In No Time to Fail — the new documentary that follows Rhode Island election officials as they administer the pandemic-stricken 2020 election — one election worker predicts shortly before Election Day: “In three weeks, no one will know us. We’ll be back to being those anonymous people.”
Not exactly. Since 2020, poll workers have falsely been accused of stealing, botching, and sabotaging the 2020 election. Their lives and families have been threatened. They have been called to testify before Congress. No Time to Fail is an important corrective in an era of disinformation and overheated rhetoric. It reminds us that election officials are underpaid public servants who make incredible sacrifices, working around the clock to protect our right to vote.
It also shows us how much elections depend on these officials to anticipate and solve problems. In the very first scene of the film, workers at Cranston City Hall scramble on primary day to staff polling places as call after call comes in informing them that another poll worker has dropped out. During early voting in Providence, we see Administrator of Elections Kathy Placencia rush out additional voting booths to rectify long wait times — stopping only to pick her daughter up from school.
Across all the struggles and success of these dedicated workers, two things in particular stand out.
The first is how badly, through all the frustration and obstacles of the pandemic, election workers wanted every voter’s ballot to count. In one scene, two officials from Central Falls agree to personally deliver an emergency ballot to a Covid 19-positive voter who did not receive her requested mail ballot. In another, state Director of Elections Rob Rock personally delivers mail ballots to voters in total darkness and pouring rain to make sure they get their ballots on time.
The second thing that stands out is how much pressure these officials were under. The film follows Rock around the state as he makes sure that every candidate on every yard sign appears on the ballot. His biggest fear is making a ballot that accidentally leaves off a candidate.
In hindsight, his conscientiousness was justified. Election deniers seized on even the smallest mistakes in 2020 to fuel conspiracies. In one Michigan city, an input error led to a discrepancy that initially underreported the vote total for Trump. Although the error was quickly fixed, the Republican clerk received death threats that targeted not just her own safety, but her family’s as well.
This incident is emblematic of the far more troubling spotlight on election workers today. In a survey of local election officials earlier this year, one in six election officials said that they have experienced threats because of their job, and 77 percent said that they feel these threats have increased in recent years. More than one in four election officials are concerned about being assaulted on the job. Over half are concerned about the safety of their colleagues.
Near the end of the documentary, we see one version of a now familiar sight: supporters of former President Trump joining aggressive protests at election offices to claim that the election was rigged. Unlike Arizona, Michigan, or Pennsylvania, where small margins determined the outcome of the presidential election, Rhode Island wasn’t particularly close. That didn’t prevent a “stop the steal” rally from forming in the parking lot of the state election office, with participants fueled by lies not grounded in reality.
Since 2020, the Big Lie has led to threats, harassment, violence, conspiracies, partisan election reviews, suppressive legislation, and a wave of new candidates determined to change the future of election administration. Each of these present deeply concerning consequences for the future of democracy. But No Time to Fail also shows how all of this has come to overshadow what an incredible accomplishment the 2020 election was. You can hear it in the voices of the officials reflecting on the election in the days after, filled with reservation, frustration, and exhaustion in what should have been a moment of celebration. These officials did what they set out to do. With the whole country watching, they didn’t fail — far from it.
When the pandemic threatened to disrupt access to the ballot, election officials’ response helped facilitate record turnout both for Rhode Island and the country as a whole. The 2020 election was the most secure election in American history. And as Trump supporters shouted “show us the proof” in the parking lot of the Rhode Island Board of Elections, workers in that very office were planning the most rigorous post-election audit in the state’s history, which would prove — for everyone to see — that the state got it right.
Elections don’t just happen. They require people. Since 2020, we’ve seen massive turnover in election offices across the country as experienced and dedicated professionals can no longer take the threats, harassment, disinformation, and sheer exhaustion. Watching No Time to Fail, I can’t help but think about what would have happened two years ago if someone hadn’t been there to react to the never-ending challenges that came up. If no one was there who had the experience necessary to think through every possible problem. We must protect these defenders of democracy.