Working the Polls

An elder gentleman in a camel-hair overcoat and a perfectly askew black beret accosts our coordinator while trying to vote. He comes over to the scanners, still miffed. After his vote is cast, he turns to Lois and me. His issue, generally: “IT SAYS FILL THE BUBBLE TO THE LEFT. BUT THE BUBBLES ARE ABOVE THE CANDIDATES NAMES!!!”

Voter suppression can be super banal. All you need is apathy.

Easton, PA. Photograph by Susan Merriam.

Queens, New York

4:57 AM Walk the thirty yards to my assigned polling place, grateful it’s my own. Too tired to shower and only managed a half-cup of coffee. Saw a black cat smeared across 34th Avenue and thought for a moment it was Sasha (!!!), then remembered she was still in bed. Poor cat. Don’t know what omen it might be. Who crossed its path?

5 AM Arrive at the polling place (an elementary school). About twenty of us here, all shapes, sizes, colors, ages, and vibes. No one knows what to do and the coordinator is nowhere to be found. An older woman who looks like Beverly from Roseanne wonders aloud what to do if we don’t have a mask and covers her face with the arm of her sweater. It’s Christmas colored and says TANTRUM in a heavy-metal font. No cops assigned yet, just school safety officers in face shields asking each of us who is in charge.

We follow the instruction manual received at training and get our supplies from the cabinet. The scanners are crammed in the corner with the school’s kitchen equipment. Because of the way the poll site is laid out in the school lobby, voters ready to scan have to cross the line of waiting voters, then cross the line again in order to exit. It’s as if the layout was designed to cause congestion and frustration. Another poll worker mentions the layout has been like this for two decades.

We negotiate teams of two. I’m placed with Greg. He’s sweet, prone to conducting an imaginary orchestra for no one in particular and reminding me that we’ll be there until 12 AM. He keeps removing his mask to eat Oreos and later will touch every voter’s arm to say, “Thanks!” I forgot to take my antacids.

5:45 AM We’re nearly done setting up, but when Greg and I turn on our scanner it displays a general code, not the address of our polling place as the manual notes it should. Our coordinator, another first-timer, is flummoxed. The polls are about to open and the line is already around the block. She remembers to call the borough office to check.

Our first poll watcher has arrived during the chaos. She, like the others we’ll host throughout the day, was sent by the campaign of Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez and is not what we were warned about in training—the possibility of imperious, overtly partisan individuals demanding access is a common concern, apparently; the image of armed “poll watchers” from elsewhere in the country, encouraged by Trump, is lodged in my brain—and she’s vigilant in standing up for us when the school officers try taking some documents that they’re only meant to photograph. Of the four polling places she’s been assigned, only ours has a line, she says.

There are eight of us working. Four, including myself, have been assigned to portray Republicans for a bipartisan show, should anyone request help. There is no direction for how we’re meant to impart this, or what the protocol should be, just a tiny “R” on my name tag, next to the oddly hyphenated “Inspector-Scanner.” I guess not a lot of real, registered R’s volunteered.

We set up a system with Greg, myself, and a young Queens native, Lois, stationed at the machines, while the others wrangle voters, man the line, and collect stray manila folders, called “privacy sleeves.” Our leader is now Paula, who is, thankfully, bilingual. We have confident translators on staff for Spanish and Mandarin, as well as materials for Bengali, Hindi, and Korean; a few of us are conversationally proficient enough to manage until a true translator can aid the voter in question.

6:10 AM One of the first voters through the door is draped in an American flag. He has literally put a hat on a hat, one MAGA, one sand colored with a military-style American flag on it. When he comes to my scanner, scanner D, I give him my practiced script of aid: “Remove the inner ballot and put it through any which way—except sideways!—and as soon as it says ‘Thank You’ you’re good to go. I’ll take your manila folder.”

The screen says THANK YOU. His vote is cast. He jerks the empty privacy sleeve away and my hand touches his.

“What do you think you’re doing?! How dare you lay hands on me!”

He pushes me toward the wall, pulls down his mask, and, expectorating, screams at me. He jabs a finger in my face.

“Who the fuck you think you are? I know my rights. You don’t lay hands on me! This is mine! My right!”

I am significantly bigger than him and yet I am terrified. I mutter something about needing to recycle it.

“I’ll recycle it. That’s for me.”

No, I insist, we need to reuse them. I foolishly try to reach for it again. He knocks my arm away.

“Don’t touch me. I know my rights. I’ve kept every one of these, every time I’ve voted.”

I feel pathetic as I look back at him, tired, more afraid than I would like to admit. “Sir, I’m just doing my job.”

“That’s the language of tyrants. You fucking tyrant.”

By now the Board of Elections rep and the school safety officer are between us. He’s screaming that I tried to grab him, that I’m violating his rights.

He storms off, mask still down. I’m ashamed to be shaken at all.

Our whole pod is rattled. It makes me feel a little better, as I’ve had a hard time assessing the veracity of events lately, even moments after they occur. Lois says she was cowering in the corner where she’d been plugging in scanners. She recounts her mother idly saying to her the night before that a poll site would be a prime location for a shooting (“Thanks, Mom,” she deadpans). The potential energy of hypothetical violence feels both unshakeable and fabricated. I feel like a rube. The BOE rep apologizes and says the man won’t be back, but that he may be the first of many.

6:55 AM Our first 120 voters across four scanners. I’ve been yelled at a couple more times when there is a machine error or when someone doesn’t want to vote for nine judges (it is confusing), but I am still on edge from the initial encounter.

7–9 AM Lines around the block, but no major issues with any voter outside of the hurdles of their trying to vote.

9:30 AM It’s hard to not look at people’s ballots when they stick them in your face and ask a question, just as it’s hard to keep a distance when the space is so tight and they need assistance feeding the ballot into the scanner. Several people are trying to vote for the same person in multiple parties (Biden under Democrat and Working Families Party, Trump under Republican and Conservative). Weirder are the people who try to vote for Trump and Biden, or Biden in both parties and Trump as a Conservative. A number of Trump voters have tried to vote for him in two parties and to write him in; I seem to remember him saying something to the extent of, “Vote twice! Write me in!” but that could be false memory.

We’re not meant to be seeing the specifics of their ballots—even as they insist on showing us—and certainly not to comment except to help them rectify the technical error. There are a number of different error messages the scanner can give, nine out of ten of which don’t allow for a manual override. Generally these relate to either multiple votes or illegible markings. Occasionally the machine gives the option to RETURN BALLOT or PASS, meaning to submit anyway. The fear with allowing them to do the latter is that their vote is then flagged and could be invalidated later, but those who opt for this seem fed up and not to care. For everyone else, should there be an error, we try to use a sample ballot to explain the issue and send them back to their electoral district table, where they can receive a fresh ballot and try again. You’re allowed to try up to three times, with two voided ballots allowed per voter. About a third of our voters need at least a second try. Of the few that would warrant a third, half grow discouraged and leave without voting at all.

The multilingual efforts here are laudable, but the ballot hand-out process is randomized, so you could be a Spanish speaker who gets a ballot with Bengali or Mandarin as the second language. There is a single machine—the ballot marking device, or BMD—which is meant to assist voters in need of translation, text enlargement, or help marking ballots (hence the name), but you would need to know to ask for it. Because the available translators are at the information table—positioned prior to the electoral district tables, where ballots are distributed—the table grows more congested when translation is an issue, causing bedlam, with people crisscrossing lines and people who aren’t supposed to be interpreters stepping in. It’s wonderful to see how badly we all want to help, but notable how little effective management there is.

10:15 AM An elder gentleman in a camel-hair overcoat and a perfectly askew black beret accosts our coordinator while trying to vote. He comes over to the scanners, still miffed. After his vote is cast, he turns to Lois and me. His issue, generally: “IT SAYS FILL THE BUBBLE TO THE LEFT. BUT THE BUBBLES ARE ABOVE THE CANDIDATES NAMES!!!”

This is true, we point out, and mention that we will pass it on.

A back-and-forth in which he says he is a professor, espouses leftish ideas, but belittles laborers. He says he sympathizes with our “low-level status” and knows that we can’t do anything, mentions voting in every Colombian election since his birth and the last dozen in the US. Running out of wind, and sensing we are at least sympathetic to his points about the frightening implications of the small-scale failures of this bureaucracy, he says, “It is positively Kafkian.” He is a very close talker and tries to shake hands. We bump elbows. He leaves.

I see him on the corner, talking to a volunteer for Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas for the next forty-five minutes. I try to eavesdrop on my break, and he is mentioning how the government shouldn’t dictate the legality of a union.

The cat is still in the street and a little girl swerves to avoid its corpse as she roller-blades.

10:30 AM Lunch. It feels odd to be eating leftover curry so early.

11:30 AM–2 PM One voter in thirty has something subtle about them that might connote something. Usually the military flag or the “Back the Blue” skull. One woman wears a darling Rugrats hat. Another man in an AOC mask has a dachshund in a stroller. He jokes that it wants to vote. Miscellaneous outfits that catch the eye:

First-time voter in a Hennessy face mask and rainbow Crocs.

A fellow poll worker in a bedazzled velvet face mask that reads ZUMBA INSTRUCTOR.

A woman with bright red hair in a Day-Glo yellow sundress. She votes twice for Trump and is deeply frustrated to be told this is not acceptable.

MAGA bro in a sweater with the Don’t-Tread-on-Me snake that reads CRO-MAGS and a matching Don’t Tread hat. Face mask has Felix the Cat.

It’s the MAGA-adjacent outfitted folks who keep asking for extra “I voted” stickers. Don’t know what that means.

3 PM One of the four scanners goes down due to a ballot clog. It’s an ordeal to get it fixed, even though there’s supposed to be a protocol. The technician asks me to open it with a knife. I comply, though the other poll workers seem to disapprove of my abetting his quick fix. When it breaks down again later in the evening, I do not repeat the maneuver, even though this is his suggestion. Our coordinator calls him back and he is just short of livid to find he’s been called across Queens for the same machine.

3:45–4:45 PM Dinner? I half-eat a sandwich and power nap. Eighteen hours is a punishing shift. The dogs are very confused as to the time. I force them to go on a walk.

4:45–8:30 PM At the scanners, people continue to show me their ballots when asking for help. I try not to look, but can’t ignore the huge turnout of Latinx voters who vote Trump in Presidential but AOC, Ramos, and Dems down the line.

We expect a big push of voters around 6 PM but it never comes. We’re grateful on the one hand, but it slows time beyond belief. Greg, certainly the eldest member of our team, has grown ornery and is pretty confrontational with voters who continue to err. We let him sit for the rest of the evening. Lois does tree pose. I do jumping jacks and perch atop one of the cafeteria’s rolling freezers, which we’ve been using as a table all day.

8:30–9 PM We get about fifteen voters in the final stretch. Totaling out at somewhere around 2,000 or 2,500 votes cast for the entire day. Most of these, we estimate, came before 11 AM, with a steady trickle throughout the rest of the day. We check our phones openly now. Counting minutes. Glumly watching the twenty-four-hour news machine treat this like any other election and rush to call states.

9–11 PM Our coordinator announces that the polls are closed, and we do our closing tasks. Replacing yellow seals with red ones as we lock the scanners and the ballot boxes. Rooms just like ours are being managed in battleground states by others just like us—bleary eyed and a little feral, dehydrated and hungry, unsure of the time and navigating confusing if well-intended instruction manuals. We’re set free into the night, and onto days of waiting.

—William Irons

Providence, Rhode Island

I drove to City Hall at 6 AM on Tuesday to receive my assignment. I hadn’t been told that I was a substitute poll worker, but later learned that the first string had received their assignments the week before, just after our two-hour Zoom training. At the training, I was taught how to be a supervisor: to check voters in using electronic “poll pads” and to comply with the state’s voter ID law, even as everybody (hopefully) would be wearing masks. I was also taught that any “problem voters”—voters who had recently moved, or already filled out a mail ballot—were problems for the clerk.

The neighborhood of my precinct was sandwiched between a complex of three hospitals to the north and the industrial port of Providence, including several fuel-storage terminals and a scrap-metal recycling yard, to the east. As I turned onto Public Street, the smoke and ash from the Narragansett Improvement asphalt manufacturing company wafted through my car’s windows. Good thing I already had my PPE on.

As I checked voters in, I gestured toward the ballot, demonstrating that there were questions on both sides of the single sheet. On the back, voters were asked whether they approved of the proposal to amend the state constitution to remove “Providence Plantations” from the state’s official name (“The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations”). Its inclusion, the amendments’ supporters argued, seemed to glorify the history of the slave trade in the state, which launched more than half of all the slave-trading voyages that left from North America. Ten years ago the amendment failed as a referendum. This year it passed with 52.9 percent of the vote.

Some voters returned multiple times to bring a brother, a grandmother, or an aunt to the polls. Correctly assuming the state would not arrange for Spanish-speaking poll workers, relatives came prepared to translate on the fly. The surrounding streets, the multi-family houses, the connections of kinship that wove some of them together were all folded into the high-ceilinged gym in which we worked. Even though we were well aware that Rhode Island voters were assigned polling locations based on their registered address, we marveled that everyone who came in seemed to be neighbors. “Another one from Glenham Street!”

—Jeff Feldman

Chicago, Illinois

I decided to become an election judge because I was worried that if it wasn’t my job, I wouldn’t manage to force myself to go vote. I didn’t realize that I wouldn’t be able to vote at the polling place I was assigned to work, but it all ended up OK; I felt so unprepared by our training that I voted a few days before just to see how it was done.

On Halloween, my friends celebrated their wedding in our backyard. It turned out that three of the fifteen of us were going to be election judges. I’d been wondering about a rule I’d read in our training, that there are supposed to be Republican judges at every polling station, at least three at odd-numbered precincts and two at even-numbered ones, to give people a sense that if something happened the balance would prevent cheating. I wondered how they would find all these Republicans in our blue, blue, blue city and spread them around. When I got the list of judges at my precinct, just one of the six had an R next to his name. Well, Megan told me, they’d actually called her and asked her if she could be a Republican. “They asked if I could be impartial and I was like of course, I feel totally qualified, everyone in my family is a conservative.” Matt, in a black cape and black leather plague mask, was also going to be playing the role of a Republican. His partner wore a Black Lives Matter mask under her matching plague mask.

At my polling station, the R was maybe truly an R, but then I started talking to Bob, who was 20 and had been working elections since he was 12.

“What did you do at elections when you were 12?”

“My dad is a big union guy, a big Democrat. We’d walk around talking to people, putting up signs.”

“How come you have a Republican name tag, then?”

“There weren’t any Democrat ones left.”

“Did you vote?”

“I’m not into politics.”

The strangest part was that our precinct seemed very solidly Republican: union guys, old-timers, three generations of men wearing Trump hats, cigarette-smoke-soaked Trump masks covered in eagles, men showing up after work with big smiles, their masks hanging down around their necks, one guy joke-threatening the janitor that if he didn’t vote for Trump, he would lose his job—couldn’t any of them have been Republican judges?

This, and all of my other questions about procedure, “our training” versus reality, were eye-rollingly irrelevant and pedantic. I don’t know how to feel about this. Would I have rather we followed “the rules,” which had been communicated to me through a series of non-mandatory videos? (Judges who chose to go through online training received an extra $60. At our precinct, the ones who didn’t do that didn’t have access to computers, i.e., they could have used the money the most.) On the one hand, it would have been less gendered and annoying that just me, the 16-year-old girl, and the college girl actively had a sense of what was going on. On the other hand, we wouldn’t have been able to be on our phones all day long or broken down a bit early or maintained a general air of anarchy that made me feel competent and superior instead of pissed off about having to follow dumb rules. I rewarded myself for my competence by taking a long lunch break.

3:42 PM: Being an election judge is fun

I guess I’m just bored of sitting at home all day

But I don’t care at all and feel nothing about the election bc I am doing this

Could also be bc I am resigned to die in hell

When I came back, the R started watching loud videos on his phone, which he would do for the remaining three hours, so I would have to shout over the videos to greet voters.

At the same time, not everything was going smoothly. The biggest problem was that for some reason, the election board was having everyone vote with Sharpies. Ink bled through the ballots and the scanner kept registering it as “ambiguous marks.”

“After today, I’m really gonna know how to spell ambiguous.”

“What’s ambiguous mean?”

“Like you don’t know.”

“Well that means I got an ambiguous bank account.”

“My bank account is libiguous. Like, just a little.”

That was our boss, Ronisha, the election coordinator. She was the boss because she’d been working in elections since she was 16 and was now in her thirties, which meant she made twice as much as we did. Ronisha started talking about having a margarita delivered at 10:45 in the morning. At the end of the day, I asked her why she worked in elections. “Because I’m all over anything like this, anything where you can make extra money. I do this, all the elections, the census, if there are studies where you can bring in your kid, I bring in my son. If I was under 24, I would donate my eggs.” To my horror, this last part piqued the interest of the college girl.

“My mom and my aunt have uh, en . . . ent . . .”


“Yeah, that. And my aunt had cancer down there and had to get stuff removed, so I’m probably going to have that kind of surgery anyway.”

The college girl was studying to be a nurse and working at her college as a Covid tester. Again, I told myself to shut up.

Our final voter was the high school girl’s hot dad. As I’d expected, Donald Trump won in our precinct. Two of the voters had written in Kanye. The only thing that surprised me was that Jessica, who had grown up in the neighborhood and knew all these people, who’d spent the day removing her pink sequin mask whenever she started to chitchat with them, constantly coughing and wiping her nose with her hand, stomped her foot when I told her. “That motherfucker! Why?”

—Bela Shayevich

Brooklyn, New York

November 3 on South 3rd Street was mostly smooth—a little excruciating, occasionally frustrating, sometimes hilarious. A lot of personalities in the room! It made me feel good to see how many people were voting for the first time. Voting, then going home to persuade their family members to vote. I was alarmed by how unclear the notion of not denying anyone the right to vote was—even if a ballot was likely to be disqualified in affidavit form—to even the leadership in the room. Most heartbreaking was to realize just how totally a voter’s experience on Election Day is determined by the workers’ attitudes, persistence, and determination. I think a few people would have given up or left without voting if I or my colleagues hadn’t tried the third or fourth workaround to find their names on the rolls. Voter suppression can be super banal; all you need is apathy. It was pretty stunning to remember throughout the day that we were in charge.

—Georgia Hilmer

[Redacted] County, North Carolina

A voter walks out of the entrance to our polling site in rural North Carolina. Over the past three hours I’ve learned to interpret this as a sign of probable defeat: those who are permitted to vote leave through the exit, while the denied leave how they came in.

“I don’t know,” she tells me, when I ask her how it went in there. “They said I wasn’t in the system.”

With the voter’s permission I search for her in the NC state voter registry, which I have pulled up on my phone in anticipation of this scenario. First name, last name, year of birth, county. I give her my spiel: “Yep, says you’re an active voter in this county. Do you have time to go back inside and ask for a provisional ballot?” She nods. At 78, she has not worked for several years. Her granddaughter drove her to the polls today.

“A provisional ballot,” I say again. She shuffles back through the entrance a third time.

As one of two non-partisan “vote protectors” assigned to monitor instances of voter suppression at this polling site, I’ve become familiar with the loophole that prevents people from voting in the county they’ve called home for nearly eight decades. Like several other voters I’ve spoken with today—all of whom are Black, most of them Black women—this voter moved to a new house within her same county at some point since the 2016 presidential election. She received a letter at her new address indicating that she was registered to vote. When I enter her information into the NC state voter registry, she’s listed as an active voter in this county—but at her old address. However, when the poll officials look her up in their county-specific database, she doesn’t show up listed at all. Despite living and voting in this county for decades, she is not in the system.

For this resident and others in her predicament, one partial solution is to request a provisional ballot, which undergoes a case-by-case evaluation by the Board of Elections following the conclusion of voting. But it becomes clear pretty quickly that poll officials are failing to offer provisional ballots to a number of voters who could use them, and so, from my station outside the polling place, I start preemptively warning voters to request a provisional ballot in the event of any issues with their registration. After several phone calls with the state and county Board of Elections, I learn that voters who have moved within the same precinct may fill out an “unreported move” form on-site, and receive a full—that is, non-provisional—ballot. Our attempts to convey this information directly from the Board of Elections are met with resistance and, at times, outright dismissal from poll workers, one of whom expresses a genuine fear of jeopardizing her position as an elected official.

I don’t believe that these poll workers are intentionally trying to strip residents of their right to vote. But this loophole, and its quiet enforcement by reluctant poll officials and their seemingly neutral database, is one of countless antidemocratic obstacles in North Carolina—a swing state, and one of the country’s most aggressively gerrymandered. As is the case with many essential pieces of civic infrastructure, access to voting is racialized and racist. Waiting for the voter to reappear, I’m reminded of a familiar scene at the OBGYN clinic where I’ve trained as a medical student: a Black patient arriving twenty minutes late to her appointment after an hour or more on neglected public transit, only to be told by the front desk staff that our practice has a fifteen-minute lateness policy. The language used in the clinic resembles the rhetoric I hear from poll workers today, at once apologetic and blandly bureaucratic: “I’m sorry, I know this is frustrating. But our system only allows for a maximum fifteen-minute delay to the start of an appointment. Would you like to reschedule?”

A coach bus pulls up to our polling site and a big group of white, maskless college students from the wealthy private university nearby emerges. They pour swiftly through the entrance and leave through the exit shortly thereafter. I hear chatter about a school registration kiosk, how they can’t believe it was this easy. I ask a few of them if they need any help. They don’t, but thanks! Everything was already in the system.

—Ben Kaplan

Wayne County, Michigan

A few weeks before election day, after completing the training to be a poll observer, I was asked to oversee the counting of absentee ballots in a small city just outside Detroit. Rather than observing at a polling location, I would be sequestered from the public for thirteen hours with no access to the internet or my phone. That sounded great—the past few months had introduced doomscrolling to my vocabulary, and I couldn’t imagine anything worse than staring at my phone scanning panicked questions from fellow volunteers, cryptic predictions from friends working in politics, and screenshots of Twitter takes reposted to Facebook. I took the day off work, turned off my phone, and packed protein bars and cookies for my thirteen hours of sequestration.

At 7 AM I walked into a counting room containing almost ten thousand ballots. I was told to expect poll observers from other organizations, probably antagonistic ones, but it was just me and the fifteen poll workers. They were all white and mostly in their sixties, dressed comfortably in sweatshirts, jeans, and slippers. I felt out of place, a South Asian woman in my late 20s, dressed in a blazer, slacks, and a KN95. Only three others wore masks.

There were three workers at each table, each with a specific role in the tabulation process. They checked off names, opened envelopes, compared ballot numbers, used the tabulating machines, and analyzed what the tabulators considered “ambiguous marks.” The poll workers had all been recruited through their membership in the same community organization, as evidenced by their matching T-shirts. Because we had to ensure members of both parties participated in certain crucial verification steps, everyone had to disclose their party registration. My initial assumptions proved to be wrong, and it was fascinating to observe each person’s attitudes and the way we interacted through the lens of our political parties. I kept timestamped notes, official and detailed at first, that became more of a diary as the day went on. At 11:23 AM: two veterans were talking about their experiences in Vietnam, recalling seeing forests lit up with napalm. I wondered how it would feel to overhear them if I were Vietnamese.

Aaron asserted that the way to avoid paper jams was to compliment the tabulating machine as frequently as possible: “What a great screen. Such nice curves. See? No jams here!” Terry and I giggled over a ballot listing “Jesus, God, the Holy Spirit, and his 12 apostles” as write-ins for a judicial race. Tina recommended a hot yoga place down the road, “though it’s really just warm yoga right now since you have to wear masks in there.” Tina had taken her mask off a couple hours into the count—I guess City Hall wasn’t as strict as the yoga studio. At 6:10 PM: “Charlie asked me to record that Karen is bullying Aaron for eating too many donuts.”

At 8:03 PM I turned my phone back on. Polls had closed, but the results were a long way off. The counting was projected to stretch on for hours, until early in the morning, and Brian asked everyone to start thinking about where we should order breakfast. I was only required to stay until 8 PM but stayed for another hour before heading home. Michigan wouldn’t be won or lost on these votes, and I needed to go back to worrying about other things. As I returned home at 9:30 PM and felt, somehow, okay.

On Wednesday, though, we were still in suspense—and they were still counting. Protestors stormed ballot counting locations yelling, “Stop the count,” and court cases were filed on fallacious grounds. This election was too close. I complained about the Democrats’ lack of vision, the host of problems we hadn’t fixed, and reluctantly returned to doomscrolling.

—Helie Dharia

Nowhere, USA

I volunteered to be a poll worker and was rejected. In fairness to their decision-making process, I have been very open about my idea to make elections fairer by instituting a program of vote swapping, in which anarchists who can get mail-in ballots regift them to felons with whom they are randomly paired. Secret Santa for voting.

—Sarah Nicole Prickett

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