Photo illustration. (Via Flickr, liz west)

No matter what happens next in these turbulent times, there are people in our rural communities who do not believe the United States had a free and fair presidential election in 2020. There are others who have their doubts. Those who have faith in the process and its results also have concerns about what might happen next time, or the time after that.

There’s room for all of those neighbors at our polling places. We may not agree on much, but we should be able to agree on this: We share the responsibility to ensure free and fair elections, and we can do better. We must.

That includes people who believe the Electoral College should be abolished and term limits imposed. And folks who believe political parties are obsolete. And those who believe a deep state cabal of pedophiles and sex traffickers plotted to steal the 2020 presidential election. 

We have a duty to do more than counter  every event or argument with “Yeah, but…” and memes of moral indignation. If this were a Seinfeld episode, Frank Costanza would be screaming, “Unity Now!!!” while hanging Festivus decorations on the Great Red Herring of False Equivalence. But we are not minor characters in a show about nothing. We are electors.

I rarely address politics on Facebook. But I made an exception after people stormed the U.S. Capitol, disrupting the legislative branch’s constitutional duty to count the certified votes of the Electoral College.

I wrote that I serve as an election official in my home township. That there are very specific rules governing how we handle ballots, and most of them require two sets of eyes and a series of checks and balances. That any irregularity or mistake must be reported in writing. That members of the election board are under oath to protect the process. That I sincerely hope my neighbors know I take an oath seriously. 

When votes were counted here last November, Donald Trump won the presidential contest in this township. But Joe Biden still won a third of the vote, in a staunchly Republican area. Neighbors who probably voted Republican in every down-ballot race crossed over in the presidential race. I sincerely believe this happened in many areas. I sincerely believe that sworn election officials across this country worked hard to ensure a free and fair election. 

“I have attended all of the public tests of this township’s single voting machine. Only once do I recall anyone besides the clerk and poll workers witnessing a test, and that person is training to become an election official.”

Generally, commenters on that Facebook post agreed. Those who didn’t respectfully shared their trust in election officials at the local level but also a belief that vote tallies were manipulated in the electronic counting and reporting. In other words, behind the scenes, in a conspiracy that involved voting machines.

Those are not inconsequential concerns. It would be hard to not believe that, given the messaging that reaches and is amplified by many of our neighbors. 

And yet, since I was sworn in as an election official, I have attended all of the public tests of this township’s single voting machine. Only once do I recall anyone besides the clerk and poll workers witnessing a test, and that person is training to become an election official.

Voting machine test events in Wisconsin are announced via the same channels that announce other open meetings. Pandemic or no, anyone could attend. They did not, at least not here. But that can change. The electorate can and should assume responsibility for oversight of this aspect of our election process.

I’m giving a pass to those whose jobs, school and family commitments make it difficult for them to attend voting machine tests. They can, however, ask friends or family to represent their interest, perhaps after a frank conversation about the difference between “engaged” and “menacing.” Because oath or no, if poll workers feel menaced it’s understandable if those trusted local election officials decide to step down.

That pass, though, only applies to voting machine tests. No qualified voter gets to pass on voting and then be entitled to subsequent outrage about the results. That means every election, including primaries — not just presidential elections. 

After that Facebook post I compared experiences with a friend who served as election official in rural northern Michigan. We were both surprised and dismayed at the number of voters last November who were interested only in the presidential race. 

It was my responsibility at the polls in that election to give paper ballots to voters who did not want to use the machine. The one-sheet ballot was set up in three columns, with federal, state and local races spread across the page. From experience we know it’s helpful for voters if we draw their attention to the page layout so they see the different races in which they can vote. Yet time and again people told me they had no interest in voting for anything but the office of president.

To those people and specifically the ones who believe the presidential election was stolen, I say this: Election rules are made and administered at the state and county level. The National Conference of State Legislatures provides helpful information about our highly decentralized system of election administration here. To ensure free and fair elections at all levels, it is our responsibility as voters to make down-ballot selections, too, and to show up and vote at primaries and caucuses as well to get the candidates we want.

In these uncertain times, there is one thing in which I’m confident. It’s that rural voters across this nation can depend on the familiar faces working the polls to honor them for showing up to do their civic duty — whether we vote alike or not, whether the offices in question are for school board or senator. 

No voter — even in free and fair elections — gets the results they want every time. Some in our communities were gravely disappointed in the results of the last election. Some were gravely disappointed in the results of the election before that, or the one before that or the one before that. We all get our turn to feel outraged. And we all get our turn to suck it up and show up again for the next election.

You might want to visit Ballotpedia or USA.gov and mark the dates of upcoming elections on your calendar. I suggest contacting your county clerk to ask how you can learn the dates and times of voting machine tests.

Donna Kallner writes from rural northern Wisconsin where she serves on the election board for the Town of Wolf River.