Behind the Scenes of Election Day: Directors Sara Archambault and Margo Guernsey on No Time to Fail

By Brigitte Carreiro for WORLD Channel

The filmmakers share why they decided to spotlight election workers and how their film represents democracy across America.

Who creates ballots? Who empties drop boxes and secures mail-in ballots? Who fixes all the things that go wrong on Election Day? In No Time to Fail, co-directors and producers Sara Archambault and Margo Guernsey pull back the proverbial voting booth curtain to explore the responsibilities of and challenges faced by election workers in the United States during the 2020 presidential election. Amid the first year of the pandemic, with mistrust and disinformation increasing among the American public and direct attacks by the sitting president, the filmmakers followed Rhode Island election officials to provide a glimpse into what the job entails.

Archambault, who grew up in and still lives in Rhode Island, wanted to make a film that showed American voters what occurs before and after they cast a ballot. “We've relied on an election workforce for a very long time without deep questioning of that work,” she said, “and No Time to Fail brings you behind the scenes to show you the integral staff that makes all of that magic happen.”

Guernsey, an independent documentary filmmaker from Massachusetts, hopes to share new perspectives about what’s happening in the world around us.

“I was tired of having conversations with the same people all the time, which brought me to film and thinking about how documentary reaches many more people and we can have many more conversations in public about the things that matter to us,” she said.

Throughout No Time to Fail, we witness how election officials – not to be confused with poll workers – navigate obstacle after obstacle to ensure a fair election safely in the time of COVID. The directors spoke with WORLD about what they learned while making the film and what more Americans should understand about not only elections, but the people who make our civic duty to vote almost effortless.

WORLD: How did No Time to Fail come together, and what can viewers expect to see?

Sara Archambault: No Time to Fail puts viewers in the shoes of election workers in the middle of their race to deliver the vote for the people of Rhode Island. It shows instead of tells you what that experience is like – we're putting you right at the front lines with election administrators as they are running ballots.

I knew we [Rhode Island] were having our presidential preference primary coming up in April [2020], so while a lot of people were figuring out how to get groceries to their houses or if their kids were going to be in school, my brain went right to: How's this election going to work? That was the very early germ of an idea for No Time to Fail, examining how an election would be managed during a pandemic, but we’re bringing you into the emotional experience in addition to providing a lot of information. Many of us are confused about how elections work, and we've never been more aware of that gap between the public's knowledge on how elections function and the need to really understand that work in order to trust it more wholly. 

Margo Guernsey: It's important for viewers to know that No Time to Fail was always a project of pulling the curtain back and showing Americans what it takes to pull off an election. We came to it from the perspective of Main Street vs. Wall Street: What is that work that real people are doing to make sure that our constitutional right to vote will be upheld, respected and ensured?

W: What did you learn during the process of filming?

MG: I started to realize that I was in territory that I didn't expect. I went into this assuming that election officials work hard, but I had no idea that working hard would mean they would be at the office until 2 a.m. a lot of the time, working weekends and pulling in friends and family.

Nothing about deadlines can change, because if they change, it's not fair to one party or the other, or one candidate or the other. If the voter registration deadline is on Saturday, and you have a stack of 1,000 registrations that have to be in the system, they actually have to be in the system. If you have a backlog of 71 voicemail messages, you can't postpone the election for a week to catch up. That adds an amount of stress that most of us never experience, because we're able to shift things around based on the needs of our work. That, for me, was the moment of, “We have something here.” Because if this is what it's like for the folks running elections, then there's something for Americans to really dive into.

SA: There are no do-overs. There was no room for error, hence our title, No Time to Fail – what drove the title was that constant pressure to perform and to not let the American electoral system down. It was really helpful to me, as a voter, to watch these people work on and prioritize that level of precision. I don't know if I would have it in me, but they take such pride in it. They’re able to master the mundane with a heroic amount of concentration and care. 

W: How did you tackle the issue of election disinformation in the film?

MG: It wasn't until we were in the middle of filming during that pandemic election that we realized that something else was happening at the same time: the creep of disinformation. We're seeing how disinformation – different from misinformation – and intentionally spreading lies can disrupt the process and how election workers were holding the ground to prevent that from happening so that we could all have a fair election.

Elections are a human endeavor; human endeavors often come with mistakes. But election administration as a human endeavor comes with so many fail-safes that those mistakes are found. They are discovered, they're adjudicated and then the proper vote is always registered. In the rare cases that there is a mistaken ballot submitted and counted, they are found and then the count is restored. 

Disinformation is going to play a role yet again, but there's work on the ground hoping that it doesn't affect more than it can. But it's going to be there, so election officials around the country are figuring out how to educate their communities about what's real and what's not real.

SA: Elections were going to be questioned in a way that we had never seen before, and that happened relatively early on in our process. A lot of people were saying a lot about how elections work, and what we kept thinking is that we had this opportunity to introduce the American public to some of the election officials who get this thing running every year.

We had a unique opportunity at a moment where we saw things that were so unusual, and we had these unique characters who we thought could break through some of that and reach the American public. That was the special sauce for us.

W: How does the film represent democracy across America?

SA: There are ways in which election administration is unique to the space, particularly with local law. Some states have an almost entirely mail-in ballot system, other places have restrictions around where drop boxes can be used [and] the times or availability of early, in-person voting. But, overall, the experience of election officials and the way they administer elections – the way they need to follow the laws, how ballots are decided upon, the way that votes are registered in the systems and accounted for, the way they are verified, the way they are audited – are very similar, if not identical, state by state.

Election administrators all over the state are speaking to each other. They have membership organizations. They try to share best practices together. This is a tight-knit group. They are an entire profession that we encourage people to look at as a possible career choice. I can't say enough about how inspired I am by the election administrators that we have been fortunate enough to be in company with since the making of this film. They are really quite extraordinary. 

W: Why was it important to showcase the election officials and their work?

SA: The need to hear from the perspectives of election officials is no less urgent than right now. Both the Brennan Center and Issue One have produced reports that talk about the psychological stress, the number of people leaving the field and the threats of violence against election officials across the country. It can't be underestimated.

MG: They call it “the great resignation.” Since 2020, the number of election officials that have left their jobs specifically because of stress is astronomical. Election officials are fearful of what that means – having brand new folks training during an election year is not ideal. 

Many Americans live in a partisan bubble these days – even folks who are independent are receiving news in a partisan way. This is a sacred space in American politics that is still nonpartisan, but there was a tension between the spaces we were in and these subtle – but not so subtle – attacks. When you hear the former president saying, “If it's run fairly,” that is a personal attack. When you're running elections, that feels like you're being questioned when you're doing everything in your power to get this right.

SA: We put a lot of thought into the casting of the film in order to balance that out. None of the people who we followed wanted to talk about their own politics because they believe so strongly that this nonpartisan nature of their role should be upheld. Margo and I were thoughtful in making sure that there was representation from all sides, all kinds of political philosophy and belief, but what they all share is a belief in elections.

To think that there is an organized campaign to dismantle and sully the reputations of these essential workers for our democracy…it's something that I hope every American starts taking personally and starts taking to heart. 

W: What do you hope audiences take away from the film?

SA: We have a lot of hopes that audiences will become familiar with election officials as human beings, and that they'll begin to understand the experience of election administration as one that is not scary, but one in which they can bring their curiosity to the actual experts: the election officials themselves.

Everyone's asking them questions right now, but they would rather you get the accurate information from the people who actually know how this work operates than to go to other sources. And our hope is that viewers will walk away knowing that election administrators are people from their community, and they care about every single vote.

Stream our Meet the Makers event to hear more from Sara and Margo.

No Time to Fail is now streaming online and on the YouTube & PBS apps.

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