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Election Day Behind the Scenes (Encore Episode)

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It’s primary election day 2024! Voters have the responsibility of getting to the polls if they haven’t already, but there is a lot of work going on behind the scenes for election officials, candidates, and campaign volunteers. This episode gives you a behind-the-scenes look from pre-dawn to finalizing election results. On this episode we talk with John Michael Catalano, outreach and special projects coordinator with the South Carolina Elections Commission, and Derrick Lewis, who has concluded his second term as an elected member of the Greenville County School Board of Trustees.

Transcript

Katy Smith
This encore episode is posting on June 11th 2024, the day of our statewide primaries. Over the last weeks, we’ve brought you interviews with 35 of the candidates running for county council, sheriff, state house and senate and so much more, and we have our fingers crossed that we’ll see great turnout today since almost half of these winners will be determined today rather than in November. Today, we bring you a behind the scenes look at election day, from the perspective of election officials and of candidates. I’ll talk with John Michael Catalano, Public Information Officer with the South Carolina Elections Commission, and Derrick Lewis, who held two terms as an elected member of the Greenville County School Board of Trustees. Derek is also executive director of Greenville County First Steps.


This episode is posting on Election Day, and you might be listening to this afterwards. But we wanted to give you a look at what’s happening across the across the state for candidates and for election officials. So let’s just say it’s 5am. What is happening for candidates Derek, when you were running for office, what was happening in your house at 5am.

Derek Lewis
So the first year that I ran, I couldn’t sleep at all. And I woke up at like actually 2am. And I could not go back to sleep. And I was lying in bed thinking there’s no way I’m going back to sleep. So I just loaded up the trunk of my car with every campaign sign that I had left and just drove all the way around our district and looked for places that seem to need reminder of who to vote for for school board.

Katy Smith
That’s great.

Derek Lewis
By five o’clock. I was taking a nap again and then I was ready to go back out.

Katy Smith
Wonderful. And I know election day starts bright and early for election officials. John Michael, I know generally, there are county boards that oversee the elections in each county, you’re at the state level, but what’s happening across the state first thing in the morning?

John Michael Catalano
Right. So it’s actually funny to hear you say that Derek because I think a lot of election officials are probably doing the same thing, as far as not getting a lot of sleep the night before. We’re pretty nervous too, it’s big day for for everyone. But usually when we’re getting around 5am, that’s when county election officials are starting to wake up and get to polling places and get all of the voting systems, voting equipment, everything set up so that when the polls open at 7am people can get right in and start voting.

Katy Smith
Awesome. And so 7am, I know when I’ve worked there, sometimes it’s been long lines at the polls. Is that the busiest time of day, John Michael?

John Michael Catalano
Yeah, that typically is when you’re going to find the longest lines on election day is going to be early in the morning. Now that might.. that could change depending on the election, the candidates issues on it. But typically, yeah, the early in the morning is going to be when the lines are longest. They usually dissipate, you know, around mid morning, but a lot of people try to get their vote in before they go to work or drop off their kids at school. So that’s the longest time and then there might be a little bit of a pickup too after work, you know after five or so when people are getting off work. Okay, let me get a vote before I get home for the day. But for the most part, once you get past the morning, it’s kind of spread out. And really you shouldn’t see too long of lines at really any point of the day.

Katy Smith
Mm hmm. And Derek, what do you remember doing and no other candidates do as the day goes on?

Derek Lewis
So we were we were encouraged to do two things. One was to get on the email and make sure you email every person who said yeah, I’ll definitely support you to remind them to vote, because it does really surprise me the number of people who it doesn’t even occur to them that it’s election day. I mean, you would think with all the mailers and the news ads and everything else that they would be living, eating and breathing elections, but people forget that it’s election day. And so it’s it’s really important as a candidate to remind people that that thing you said you were going to help us do. You need to do it today. But the other thing was, you know, we were encouraged to go to visit the precincts. And it’s a it’s a really interesting dance because you are encouraged as a candidate to visit the precinct and speak to people and see you know that everything is happening the way you would expect it to happen. You don’t want to visit a precinct and find that the doors are closed or that they’re turning people away. But you can’t wear campaign materials. You can’t campaign while you’re doing it. And so you basically have to trust on shaking someone’s hand and saying, Hey, I’m Derrick Lewis will make them remember that. Oh, yes, there was a Derrick Lewis on that yard side I saw three weeks ago in my neighbor’s yard and I need to remember to connect with him. So you know, there’s a lot of kind of just final reminders, I guess.

Katy Smith
So as people are going in to vote, they may see folks sitting in a folding chair standing off to the side who are poll watchers. John Michael, can you describe who a poll watcher is and what their role is?

John Michael Catalano
Sure, yeah, a poll watcher is a person designated by a candidate or a party to fill a specific role at that precinct. And basically, their role is to watch. Say they’re watching to make sure everything is going the way that they feel it’s supposed to, and they can.. basically there to add credibility to the election and to give assurance to the candidates and political parties that everything going on at the polling place is going as it’s supposed to.

Katy Smith
This election, I think there’s been more talk than previously, because of the 2020 election about poll watchers and people thinking, I’m just gonna go and help watch. But there are some rules about who can watch and how many people can watch. Can you describe that, John? Michael?

John Michael Catalano
Yeah, there are there is a lot more focus on poll watchers and observers right now, there’s really a lot more focus on a lot of things in elections right now, there’s more scrutiny now than than ever before. We did see in the 2022 primaries that while most, I think poll watchers have good intentions, and are there for the right reasons, and are overall a good thing for elections, some of them are not there to support the process. We saw in the primaries that some poll watchers were not following instructions by given to them by poll managers. We saw some of them maybe harassing voters. And in those situations, they were dealt with individually. But we felt that it was a good idea to have more of a uniform set of policies and procedures so that it’s clear of what poll watchers and observers can do and what they can’t do. And again, these are poll watchers that are appointed by the party or it’s appointed by the candidate. And they’re there to make sure that everything in the polling place is going according to what’s allowed by law and by processes. There are limits on how many poll watchers a candidate or a political party can appoint to each polling places. So candidates of the same political party are jointly represented at a polling place by not more than two watchers at a time for each 1000 registered voters of the precinct. So that’s a lot to say that there’s only going to be a handful of, of watchers in each polling place. Most polling places can’t accommodate a ton of extra people in there anyways, but there are rules on how many watchers can be in the polling place. And at the end of the day, the watchers have to follow all instructions given to them by the pool manager, they’re the leaders of the polling place. And watchers have to follow instructions basically stand whether instructed to stands and not interfere in any way with the process. It’s basically these rules were developed as a way to ensure that candidates and political parties can watch what’s going on at the polling places. But voters can feel confident that no one’s going to harass them or intimidate them while they’re voting.

Katy Smith
So it being election day right now, and this is posting if you’re hearing this and thinking I want to go be poll watcher. Save that for next time, because there is a process to be appointed into that role by your party or by a candidate. So no one is running out today to go watch a poll. That is done.

John Michael Catalano
Right. This process has started ahead of time when the candidate or the political party notifies or designates this poll watcher, and assigns them a letter that certifies them to be a poll watcher that they present to the poll managers on election day. So this is a process you start with a political party or candidate ahead of time, it’s not something that you can kind of just get to jump in, and I’m gonna go watch for a little while. There are areas for poll observers, you can be a poll observer, and that’s just a person who is a member of the public who isn’t performing like a specific role. They just want the elections are a public process, anyone should be allowed to observe under certain conditions. So there are things that you can do to also be a poll observer. So you wouldn’t be connected to one of these candidates or political parties. But that’s also something that you you should set up ahead of time to make sure people know what you’re there for, and what you’re doing.

Katy Smith
Got it. Even though many of us have maybe only recently been aware of the poll watcher role. It’s been around for a long time and has always been useful to candidates and party. So Derek, maybe you could talk a little bit about the role of poll watchers and how candidates use them.

Derek Lewis
Well, so I think part of it is this idea that you really can’t be at every precinct at the same time. And so, you know, while there’s a lot of interest in the day, there’s also a lot of pressure that everything happens exactly the way it needs to happen on that day. So you know, for example, if you’ve heard stories of people showing up to vote, and the precinct moved to another place, right, so a poll watcher would be somebody who could notice that all of these people who thought they were supposed to go to Augusta heights Baptist Church should actually be at Augusta circle elementary school. But also sometimes candidates names aren’t showing up on the ballot, or sometimes the machines aren’t working properly, or sometimes the people checking in maybe giving preference to a candidate while people are checking in. And so the election staff are looking out for that. And poll watchers are really just there to help the candidate feel comfortable that all the rules are being followed. The poll watchers also can see who assigned into vote and who hasn’t. And so that’s that’s useful to a candidate who might know like, Okay, so in this precinct, I know these these 50 families have told me that they’re supportive of my work and plan to vote for me. And, and so I can actually make sure those 50 families have voted. Or if I see that Katy Smith hasn’t voted yet, then you know, Katy Smith is somebody I want to email at lunchtime to say, hey, don’t forget, it’s election day. And don’t forget that you need to remember to do that. And so rather than having one candidate stand at 12 precincts or or hundreds of precincts, if you’re statewide candidate, you can kind of have those poll watcher serve as a proxy for you.

Katy Smith
And there have been times in the past when I voted, and I’ve seen someone in a little metal folding chair with a clipboard, and they’ll see me walk in and hear me say my name and make a little note. And they are saying, oh, Katy Smith showed up I think I know she’s gonna vote for so and so because she had a yard sign. So that helps tally that. Now how does a candidate then put that list to use as the day goes on? Maybe you could talk a little bit about phone calls that candidates make later in the day.

Derek Lewis
So if I have if I if I have a list of let’s say, 50 candidates in each precinct, and I’m really hoping that each of them shows up, then that poll watcher, you’re right, has my list, and it’s alphabetized. And they’re actually just checking off names. They’re not asking them who they voted for. They’re not following them into the into the room to see what vote they made. But they know Katy Smith has said she’s going to support Derrick Lewis. Katy Smith is here to vote to cross off the list. So then what they can do is I can they can actually text me or email me or call me and say, here’s, here’s 20 people who haven’t come in who were on your list of 50. And then as a candidate, those are typically the first people that I want to call to remind them to vote. And to remind them that that we know that they haven’t. Because it is really interesting. As I was saying earlier, it kind of reminds me like when you go to the dentist office, and you’re like, yeah, yeah, I floss and the dentist and everyone else who works there knows that you’re absolutely not telling the truth. Like that’s how I feel like I called people who are like, oh, yeah, I totally voted. We voted this morning. And I’m like, I bet. I bet you didn’t. And so then you know, then you’re in an awkward position of really encouraging them to maybe get out there to do that thing that they said they would do. And you really need them to do without, you know, pressuring them.

Katy Smith
This saves them in a way that you can’t save yourself from not flossing. When you get to your six month appointment. There’s no going back, but you can still vote at 6pm. It’s not too late. Well, okay, so John Michael, if someone comes in to vote, and something goes awry, they might check in and they’re not listed or their address has changed, or something’s wonky. What can a voter do if something isn’t going perfectly when they check in to vote or attempt to check in?

John Michael Catalano
Sure. Well, the first thing is that the poll manager is going to do everything they can to try and help you figure out what looks wrong. Did you just show up to the wrong polling place, because I have done that on election day forward for Election Commission. But I’ve shown up the wrong polling place and said hey, I’m here to vote, where’s my ballot? And they said, you’re at the wrong middle school. So I had to turn around and go vote somewhere else. And that’s, that’s something like that. Most issues are little things like that, that are easy to figure out what’s going on. But if there’s still some issue, like, Hey, I know I updated my voter registration, but it’s not showing up when you’re trying to check in. The pool manager can call the county election official and see if there’s anything that the county can see that the poll manager wouldn’t be able to see. And they can sort of do a little bit of detective work on the spot to figure Hey, what’s going on. But at the end of the day, if there’s still some registration issue or something that’s not right when you check in with your voter registration record, at the end of the day, no matter what you can always still be issued a provisional ballot that’ll have everything on it that your election day ballot has. You’ll vote that and then a couple of days later, there will be a provisional ballot hearing where the county office will have had time to figure out, hey, what’s going on, should this person have been allowed to vote or not. And they can count the ballot if you were actually registered in time to vote, and there was just some glitch or something like that. That’s not the issue for most people, when they go into vote, it’s gonna be a really smooth check in process, especially if you’re someone who made sure your registration was up to date before the registration deadline. But if there is any sort of issue, the poll manager is going to help you out the best that they can and you’ll still be allowed to vote no matter what it’s just, if you vote that provisional ballot, it’ll have to be determined if it’s counted or not at the hearing that takes place a couple of days later.

Katy Smith
Good. So it’s the end of the day 6:55. There’s that last group of people that Derek or – Derek’s not running this time – but a candidate has called to say please get out there, you haven’t voted yet. If it is seven o’clock, and I’m still in line, do I get to vote?

John Michael Catalano
Yes, it’s a great question. And really, election officials – I know candidates are what they’re talked about earlier was they’re really trying to identify voters who haven’t voted, and then really push them to get to the polls and Election Officials kind of do something similar, where we’re always you know, as the day goes on, we’re really pushing that deadline to get your absentee ballot in or to get to the polls and get to vote. So you’ll see messages from your county election officials and your state election officials, just a reminder, go vote, please, you got till 7pm. And if you’re someone who doesn’t get there until the very, very, very end, as long as you’re in line before the polls close at 7pm, you’ll be allowed to stay until it’s your turn to vote and cast your ballot.

Katy Smith
So at the end of the day, when the polls are officially closed, everyone has voted, and the votes are counted, a little tape will print out of the machine. And that tape gets taped on the door of the polling place. From a candidates perspective, Derek, tell me how valuable that little piece of tape is.

Derek Lewis
Yes. So that’s what everybody’s waiting for this, this final calculation of this specific precinct and how all the votes went. And it’ll tell you, this candidate got 332 votes, and this candidate got 250. And so you can you can drive around, or you can have friends of yours go to each of the precincts. And they can look at this piece of paper and they can pull the race they’re interested in. And then we we truly had a chart of flip chart paper. And we filled in the numbers and we started looking at where the trends were. The people who understood politics better than I did could tell you really early on like, Oh, you’re winning precincts we thought we’re going to be close that looks.. that means it’s going to look better for you going forward. But you’re waiting for all those boxes to be filled in. If you wait for it to run across the ticker at the bottom of the you know, WYFF news show that night, it will take hours. Because it just, there’s a large gap of time between when that vote tally gets taped to that door, and WYFF is comfortable to predict who a winner is or not. And so we’re waiting for those things. The year that I ran my first election was my 40th birthday on election day. And so we actually had planned three parties. We had a birthday party that was going to happen 30 minutes before the precincts closed, because we knew we could celebrate that either way. And then we had a sorry, we didn’t win cake and we had a yay we did win cake for after all the numbers had been filled in so my wife did triple duty and planned three celebrations for the same location just in case things went terribly wrong or went really well.

Katy Smith
That’s so great. I love it.

Derek Lewis
Not that anybody wants to celebrate because they’re exhausted. It’s two o’clock in the morning.

Katy Smith
You needed sugar and you ate all three cakes. You were you were pooped. So the tape that goes on the on the window at the precinct, which it looks like a restaurant receipt almost. That tells you what happened in that polling place on that day. There are still votes though that came in absentee or by mail that are not included in that tally. How are those calculated, John Michael, and when do those results come out?

John Michael Catalano
Right. So the first thing to know is that even though yes, South Carolina does have early voting and yes, people can vote absentee and return their ballots early. Those votes aren’t actually counted until after 7pm on election day. A state law prevents any sort of tabulation prior to election day or the end. Definitely no results can be released prior to the polls closing election day. So those tapes that are printed out at the polling places, those are just from the ballot scanners at the polling place. So like you said, those are just the votes from the polling place on that day. For absentee votes and for early voting, those are tabulated at the county voter registration office. And the results are also posted there as well. So pretty much after 7pm On election day, those results will start rolling in from polling places and precincts. And there will also be, you know, that’s where the absentee voting and early voting tabulation happens. So those will result will all posted at the county voter registration office.

Katy Smith
Okay, so you will have candidates that have their flip chart with all the precincts listed, where they’ve written in what their friends dialed in from standing outside of the polling place, and what they saw at the county election office. And then you have the election commission itself, that is posting results that the local news stations or newspapers are putting up. But when are the results final, that we can say this person is the new fill in the blank of Office?

John Michael Catalano
So that’s a great question. Because, yes, you’ll see the results that are posted at polling places that are posted at county offices. And then of course, we have scvotes.gov, where all of those results that are posted locally, the county office also sends those to us at the state and they’re published on our website. So you’ll also see results as they come from the counties to the state, they’ll come on our website immediately. But as Derek just alluded to, that’s not the quickest way to get these results. You know, like he mentioned that whole process where you have people go look at the tapes, count them up, and then sort of get together and talk about it. That’s also how the media of like, you know, the AP, or you’ll see, ABC or NBC, those big cable news channels, they get those results sooner because they’re doing all kinds of of their calculations, but they’re also have their runners that they’re sending from polling place to polling place to county office to look at those tapes and results. So they get the vote counts out sooner. I know that wasn’t really to do with your specific question, but I thought I need to mention that. So your original question: when do when do results become official? Well, county will certify their results at the end of the week. So for a statewide general election, county office will be certifying their results and by their I mean, county wide offices are less than county wide offices. So think County Council’s, school districts, city councils, things like that. The county will certify those results on Friday. The state election commission will come in late the next week on believe Wednesday, I can double check the date, but the state comes in the next week and certifies the state level offices. So State House, US Senate, anything that’s over a county level office the state certifies the following week. Once results are certified there are officially official.

Katy Smith
Excellent, officially official. Well, I know that election day will be extraordinarily busy for you, John Michael, and I know it’ll still be busy for you, Derek because even though you’re not running, you are a civically active person and we are grateful for that. So if you are a candidate, someone who’s involved with a candidate, or someone who’s done your part to go vote, we hope you’ll have all the cake at the end of tonight and really appreciate all that you Derek and John Michael do to help make our state great and appreciate both of you for joining us today.

Catherine Puckett
Simple Civics: Greenville County is a project of Greater Good Greenville. Greater Good Greenville was catalyzed by the merger of the Nonprofit Alliance and the Greenville Partnership for Philanthropy. You can learn more on our website at greatergoodgreenville.org This is a production of the Greenville podcast company.

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