ESSAY: Election Day: A Quiet, Steady Count

The story of a director of elections in this year’s presidential race

by Matthew Maitland Thomas

Shortly after 1 a.m., Nov. 9, Christopher Thomas left his office at the Bureau of Elections in Lansing, Michigan, the state capital, and made the two-hour drive to Detroit. The state was too close to call. The entire national contest appeared to be hinging on Michigan, and Detroit’s numbers were not yet in. As he drove, the specter of Florida in 2000 loomed over his thoughts. “No state can come through that degree of scrutiny intact,” he told me. He expected to encounter a storm of lawyers, party operatives and media in the city. As the director of elections, Thomas felt that he should be there to mediate disputes, field inquiries and otherwise support the local election staff on the most consequential night of their careers.

Christopher Thomas is my father. For most of my lifetime, he’s been Michigan’s director of elections. Since 1981, he’s been a vanishing presence on election nights, away overseeing the returns. When I became older, I began calling him on election night to check in and see how he was doing. This year, I did not make that call. As the day wore on and the race tightened — the knot constricting around Michigan — I thought it best not to interrupt.

There was a national feeling of bewilderment after the election. Some were elated while others were shell-shocked. All, however, were asking the same question, through smiles or frowns: “How did this happen?” This story can and will be told, but in many more words than this space allows. Perhaps this duty has already been passed to the historians, as the journalists, analysts, and operatives have advanced to tomorrow’s battles. Even in the face of such complexity, however, there is a simple answer: one candidate secured more electoral votes than the other and became the president-elect.

Elections, after all, are not natural phenomena. They do not spin to life in desolate ocean regions and then rotate slowly toward the coasts like hurricanes. Elections are created events, planned, organized, staffed, executed, reviewed and certified. When finally I did have that telephone conversation with my father, we discussed the process that produces a result that changes history.

There are 4,800 voting precincts in Michigan, my father explained, and Election Day begins around 6 a.m. with calls from the municipal clerks who are preparing to open their precincts for voting at 7 a.m. Throughout the day the Bureau of Elections receives hundreds-to-thousands of calls from voters regarding their registration status or seeking information about where they should go to vote. The bureau also referees between political party challengers, precinct inspectors and municipal clerks on polling place issues.

This continues, he went on to say, until 8 p.m., when the polls close. The bureau then focuses primarily on assisting the municipal clerks with any problems they may have had closing the polls and reporting the results. Once the polls have closed, a memory card with the voting results is removed from each vote tabulator. The memory card is transported to the city or township hall. The tabulator also prints out a paper receipt. The results are carried by hand or transmitted via modem to the county clerk (there are 83 counties in Michigan) to be read by election management software. Once a county has received all of its results, these are reported to the Bureau, which then uploads the results to the Michigan Secretary of State website. The Election Day/night count is complete, regardless of what the media’s color-coded maps report.

These results remain unofficial, however, until the state completes its canvass within 20 days after Election Day. Each of Michigan’s 83 counties has a board of canvassers. Each board canvasses the results from its county and then submits those results to the Bureau of Elections. Once all 83 counties are in, the Bureau prepares the state canvass. The results are certified. The count is now complete, officially.

There is more to an election, of course — the campaigning, the debating, the endless media chatter, the acrimony and the division. While we shout past one another, people like Christopher Thomas, my father and many others labor tirelessly to ensure that our choices are recorded and counted. Cycle after cycle, they execute the process. Is it imperfect, beginning up high with the Constitution and moving on down to the voting machines? Some would say yes, some no and some would shrug, taking a more Panglossian view: “What better could we do, really?” We can theorize all we want about how we elect leaders, and those conversations are important. These may be the most important conversations we can have as citizens in a democracy. Until we make changes, though, it is all talk. To do so we’ll have to bring it to a vote. People like my father will be the ones who shepherd us through the process of deciding what tomorrow is going to look like.

Pennsylvania had been called for Donald Trump by the time my father reached Detroit. The race to 270 electoral votes was over. Michigan would not play the deciding role after all. At the time of this writing recounts are underway in a few states, Michigan among them, and we’ll see where those go. But in those early morning hours, he entered a quiet city, not a maelstrom. After visiting with local election staff, he took his leave, arriving home shortly before dawn.

Matthew Maitland Thomas was born and raised in Michigan and lived in Chicago for many years before moving to Vermont. He is a graduate of Shimer College and a passionate reader, writer and yogi. You can find more of his writing at www.readingsilently.com.