What it’s like to be the face of local elections, when those elections are under more scrutiny than ever
When Tina Guilford stepped up to run for Derry’s town and school moderator in 2020, she thought she knew what to expect. She’d spent the last four years working at the polls and learning the ropes of what it takes to make sure local elections ran smoothly. But by the time she assumed her role, the coronavirus pandemic changed the face of social interaction — voting included — in New Hampshire and across the country.
Guilford had to pivot, quickly. She worked with colleagues to find a new venue that could safely host Derry’s elections and implement other voting changes tied to the pandemic, all while navigating an increasingly divided political climate. That includes misinformation about elections, confusion about how the process operates and often distrust of the system as a whole.
Along the way, Guilford says the Derry community has greeted her with mixed emotions. Some of her neighbors are pleased with the way she conducts elections, while others don’t trust the process at all. Some people sound off on social media, too.
“I've learned the adage real quick that ‘you can't please everyone all the time,’” Guilford says.
To foster more trust, Guilford is open about the election process. She invites people to observe or work the polls so they can see firsthand how it works.
But it's not just the attitudes of voters that pose a challenge to Guilford, it’s their apathy as well. More than 18,000 Derry residents showed up for the 2020 November general election. But only 1,400 people, or 5% of the town’s registered voters, participated in the local elections held a few months later. Turnout was higher in this year’s elections, but it’s still a fraction of what’s seen during more high-profile races.
As an immigrant who came to the United States from Portugal as a child, Guilford says she cherishes the right to vote and wishes more people in her community would take it just as seriously.
“I think the right to vote is one of the greatest things that we have here in the United States, and I wish everyone would exercise their right to vote at every chance that they get,” Guilford says.
Guilford was re-elected as Derry’s moderator earlier this week, after running unopposed. Ahead of that election, NHPR’s All Things Considered host Peter Biello spoke with Guilford about her role and the challenges she faces as part of NHPR’s new series, In Our Backyard, a project exploring the state of local democracy in New Hampshire. Click here to find out more about the project and how you can get involved.
- With all of the added focus on the voting process at the national level, Guilford says it's easy for people to misunderstand how it actually works in New Hampshire. People have approached Guilford with concerns about absentee ballot drop boxes, which are used more widely in other states, and she’s had to clarify that the same rules don’t apply here.
- Town moderators, like Guilford, and other election workers put in long hours to ensure New Hampshire’s elections are conducted by the book. That can make it disheartening when voters don’t believe in the integrity of an election.
- Being a town moderator can be personally stressful. Voters aren’t shy about approaching Guilford in public, or on social media, with concerns.
- While state and federal elections get a lot of attention, town and school elections also carry a lot of weight. Voting in these smaller elections is just as important as voting in a general election.
This conversation was recorded before Derry's town election on March 8. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Peter Biello: How have the demands of being in charge of your town's elections affected you personally?
Tina Guilford: It's been a challenge. It's interesting, people I didn't even know will come up to me and start talking to me about elections wherever I go in town.
Peter Biello: What do they say?
Tina Guilford: Some people say I do a great job. Other people think I do a horrible job. I get it from all sides. I've learned the adage real quick that you can't please everyone all the time. And there's a lot of tension with election integrity and other things that people hear about on the news and social media. So I do my best to be as open and transparent as possible. I think that's the only thing I can do, and follow the law.
Peter Biello: Yeah. Derry, of course, is not the only place where people are feeling somewhat mistrustful of their government when people express to you that they are not happy with you or not happy with elections in general, how do you go about trying to build trust with your neighbors when they approach you with doubts?
Tina Guilford: I try to explain what it is that we do. There's a lot of, I don't want to use the word misinformation because that's not quite it, I think there are a lot of people that don't realize that what they do and in say Arizona or Georgia or in other states is not necessarily what we do in New Hampshire. So that's definitely sometimes an educational thing. I offer, do you want to work an election? I'm always looking for people to work. You can come and observe on Election Day, just try to be open and transparent about everything that we do.
Peter Biello: What would you say is the most challenging part of your job right now?
Tina Guilford: Voter attitudes, plus with a mixture of voter apathy that we have here in Derry. Our November 2020 election, we had 18,100 voters and then in March 2021 we had 1,400 for our town and school election. What I find is a lot of people don't realize how important the local election is.
Peter Biello: The political climate is what it is. How hopeful are you that we will get beyond this place where there's so much mistrust in local governments and elections?
Tina Guilford: I don't know. I'm hopeful that someday we'll get past it, but it's hard to tell. And sometimes it's disheartening knowing how hard I work and my poll workers work to be open and transparent and do everything by the book and just have people accusing that it's not like they're there watching the end of the night. They're not there watching us seal the boxes and all that stuff, and then they're calling us, 'Well, do our boxes have seals?' Yeah, they do. And they're signed.
Peter Biello: And are you worried that these dynamics are going to discourage other people from serving as election workers or maybe the next town moderator when you no longer are interested in the position or if you don't win, are you worried that people are going to be dissuaded from participating in local government in this way?
Tina Guilford: It's always a possibility. I'm running unopposed, but I cannot do it alone. We have 20,000 voters in Derry. I need poll workers, so it is sometimes disheartening. On the plus side, the couple of poll workers that have worked for me that haven't come back to work for me, a couple of them moved out of Derry and as you know, you have to live where you work the polls. So they're no longer eligible to work for me. And one or two, they were interested in November 2020 and they've told me that when there's another big election, they'll be interested in working. But what's good is that it seems like the people that have come and worked have enjoyed it and they feel like they're part of the process and they're willing to return. So I take that as a good sign.
Peter Biello: And Tina, you're an immigrant, correct?
Tina Guilford: Yes.
Peter Biello: I'm wondering how your perspective as an immigrant informs your approach to your work running local elections.
Tina Guilford: Well, I come from Portugal and I came as a child. I became a U.S. citizen. I take it very seriously. I think the right to vote is one of the greatest things that we have here in the United States, and I wish everyone would exercise their right to vote at every chance that they get.