbling volleyballs and declaring that the gym was theirs and they had a permit and everything. There was no way my $5 CVS calculator could compete to the racket caused by all these volleyballs. We started to enter into a negotiation with the invaders. We talked for a few minutes with no apparent resolution to the standoff when some of the senior citizen ladies on our team rose in unison and declared loudly,

“This is an election! You have to leave now!”

Well it’s one thing to bully a pair of exhausted male scribes but quite another to take on a whole battalion of senior citizen ladies. With a few disgruntled comments about “fairness” the invaders left the gym. [NOTE: I’m totally stealing this story – DMCj]

Most Memorable experience: This came in November 2012, the Saturday before Election Day. I was working “in person absentee voting” at the local library. The supervisor assigned me the task of handling those voters who because of physical limitations needed to vote “curbside.”  We started at 8 a.m. and went straight through to 5 p.m. For the first couple of hours it wasn’t too bad but from about 10 a.m. on it was unrelenting No stops; no food breaks; no bathroom. Just voter and voter after voter. One after another they came. The elderly and frail, people on chemo, people in wheelchairs, people with Alzheimer’s.

Keeping the curbside voters straight so we could have some sort of orderly progression was a challenge and folks became upset if they felt others were not voting in the proper order. We tried to group them together based on congressional district to get some efficiency in the process. Holding the latest batch of approved voter applications, we would go out to the curb with the voting machine in hand calling out the names of the next round of voters. There was not enough space on the curb for all the cars needing curbside assistance so we frequently would have to roam the parking lot hunting down the voters.

Seeing so many people who were facing so many different challenges making the effort to vote was in its own way rather inspirational. I can still recall one voter whose reason to vote absentee was listed on the form as “terminal cancer.” He was a young man, certainly no older than forty who was seated in the front passenger seat of his car. At first glance he could have been an athlete until you noticed the baseball cap obscuring his eyes and the slow back and forth rocking motion of his body.

“Honey, this man is going to help you do the vote you wanted to do” his wife said anxiously.

“Can he mark the ballot himself?” I asked.

“I’m not sure. He’s dizzy.” she replied.

“Perhaps you might want to assist him.”

“I think that might be best.”

Quickly we filled out the Request for Assistance form that I had learned to always bring with me when doing curbside and then I retreated to give them their privacy.   

They completed the vote within a couple of minutes.

“Thank you.” she said with intensity as I retrieved the machine.

“God Bless” was all I could think of to reply.

There was no time however to reflect on any of the voters. It was just continual motion – handing out applications, collecting applications, checking them in on VERIS [Virginia’s statewide voter database], grouping the applications by congressional district, bringing out the machine to the curb, trying to find the correct voters even while reassuring the voters that were not in this batch that they weren’t forgotten, and then providing assistance to the voters. On and on it went, hour after hour. As we approached 5 p.m., I perceived an additional challenge. The polls were to close at 5 p.m. with the understanding that all voters on line at 5 could vote. This is S.O.P. – an officer stations himself at the back of the line to ensure that the voters on line can vote and that anyone who is late would not crash the line.

The challenge with curbside was that there was no line. So for the last 15 minute or so I made a special effort to scan the parking lots for cars just pulling in so I could get the application to the voter before the bewitching hour of 5 p.m. At about 2 minutes to five a car pulled in driven by an elderly lady.

“I’m here to vote!” she bellowed. “I’ve voted here for 46 years!”

“Well let’s make it 47.” I said handing her the application. Fortunately her name was in VERIS. I don’t think it would have been fun to challenge her.

Well 5 p.m. came and the supervisor officially closed the polls. We continued to process the voters in the queue. As the minutes ticked by and one-by-one the curbside folks voted, the parking lot gradually began to empty. Finally all the curbside voters were taken care of and I returned inside to help with the remaining voters on line. The last voter finished at 6:30, an hour and a half after the polls had closed. I don’t think I’ve ever had a day at the polls which was as intense and as moving as that day.

What would you say to someone who’s considering becoming a pollworker – besides “buy my book” :)?

Do it! Yes, 5 a.m. is early and it is a long day. But you get to say “hi” to all those neighbors you never have time to talk to. And you’ll get to work with some of the nicest people you’ll ever want to meet in your fellow officers. Plus you even get a little bit of ‘mad money’ for your trouble.

But mostly you’ll just feel good. There is something oddly satisfying about meeting seven or eight perfect strangers in a darkened school parking lot at 5:00 A.M. and working closely together for the next fifteen hours to do something that really matters. At the end of the day you will be physically exhausted, mentally exhausted, perhaps even emotionally exhausted, but you will also have the satisfaction that comes from knowing you have done something really worthwhile. And when you turn on the TV to watch the returns that evening, you’ll say to yourself with pride,

“I helped make that happen.”

Anything else to add?

Just that writing the book was the most fun I’ve ever had on a writing project.

As you can tell, Bill is a natural storyteller … and I really do recommend the book for anyone who’s interested in what life is like at the pollworker table facing out. Thanks again to him for writing the novel and for taking the time to answer a few questions about what went into it.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

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