This year has been hard for many. But for me and my family it was a big year as well – we became Americans.
After 13 years of navigating the U.S. immigration system from one visa status to another, on Aug. 12 my husband and I gave an oath and got a certificate of citizenship. That meant we could vote. And vote we did – on the first day of early voting, Oct.15.
And that was the day I also started volunteering as a poll worker at the Western Carolina University voting site. I also worked during Election Day at the Jackson County Board of Elections. I was one of the 60 new volunteers out of the 190 people who worked on the elections in Jackson County, according to Lisa Lovedahl, director of Jackson County BOE.
I wanted to volunteer in the elections because I wanted to know how the system works as a citizen, not only as a reporter, but also if I could trust it. Before coming to the U.S. and in academia, I was a journalist and covered U.S. elections since 1996. From those experiences, I knew that elections in the U.S. are very decentralized, with slight differences in each state, but also known to be safe and secure, with few irregularities, if any.
In Jackson County, every new or old volunteer needs to undergo training and learn how to navigate the system to check if voters are registered and to help them to vote. The county in 2020 used new touch screen technology that also featured a paper ballot record.
During the elections (early voting and on Nov. 3) we had to make sure that the number of people registered and people voting were matching and that involved much hand counting by two or more people. Every step of the process, from opening to closing the polling place, was done transparently with bi-partisan participation. If there were attempts to cheat the system, it would have been hard to do so and definitely it would have been hard to do so on a large scale.
Dr. Billy Noell, a retired surgeon who worked at Harris hospital in Sylva for 30 years, said something similar. He was also a first-time volunteer here, but when he was younger in the 1960s in Arkansas he was helping in the elections when his mother was working as a Chief Justice.
“I think that this process is very secure. There are too many checks and balances to cheat. I don’t see how any fraud can happen and for sure not on a large scale,” Noell said in a phone conversation.
However, he says that the rhetoric to the contrary is harmful to democracy.
“As a physician, many of my patients want to be told what to do,” Noell said. “It is the same in the elections, but now people they trust are saying that the system is fraudulent. I don’t get it.”
Like me, he is politically unaffiliated and had voted for both parties in the past.
Karen Johnson moved to Jackson County in 2014 and worked for the Board of Elections in the 2016 elections. She is a proud Republican and as she said, one of the few working the elections at the WCU polling place. She has also worked for many small towns across the U.S. and knows the election process well. As we talked in her office at the United Christian Ministries in Sylva she mentioned a lot of the stories on uncounted ballots in various states or observers in Pennsylvania not being allowed to observe. Many of these claims were debunked; most of the litigations were not successful and on Dec. 14 Joe Biden was confirmed as president-elect by the Electoral College.
Even though Johnson trusts the system, she remains skeptical.
“As long as you can vote without any document or identification, you can cheat the system,” Johnson said.
Despite the rhetoric of distrust in the election system, she says democracy in the U.S. is not threatened and will survive. Both she and Noell are confident that by the next elections people will be reassured in the system and how it worked, and how it can be improved and made more secure. I will go with that optimism. But I do hope people will be able to make that conclusion on their own, not because someone told them.
I am willing to assume if the election is good in Jackson County I trust people in counties in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania or Georgia have the same interest and will to follow the law and procedures to make sure that votes are counted and irregularities or “fraud” is not happening.
Katerina Spasovska, Ph.D., is associate professor and department head of Western Carolina University’s Department of Communication.