The parking lot at Lake Elkhorn Middle School in Columbia is a microcosm of American life in 2020. The intersection of the upcoming election and coronavirus-induced, limited in-person school prompts the lonely and rarely used parking spots to feel the warmth of cars once more.
Guy Mickley, 45, appears in the foggy haze on a recent Wednesday in October. He’s dressed casually in a black polo shirt and jeans, a lanyard with his ID draped around his neck, ready for another 16-hour workday.
Mickley, director of the Howard County Board of Elections for the past 10 years, is running the show during one of the most unpredictable elections in American history.
That morning, however, Mickley had one thing on his mind: canvassing. Mickley, along with more than 20 Board of Elections employees, would spend the next five to seven hours counting mail-in ballots.
At the Lake Elkhorn gym, a folding chair props open a door, letting a cool wind filter the sticky gym. As Board of Elections employees walk through the doors, Mickley is pacing across the wooden floors. In one hand is a pumpkin coffee; in the other, he holds one of his three cellphones dialed into a morning meeting.
“Outside of elections, which I eat, sleep and breathe, I don’t do much of anything else,” he said. “I’ve never thought of doing anything else.”
Mickley started his career after answering a 1996 newspaper ad for packaging supplies. As soon as they heard Mickley could use computers, they asked him to train the election judges. He spent time working in Baltimore County before coming to Howard in 2002 and eventually becoming elections director in 2010.
“I worked my way from the ground up,” he said. “I’ve never thought of doing anything else. You feel integral in the process of making democracy work.”
That ground-up mentality is on full display, according to Kimberly Phillips, an election supervisor, who has worked with Mickley for years.
“You wouldn’t know he’s a director because he gets his hands dirty with us all the time,” said Phillips, 47. “I think he could pull an election off in his sleep.”
These days, there’s not much sleep for any of the Board of Elections officials, Mickley included. He said he’s been working 16-hour days, seven days a week to ensure each registered voter can vote in the 2020 general election.
“The way this election is set up with half the people doing mail-in and half the people doing in person, we’re essentially running two elections,” Mickley said.
He’s often caught sternly repeating the same phrase in comments or answers to questions: “You keep wanting to ensure that the democratic process thrives.”
That’s a message many of the Board of Elections employees exude and repeat themselves.
“We work as many hours as we can to make sure that every person’s vote counts,” Phillips said. “We’re in pretty good shape, but it’s been a lot of hours.”
It’s a mentality that brought Mitchell White, 26, an election IT specialist, on board. White, who’s known Mickley since he was 10 years old, was brought into the process when his dad was an election volunteer. He grew up watching the process and Mickley along with it.
“All of us have been trying to help and doing what we can do to help him, but he’s the main guy,” White said.
On that Wednesday, White was in the Lake Elkhorn gym ensuring there were no problems with the 16 machines ready and waiting to count mail-in ballots.
“If you don’t have people to run the process, you don’t have a process,” Mickley said.
There can’t be too many distractions as employees grab manila folders with 50 ballots to scan at a time. There are whispers that echo through the gym, but, without phones or music, White said they’re all looking to scan as many ballots as they can as quickly as they can.
“It’s repetitive, but it has to be done,” White said. “A lot of people think we only work on Election Day, but we work every day. There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work.”
And this year, Mickley and his team are doing it on a much bigger scale.
Nearly half of all active registered voters in Howard County requested a mail-in ballot, more than 100,000 of Howard’s 226,000 voters. Usually that number is in the 10,000 to 13,000 range, according to Charlotte Davis, deputy director of elections in Howard County.
“Howard County voters vote; they’re just doing it a little differently than they are used to,” said Davis, 77.
Canvassing is also a public process, Mickley said. Any member of the community can come and watch them scan ballots. Most years, he said, people do. This year, however, Mickley said he thinks pandemic-related concerns have kept people away.
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“[In case anything happens,] there are back-up machines. The only thing that would stop us is an act of God,” Mickley said.