CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (CN) – In the 2000 election, Jane Sharp stood in line in the rain for an hour at a polling location for a ballot she never got to cast.
At the time, the now-retired administrative assistant intended to cast her vote for Al Gore in Wilmington, North Carolina, where she lived at time. Not only was he the Democratic candidate, Sharp said, but she also liked his environmental policies.
But when she reached the front of the line at what she remembers was an elementary school polling location, the poll worker informed Sharp she was not on the voter rolls.
What happened next was the reason why Sharp, 18 years later, has volunteered as a poll watcher for the midterm election in Chattanooga, Tennessee. When she received an email asking for volunteers, her mind went immediately to Election Day 2000.
According to Sharp, the poll worker in North Carolina simply shrugged and said, “Sorry.”
Sharp left the polling location furious. She remembered thinking, “I’ve just been denied the right to vote.”
She registered at the same time as her husband, who cast his ballot, and she wondered why poll workers had not stopped from moving voters along to help her out.
Sharp did not know to ask for a provisional ballot, or even if North Carolina provided provisional ballots at the time.
In the coming weeks, Sharp watched as the 2000 presidential election turned into a legal fight that reached the U.S. Supreme Court over vote recounts in Florida. Eventually, the question of whether George W. Bush or Al Gore won the Sunshine State – and thus the presidency – was decided by 537 votes.
“I can be a pretty overbearing person, so I’m told,” Sharp said. “And if it’s happening to me, how many other people who are not as forthcoming and as strong-willed as I am, how many people is it happening to because they don’t know?”
She added, “You have to know what your rights are or you could be subject to having them denied to you.”
On Tuesday, volunteers with the two major political parties and some nonprofit groups will roll up to polling locations across the nation to monitor the proceedings and ensure that voters who run into problems can still exercise their right to vote.
In this year’s midterm election, there has been a greater demand for poll watchers thanks to the kind of races in play.
“It’s a little unique here in Tennessee,” said Michael Sullivan, executive director for the Tennessee Republican Party, “in the sense we always want to have some poll watchers out there that make sure things are going smoothly and putting ’em in key areas of the state. But at the same time, we haven’t had a whole lot of ultra competitive races in the state of Tennessee for some time.”
But this year features a tight race for U.S. Senate between the Democratic candidate Phil Bredesen, former governor of Tennessee, and Republican Marsha Blackburn, a congresswoman in the western part of the state. The governor’s house will also be vacant because Governor Bill Haslam is finishing his second term.
Sullivan said swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and North Carolina boast of reliable bases of volunteers. In Tennessee, a volunteer is usually more interested in door knocking or phone calling for the political parties.
“For the most part, it’s a very boring job, because we have a very good division of elections,” Sullivan said. “Secretary of state has done a very good job training their poll workers. Tennessee hasn’t had issues in many years.”
“A boring job” – it’s a statement Sharp does not dispute.
Her poll-watching post on Oct. 27 – the last Saturday of early voting in the Volunteer State – is a folding chair in the back room of a community center whose hall smells of the indoor pool.
Sharp sits feet away from the check-in where poll workers scan the barcode printed on the back of driver’s licenses. She glances frequently at the clock on her Samsung phone in a purple case, watching how long voters linger at check-in and timing how long voters wait in line.
That afternoon, the wait was eight minutes long.
“It’s a good long line!” Sharp remarks.
According to the Hamilton County Election Commission, Sharp and other poll watchers cannot talk to voters in the building or engage in campaign activity. They cannot observe in a way that reveals how a voter filled out their ballot.
The badge identifying her as a poll watcher hangs around her neck and, to avoid partisanship at the poll, Sharp wears the blaze-orange of the University of Tennessee.
The first indication that a voter has run into trouble is if they linger at the table where poll workers have five laptops set up.
If Sharp sees a problem, she can send an email, report it through an app on her phone or step outside and make a call.
Sharp will slip outside and wait beyond the 100-foot barrier where all the political signs that line the long drive begin. When the person comes out, she’ll ask, “Was everything resolved to your satisfaction?”
According to Marty Schubert, voter protection director for Victory Tennessee 2018, a project of the Tennessee Democratic Party, the organization has trained and certified over 700 poll watchers observing 100 polling locations across the state.
“Election administrators are working hard with the resources available to them to operate a fair election,” Schubert said, “but we have seen issues with the timely processing of new voter registration applications before the start of voting, resource allocation, aging and malfunctioning equipment, and confusion about how the law should be applied to the circumstances of a particular voter.”
Sharp has sent two reports in so far this year. Both voters received provisional ballots and both issues were resolved, Sharp said.
The experience so far has been rewarding, Sharp said, because she observed firsthand the kind of job the poll workers do at the polling location, which is making her job easier.
“The system works,” Sharp said, “and it works because everybody is committed to making sure that it works for the voter.”
When asked if she would volunteer in the 2020 election, Sharp’s answer comes quickly and enthusiastically.
“Hell yeah!” she said.
Down the hall from where voting is going on, attorney Melody Shekari stands next to a table holding up plates of cold cuts, chips, veggies and soda.
She volunteered to stand on-call to answer any election-related legal questions from the Bredesen campaign. But on that Saturday afternoon, Shekari donned a Halloween-themed sweater vest and was working with nonpartisan nonprofit Civic Nation to hold a mini celebration for voters who cast ballots.
She herself has worked as poll watcher in the past, when she wasn’t filing her own paperwork to run for U.S. Congress or the Tennessee House of Representatives. She said poll watching helps highlight where there are issues.
For example, Shekari said unless someone reported it, people wouldn’t know that transgender voters faced issues in states that have voter ID laws. They might be challenged because their gender identification doesn’t match what’s on their ID.
“It’s a real problem and it really shouldn’t be,” Shekari said.