Three minutes are left until polls close, and although Jenna Jennings has a wide smile on her face, the tremble in her voice reveals her true feelings. It’s her first election as county auditor, and she wants to get everything right. Two months of work has amounted to an unglamorous amount of waiting. Then more waiting.
Before too long, Jennings says it’s quiet. She quickly realizes her mistake and searches desperately for some solid wood to knock on. Some wooden siding in the office does the trick. But is it too late? Shortly after, a phone rings. Yup. Then another. Staff members lift one shoulder, pinning the receivers to their ears.
Troubleshooting is a part of Election Day. There’s always at least one precinct with questions or concerns. Oftentimes they call about the equipment or the process. Technology can be so unkind to the 100 or so poll workers. The last thing they want is to cause issues, though they do tend to be minor.
All of a sudden Jennings is handed a cellphone from deputy auditor Teresa Arrowood. Now she has to troubleshoot something. Arrowood leaves while her boss handles the call, but she’s encountered a problem of her own. She cannot access her computer thanks to a two-factor verification system built in.
In order to complete the verification, she needs her cellphone. So while Jennings is handling the call, she’s also having a hard time using Arrowood’s phone to grant her access to her computer, even with instructions being shouted at her. Meanwhile, the office — and Jennings — is erupting in laughter.
The long hours have caught up to the auditor’s office staff, and the ridiculousness of the situation has given them what they needed most: a light-hearted moment to cut the tension. It’s not long before everyone feels relaxed, even more so when the election night “runners” make their way to the courthouse.
Eleven runners are in charge of collecting 18 blue bags from precincts all across the county. Inside the bags are sealed envelopes. Inside the envelopes are thumb drives with all the poll data and the “rolls,” physical paper copies with the exact same information included in the thumb drive.
By 8:37 p.m., the auditor’s office collected six bags. For the next hour, runners would steadily make their way back to the auditor’s office with their bags. All the while Jennings and deputy auditor of elections Taylor Springer uploaded the poll data and placed the bags in a box for later.
Volunteers who counted the absentee ballots had already finished and were enjoying the spoils of their work, snacking on sweets and other goodies. Afterward they sealed the ballots in a bag, dated it and signed their names. Out of the 608 absentee ballots sent out, 600 had returned by Election Day.
When the last blue bag arrived, auditor’s inputted the data and printed off the automated results. Jennings printed off a copy for me. I peered through the races alongside county employees, looking at how close many of the races were. In total, 5,930 ballots were cast out of a total of 26,490 registered voters.
While not surprising to see a 22 percent turnout, Jennings hoped to see more.
Which is to be expected. Most auditor’s office staff want to see higher voter turnouts. When you put in as much work as they do leading up to the election, you want to feel as though that work was worth it. Even in lower turnouts or lower-than-hoped-for turnouts, it is still worth the work.
Roughly 90 minutes after the polls closed, Jennings is at ease. There is still more work to be done, but the nervousness she had felt before was gone. Jennings recalled a recent conversation she had with another county auditor. Leading up to the election, it feels like she was “off to the races.”
But on the day of the election — especially after polls closed — it’s just a lot of waiting. Then all it feels like staff are off to the races once more.
“Only now I don’t feel quite so rushed,” Jennings said. “We can just take our time and get through the rest of the work, like the canvassing and stuff … We’re learning the process as we go. Everything is new to us. But, to me, it doesn’t feel like there were any curveballs that we can recall.”
For the past 12 years, and before she was appointed county auditor, Jennings spent Election Days checking on poll workers to make sure they had enough supplies, answering phone calls coming in to the office and sending residents to their correct precinct. Being a local election meant a fairly relaxed atmosphere this year.
Of course there will always be some apprehension on Election Day. Auditor’s office staff have been handling all election activity for weeks up until then.
“I want everything to go smoothly and I want all of our numbers to come in correctly,” Jennings said. “We’ve been voting in the office since Oct. 18. This is kind of like our baby. We had our hands on it and we’ve had to let it go to other people today. So it’s hard to put that in other people’s hands.”
Jennings wants people to know that elections are done right in Jasper County, and, hopefully, run smoothly and without error.
“We cross our t’s and we dot our i’s. We are reconciling our ballots daily when voting begins to make sure things are done correctly.”