My View | Denise Dunbar: ‘Trust but verify’


At a little past 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday, I set out walking to my voting precinct a few blocks away from our house. My heart was pounding. I felt flushed.

This was not because I had trepidations about voting. I had actually been one of the first people in Virginia to vote on Sept. 18 within the first hour that early voting was allowed.

Instead, as a journalist, I intended to check on the integrity of our voting system by testing whether or not the precinct had a record of my prior vote. Anticipating
this task produced considerable anxiety as I crunched and slipped on the leafy
sidewalk en route to the precinct.

I had no intention of actually trying to vote twice. The anxiety was instead equal parts dread that my earlier vote wouldn’t show up on the poll volunteer’s computer screen – which would have seriously eroded my faith in the integrity of this election – and fear that if I worded my inquiry wrong, I might get in trouble.

Happily, neither scenario happened.

After entering the precinct, I proceeded to the check-in table and introduced myself as a journalist from the Alexandria Times. I asked the poll worker to tell me whether or not I was eligible to vote that day.

Her eyes got wide and she motioned for the man in charge of the precinct to come over as she checked my ID, full legal name and address. She then said that I was not eligible to cast a regular ballot because her computer said that I had voted absentee.

I said that this was not correct, that I had voted early in person but had not voted by absentee ballot.

The precinct chair explained that the system didn’t differentiate between people who had voted early in person or those who had requested absentee ballots. If I had concerns about whether I had actually voted before, I could cast a provisional ballot.

He said provisional ballots would be held until all mail-in ballots had been received. They would then be checked against the records of people who had voted early in person and against the list of people who mailed in absentee ballots. Only if there was no match in either category would a provisional ballot be counted.

Tremendously relieved, I headed for home.

This matter of faith in our electoral system is important, especially this year, with so many changes to the rules of when and how voting can occur. Both parties are “lawyered up” and ready to challenge every vote. Sadly, both sides seem more interested in short-term political gain than in long-term electoral stability.

Of course, my positive experience on Tuesday morning does not prove that the overall 2020 election was fair. This was one point-in-time experience in one Alexandria precinct where the system worked.

But that’s still a whole lot better than if the system hadn’t worked.

Trust – in people, in concepts, in institutions – is built slowly, experience-by-experience. Gradually won, trust can unfortunately be lost in an instant.

There is enduring wisdom in President Ronald Reagan’s admonition to “Trust but verify.”

The writer is publisher and executive editor of the Alexandria Times.