I spent Tuesday volunteering with the Darcy Burner campaign, where they assigned me to be a poll watcher. I spent the day at the Mercer Island Boys and Girls' club polling station. Having never poll - watched before, it was a new and interesting experience for me, and left me with some insights I hadn't really thought about before.Cost
Running a polling station is expensive. The station I was at covered six precincts. Each precinct had one dedicated poll worker to sign voters in and give them their ballots. In addition, there was a guy who ran the e-voting machine, and another fellow (the Inspector), who oversaw the whole venue, handled provisional ballots, change of address forms, etc.
That's 8 people right there, and they said that two folks hadn't shown up to work. So for an average sized polling station, that's ten people (I gather that my station was more or less of an average size, judging by the official list of king county polling locations which was posted up on the wall).
Pop quiz: raise your hands, everybody, who knew that poll workers got paid. Anybody? Heck, I didn't. I always thought they were strictly volunteer positions. But no, there is some cash that comes along with the job.
Not a lot - - one poll worker I talked to said she got about $100 for the day's work - - but times 10 workers per station, that adds up. That's 1.66 workers per precinct, at a rough average.
Again, going by the list of polling locations, I estimated that King County has about 2500 precincts. I'm sure the exact figure is available online somewhere, but we're just making rough estimates here anyway. 2500 precincts * 1.66 workers/precinct * $100/worker comes out to a bit over $400,000.
Then there's rental for the facility, costs for the electronic voting machines, the paper ballot booths, and printing costs for the huge number of ballots and assorted other forms needed to run a polling station, plus the other county election officials. Add it all up and it's got to run into seven figures, easy.
With as large a fraction of absentee voters as King County has, no wonder Ron Sims floated the idea of following Oregon's lead and going to an all mail - in vote. I can certainly see his point.
One thing that surprised me was the very large number of people who hand delivered their absentee ballots to the polling station. There's a separate slot in the side of the ballot tabulating machine where people can put them.
Having registered a couple of years ago to vote absentee, it hadn't really occurred to me not to just mail it in, but I can see the appeal.
All the advantages of voting on a guaranteed paper trail, in the comfort and leisure of your own home, plus the security of knowing that you delivered your ballot into safe hands rather than worrying about what the post office might do with it.
If I were Ron Sims, I'd continue to push for an all absentee vote, but I would additionally advocate placing vote collection / provisional vote sites in every post office in the county.
You could drastically reduce the number of polling locations that way, save a lot of money, and still give people the option of mailing in their ballot or hand - delivering it to an elections official.Electronic Voting
The polling station had six traditional ballot - marking booths, and one electronic voting machine (manufactured by Diebold). The machine was outfitted with a printer, which produced a paper trail that voters could inspect before leaving the station.
Voters who used the machine seemed to have no problems registering their votes the way they intended. Voters were given the choice of paper or electronic ballot, and by an overwhelming margin (more than 10 to 1), they chose the paper.
Those who chose to use the machine tended to do so for of the novelty of it, or because they thought it would be "more fun."
The tendency towards paper was doubtless influenced by the poll workers themselves, who encouraged people to use paper whenever someone would ask which was better.
The poll workers definitely preferred people to use paper, because the electronic ballots required an extra form to be filled out, causing an extra piece of paper that the poll workers had to track in order to reconcile their counts of votes cast with their record of voters who had showed up.
Basically, there's one record per precinct that lists all the voters who have come to vote. That record is posted on the wall for anyone who wants to see it. Then there's the official voter roll, which you sign on the line designated for you when you get there. Then there's the stack of individually numbered ballots per precinct.
If everybody gets a paper ballot, then the number of the top ballot on the stack should match the number of people listed on the public roll, which should match the number of entries in the voter roll with the signatures.
But with electronically produced ballots, the number on the topmost ballot in the stack gets out of step with the rolls, and the poll workers have to keep referring back to their collection of voter forms to reconcile the counts.
A similar but opposite thing happens when there is a spoiled ballot (i.e. the voter messes up and asks for another).
In that case, the numbers on the ballot stack would get ahead of the numbers on the roll, whereas with the ballots they get behind.
With all these factors in play, it becomes very difficult for the poll workers to know that their records are current and accurate; many times throughout the day I watched the workers go back through everything to double - check that they hadn't made any mistakes. When there was a mistake, it was very difficult to track down because all the records are on paper.
I salute the poll workers' dedication to accuracy and an error - free election, but the whole process certainly doesn't make that an easy task for them.
The extra form generated by a electronic vote, plus the fact that votes pull their counts in a different direction than spoiled ballots, make the poll workers jobs much more complex than you'd think. No wonder they quite preferred people to stick with the paper.
I could not observe the actual user interface of the Diebold machine during the casting of a ballot, because the machine provided no way to demonstrate that without actually casting a ballot, and naturally I couldn't stand over someone's shoulder and watch them vote. Privacy and all.
But I was encouraged that no one seemed to be having any problems, and I was encouraged by the paper trail process. There was a separate poll worker, not assigned to any precinct, who was in charge of running the machine.
He explained that the machine produces two copies of an initial report, before the poll opens, to show that the counts are all at zero. Then at the end of the day, it produces three copies of the whole day's results, which get routed in various ways (sadly I neglected to write down the details) that make tampering sound pretty hard.
Paperwork concerns aside, the electronic voting machine did appear to be slower than the paper method. Partly this was because voters had to wait while the machine operator encoded a plastic card with their precinct information on it (different precincts can have different ballot measures listed, so the machine has to know what precinct the voter belongs to), which they then inserted into the machine in order to activate it.
A completely configured electronic polling station would, I think, need to issue the card encoder devices to the poll workers who run each precinct, or else the card encoding process would become a serious bottleneck.
Even so, this extra step would still slow things down quite a bit by adding an extra 20 seconds or so per voter when they sign in. During busy times in a busy polling station, 20 seconds per voter really adds up fast.Democrat vs. Republican Poll Watching
As a poll watcher, I was there for two primary reasons. One, to make sure everything was kosher at the polling place, going according to proper procedures, and that everyone could cast their votes.
Two, to collect data from the voter rolls, off of the posted lists of who had actually come to vote from each precinct, in support of the campaign's get - out - the - vote (GOTV) effort.
To those ends, I was given a packet containing an authorization letter permitting me to inspect various materials at the polling station, some forms and instructions for what to do if there were any irregularities while I watched, and a list of "targeted voters". This list was a per - precinct list of registered democrats who were expected to come vote.
As people came in to vote, they would sign in with the poll workers, show their voter ID, and write their names down in the log.
When the log sheets filled up, they were posted on the wall, and I could then check the names against my list, thus getting a count of who had come from the list and how many total voters had shown up.
Periodically through the day I would call this information back in to the coordinators. At the end of my shift (4:30 PM) I took my list back in so that targeted voters who hadn't yet voted could be called and reminded to go to the polls. I showed up at the polling station in the morning, at around 8:00, and stayed until 4:30.
Naturally, I wasn't alone. The Republicans also had a poll watcher, although their procedures, and goals, seemed to be a bit different. First, my Republican counterpart didn't show up until about noon.
She checked names off her targeted voter list, hung around for a while, then took off. That was it. I watched her as she worked, taking a peek at the materials she had brought with her. All she had was a targeted voter list, plus her authorization letter. She had nothing, as far as I could tell, that had anything to do with reporting of any irregularities or problems at the polls.
It was pretty clear that her job was solely to collect GOTV data, and that she had no instructions to watch for or report any problems. No interest, therefore, in actually trying to protect people's franchise. It's a little detail, maybe, but I find it telling.Incidents: when things go wrong
And there was, as it happened, a problem while I was watching. Around 2:00 on Tuesday, the machine which collects and tabulates the paper ballots stopped working. You'd put a ballot into the slot, and instead of being whisked into the machine and tallied, nothing would happen.
The rest of the day to that point had been so trouble free that my reaction was more "Oh my goodness, an incident! What do I do?" I looked through my packet, read the procedure, and followed the instructions.
Basically, my instructions were to watch what was going on, write it all down in detail on an incident report form, and call it in to the hotline. So, I did.
The folks at the hotline gave me some further guidance on that specific problem (namely, that while the machine was down ballots should go in the absentee ballot slot on the side of the machine), and told me to call back in an hour or so to let them know what was happening.
The poll inspector (the fellow in charge) couldn't immediately rectify the problem, so he had voters do exactly what I had been told. Eventually, the absentee slot jammed because the extra ballots were a different size (they were unfolded) than the envelope - sealed absentee ballots.
The inspector had me and one of the poll workers witness him unlocking the slot to clear the jam, re - pack the absentee envelopes all neat and tidy, and lock things back up. I give the inspector great credit for being dedicated to handling the situation in a completely appropriate and aboveboard manner, making sure everything was witnessed, that voters were told what would happen (namely, as soon as the machine was back up that he would run their ballots back through), and so forth.
After about an hour, he finally managed to reach someone at the election's tech support line. Their recommendation: reboot it.
So he did, and it was fine. He then opened up the absentee slot (again, witnessed), fetched out the 41 ballots that had collected there during the downtime, and fed them through one at a time while I watched to make sure they all tallied up correctly.
In the end, I talked to the folks at the incident hotline three times, witnessed some stuff to make sure the ballots were handled appropriately, and filled out a form. No big deal, all's well that ends well.
But what I think is important to note is this: the Democrats had a whole apparatus in place - a hotline that was well staffed, election lawyers standing by to help and give advice, forms for me to report things on, and clear instructions as to where to call, etc. There were resources ready to spring into action if it had looked like any actual dis-enfranchisement was going on.
Thankfully, they weren't needed. But what is telling is that, unless they happen to read this post, the Republicans will have had no idea that this incident even happened. Their poll watchers were gone well before this all happened.
Anyway, it was an interesting day's work, and I'd happily volunteer to do it again. It's fun being part of the electoral process, and helping with the GOTV effort.