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Election workers can seem ‘invisible.’ This movie shines a light on them

The days are long and the stakes are high in ‘No Time to Fail’

“When election officials in other states see this film, they say it was PTSD,” says Margo Guernsey, co-director of “No Time to Fail.” Above, voting stations at the University of Virginia  in 2020.
“When election officials in other states see this film, they say it was PTSD,” says Margo Guernsey, co-director of “No Time to Fail.” Above, voting stations at the University of Virginia in 2020. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Sorting through a stack of hate mail, Rob Rock pointed to a message scrawled with a thick black marker.

“Eat s—, that’s a good one,” said Rock, who serves as Rhode Island’s director of elections. “People are passionate, man, I tell you.”

That scene captures the mood of “No Time to Fail,” a documentary that follows ordinary election workers through a tough year. As the pandemic converged with conspiracy theories spread by former President Donald Trump, they kept doing their jobs.

“Most of the work that holds up our society is invisible, and that’s definitely true of election work,” says Margo Guernsey, who spent months filming in Rhode Island in 2020 alongside co-director Sara Archambault.

The situation is only getting worse, the filmmakers say. With the midterms just days away, they are planning a week of online screenings to put their movie in front of the public.

“This is not trying to shove any kind of ideology about elections down your throat — you can witness what it’s like and come to your own conclusions,” Archambault says.

This interview has been edited and condensed. For more, listen to the full conversation on the “Political Theater” podcast.

Q: You wanted to go behind the scenes with election workers. Why Rhode Island, of all places?

Sara Archambault: Well, I’m from Cranston originally. I have over time lived all over the country, but I’ve kept coming back to Rhode Island because it’s such an easy place to live. And for the same reasons, it’s an interesting place for making films. You’re only ever two or three people away from the “yes” you need.

Around the time of the pandemic’s start in March 2020, we all knew there was also an election ahead, and quite a significant one.

I have a good friend who works with the secretary of state in the state of Rhode Island, and we began talking about what they were up against. Of course, my storyteller brain started percolating.

So I called Margo, a filmmaker in the Boston area, who I’ve known for a really long time. She made a film in Rhode Island called “Councilwoman,” and she earned the trust of a lot of people in the political sphere.

Margo Guernsey: Sara called me, and the same things she was thinking about I was thinking about. We knew that one of the most important elections of our lifetimes was coming, and that pulling it off in a pandemic would be an incredible undertaking. We had no idea how incredible it really would be.

As we started poking around, some of the obstacles you might expect were there. So for example, we had to pull it off very quickly — we needed to be filming yesterday, because things were already happening.

And then there were some unexpected surprises, like the level of work. I mean, I knew they worked hard, but I didn’t expect that Kathy Placencia would be in her office till 2 a.m. and then be in her office again at 8 a.m., not once or twice, but for two months.

Q: The woman you’re talking about, Kathy, is the administrator of elections for the city of Providence. She’s one of several people you followed, capturing some really tense moments. How did you get them to agree to this?

SA: I mentioned that the secretary of state’s office was the first to open the door to the film, but we actually had to earn permission at every single location that we were filming. And what we found in each of these places was that people were eager to have audiences understand their work.

They kept bumping up against it every single day, with voters calling them saying, “Well, how does this work? And how will my vote be registered? And why is the process like this?”

Q: It’s worth noting that Rhode Island typically votes Democratic at the federal level, but this is not a film about Democrats.

MG: You might be surprised to know that of the people in the film who get the most screen time, one of them identifies as a Democrat, two of them lean conservative, and one of them has been active in the Republican Party. And so they actually lean more conservative in terms of their private affiliations.

But again, they are nonpartisan in their work. That’s one thing Americans need to understand. These folks are relentlessly nonpartisan — they are counting votes, they’re making sure every person can vote.

And disinformation was affecting their work, just like it was in red states. You might think that would only be the case in purple or highly contested states. But you see it in the film — you see how people come in with really incorrect information and conspiracy theories.

Q: In one scene, a man comes in and says, “I don’t want a mail-in ballot, I want an absentee ballot.” And the election worker is like, “It’s the same thing.” She’s struggling to be helpful, but at the same time she’s almost losing patience.

SA: He was trusting what he was hearing on talk radio, in the news or maybe even from friends on Facebook. He was trusting those voices more than he was trusting the election official in front of him, telling him what the procedure was.

And that’s how disinformation can be so insidious. Now, I’m hoping he walked away from that interaction knowing the truth, that his mail ballot and an absentee ballot are actually the same thing in the state of Rhode Island and in many places.

What’s hard is that for the election official in that scene, it was one interaction among hundreds where she had to explain the exact same thing. Disinformation was working as an added stack of layers on the labor they would already be conducting in a normal year.

Q: You’ve been screening this film around the county. What has been the response?

MG: When election officials in other states see this film, they say it was PTSD. I think the last election was unbelievably hard for election officials across the country, and reliving it can feel very real.

They say, “That could have been my office in Utah, or my office in Florida.” Election officials are here to facilitate our right to vote, and the experience of doing that is basically the same, even though the laws are a little bit different in each state.

Q: What has been on your mind as the next election gets closer?

MG: Threats against election officials and their families have continued to skyrocket, and entire election official staffs in Texas have walked off the job. So actually the situation for election officials is getting worse, not better.

And so I would say, make sure wherever you live, that you stop by and say hello to your town clerk, offer your words of support, see if there’s anything they need, and get to know them.

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