CT: A Long Valuable Day As An Election Official

I hear and I forget.
I see and I remember.
I do and I understand. – Confucius

One of my goals this year was to obtain more hands-on experience in the election process by serving as an election official. In August I attended moderator training. I became a certified moderator which, in no way qualified me to actually be a moderator (I would describe a moderator as the czar of a polling place). Reading the manual and taking the training would never be enough for me to grasp such a job, without perhaps several years experience as a poll worker. Thanks to Judi Beaudreau, Moderator Trainer, and Registrar of Voters, Vernon, CT, I worked one of the polls in Vernon this year. I spent about half my time as a ballot clerk and about half as machine tender.

Early in the day the other registrar in Vernon, Patricia Noblet, asked me what I was learning by being there. It was a little too early to collect my thoughts. Maybe its still a bit early, but I do have some thoughts to share.

It came as no surprise that it was a long long day. I got up about 4:00am and was done at about 8:45pm. For the moderator and two assistant registrars it was a longer day, perhaps by hours, and it could have been much longer for all of us; there were no problems to deal with at the end of the day; a dozen or so ballots to be counted by hand; voting tapered off, with very few voters in the last hour, we were able to knock down some of the booths and otherwise use the time to get ahead on cleaning and packing. The long day seamed to hit some of us at around 5:30pm, but my energy picked up at the closing. I would not want to face extended problems and hours of hand counting at the end of such a day – I would not have my best judgment at that time. Time went faster when there were more voters – I can only imagine some polling places in the August Primary, working all day for as few as twelve voters.

Connecticut has a special program for sixteen and seventeen year old’s to work the polls. Vernon takes good advantage of the program. Eight of the thirteen of our team of poll workers were part of the program – it seems to work well for everyone and provides future citizenship advantages to students, while hopefully resulting in more poll workers in the long run. Secretary of the State, Susan Bysiewicz has said the average age of poll workers was seventy-two. Our average age at our poll was much less, at 62 I was clearly one of only at most three over 60, yet I noticed no drop-off in stamina with age. Vernon does not have school on election day which not only supports the program, but also makes for more parking and less potential for stressful voting vs. school logistics problems.

It helped having plenty of people. There was plenty of time for short breaks, eating the lunch and dinner that was provided. Everyone worked together and there was always someone available to help or asking others if they needed a break. This meant we could take the time to do our jobs well without being rushed. We could take the necessary time to robustly and cheerfully serve voters.

People must have listened to the news predictions of long lines and the Secretary of the State’s advice to go to the polls mid morning when they were expected to be less busy. Our longest line was at 6:00am when the polls opened. People started lining up at 5:30am, I presume, because they wanted to avoid long lines and get to work on time. From my position as ballot clerk, I could not monitor the lines outside, but judging from where I sat, I doubt anyone waited more than twenty minutes initially and no more than a few minutes at most after 6:30am. Voting was heavy for the first couple of hours, then light, and then heavy volume again from about 9:45am to perhaps 11:30am – which I can only explain as people intending to avoid the rush. Two thirds of our votes for the day were cast before noon. It was very slow during lunch, we awaited a rush we predicted for late afternoon, around dinner time, and the evening – it never materialized.

Given the two thousand votes by noon and lack of significant lines, our single scanner could have easily handled five-thousand or more voters. It could keep up with the three lines of checkers and approximately twenty-one voting booths. The booths and checkers were well balanced. A hand-full of times for just a couple of minutes we had voters waiting for booths. The booths were in turn close to the maximum number that could be used, for this relatively small ballot, and not have an excessive line of voters waiting to scan ballots. When we were busy, lines could form quickly at the scanner if there were problems with scanning ballots that required help from the machine tender. On the other hand, if the scanner did break down, it would have quickly caused quite a backup or many votes to be cast without scanning in the presence of the voter. It takes some time to fire up the backup scanner – seals to check, zero tapes to print, etc. Setting the backup up before the polls open would greatly speed the change over process, but would also require a significant chunk of time on the part of the moderator and assistant registrars before the polls open.

Ballot layout is an area to address. Our ballots are designed to look like the face of the old lever machines. Intended or not that perhaps has some advantage in the transition for many voters. On the other hand, the layout can cause many problems that might be alleviated if we used the full range of possibilities of designing an optical scan ballot.

A prerequisite and perhaps the hardest change to make in the “land of steady habits” would be to get rid of the party line requirement – with several parties with only one or two candidates, there are a lot space wasting and confusing blank boxes on the ballot. Voters really had a lot of trouble voting for only one candidate for President or Representative. The write-in box for each candidate caused confusion as well, with many voters asking what it was for, and several filling in the bubbles in each write-in box without writing in candidate names or any intention to do a write-in. (We tried to avoid looking at voters ballots but sometimes it can be very difficult to avoid looking at a ballot thrust before your eyes by a confused voter) Blank boxes, party name boxes, and the required layout of boxes may add confusion, but also waste space that could be used to make ballots clearer to voters. Likely not a simple problem to solve – every change requires laws that protect the ballot from unfair manipulation to the advantage or disadvantage of particular candidates.

Another strong source of confusion was the directions on the back of the ballot. Clearly identified is a section on absentee ballots that describes folding the ballot and putting it in an envelope. Many voters missed that the directions were for absentee ballots and were folding the ballot as they came to the scanner. Others asked us where the envelope was to put the ballot in. I would recommend that absentee ballots have these directions, but not the ballots used at the polls on election day.

The ballot also says to fill in bubbles by pen or pencil. That pencil part makes me nervous. I would take it off for both regular and absentee ballots. I would be in favor of going as far as making penciled-in absentee ballots void. How do I tell if a voter intentionally erased and changed a ballot or someone else did?

Several voters asked if their vote counted and how I knew. My answers came from what I felt was appropriate for an election official and were truthful. Usually “Because it took it and it did not pop back out for some reason”. One asked how I knew it counted accurately. I said something like “Because it is tested before the election and there are post-election audits”‘. A couple asked it if was a Diebold machine and told me the company and the machines were questionable. I confirmed it was the Diebold machine. My role was to be an election official, doing the best I could to perform my assigned duties, while learning as much as possible, to be non-political or biased in performing that public duty. As Avi Rubin says in his blog, covered below ” I didn’t want to defend our system, but I didn’t want to denigrate it either.”

As far as I know nothing went wrong in our polling place. I wonder if it will be audited in the random audit? If it is, I will take special care to make sure its covered by our observers and that I am not one of them. Being there increased my appreciation of the work and challenges of election officials, yet left me with pretty much the same list of vulnerabilities and improvements I would like to see in the system.

PS: Tired, but interested in election results, I went to my local party headquarters to follow the election results. One race had a margin of 300 votes and everyone wanted to wait for 2800 absentee ballots to be counted to be sure of the result. The absentee results were predicted to be available at the earliest 3:00am. Few present knew we scanned absentee ballots centrally, they assumed officials were counting 2800 ballots by hand. I wondered: “How can it take that long? Especially when counting and sorting starts at noon? Even if its done by hand, how can it possibly take that long?” I heard some possible issues that I had not considered, but nothing that would convince me it should take that long unless its a very very small counting team. An area for me to study and observe further. Perhaps in the next election some town in Connecticut would let me participate as an official in their central count absentee operation on election day. I know I would learn something.

Avi Rubin, blogs his sixth time as election official in MD. Perhaps more interesting reading.<read> Besides more knowledge and experience, their polls open an hour later, so Avi left his house a half hour after I had reported for duty.

Here is a flavor, worth reading the whole thing:

I wondered what happened in other precincts that did not have someone who was very experienced with the machines and as a poll worker. This was my sixth election working as a judge with these voting machines. I attended a half a dozen training sessions, and my research team wrote a paper about the machines. Some of the problems I had to deal with related to human factors, and others were purely technical….

We called the board of election, and they sent a technician out, but he was unable to do anything about it. However, we had 16 machines, and in the previous election we had only had 12 and we had managed. I was a bit concerned because the turnout was expected to be much higher. The thought crossed my mind about what would have happened if all the machines had arrived in that condition. We had 125 provisional ballots, no emergency backup ballots, 3,091 registered voters, and 2,080 voters showed up. It would have been a total disaster…

I think that the worst part of our election had to do with the voter registration database. We had numerous people who came in but were not listed as registered. One man I remember said he had voted forever in this precinct and had even voted in the primary. He was there with his wife who was in the system and who was able to vote. But, his name was simply not there. We looked in the statewide database and even in a paper printout we had of the registered voters, and he did not exist. We gave him a provisional ballot, but I don’t have confidence that it will ever be counted. Numerous people were listed as not registered in our precinct despite having voted there before. This was also the hardest part for us as judges because we were on the front lines with these justifiably irritated voters. I didn’t want to defend our system, but I didn’t want to denigrate it either…

Interestingly, in my precinct, registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by a 4-1 ratio, but Obama won over McCain by 20%. Surprisingly, on one of the machines, McCain actually beat Obama by 2 votes. Several of the other judges had some interesting theories about why the results diverged from the expected values, but nobody suggested that the machines had gotten it wrong somehow. Despite all kinds of glitches and mishaps throughout the day, people just believe the results that come out of the computer, and I think this is a natural human tendency.

Do I think that the machines were hacked or that some bug caused us to get the wrong results? I can’t say that I do. However, what would have happened if McCain had won by a 2-1 ratio? Would we have come up with all kinds of interesting theories? Or, would someone have questioned the machines? What happens if a candidate in one of the local races that was close wants to challenge the result? The answer is – nothing. There is no way to recount the election. We have the totals that the machines produce, and that’s it. No insight into how those numbers were achieved and no way to recreate them. The election cannot be audited. This is a terrible way to run elections, and I sincerely hope that when I work the 2010 election, it is with paper ballots and rigorous audit procedures.

I would add the sincere hope that the entire country has paper ballots and rigorous audit procedures.

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2 responses to “CT: A Long Valuable Day As An Election Official”

  1. The BRAD BLOG : 'Daily Voting News' For November 06, 2008

    […] CT: A Long Valuable Day As An Election Official http://www.ctvoterscount.org/?p=932 […]

  2. ct registrar

    Cudos to you on working the polls and attaining Election Moderator status. Too many blogs paint election workers and officials as incompetent at best, and of suspect honesty and impartiality at worst.

    If more election advocates would take the time to ‘walk the walk’ and actually take the time to attend Moderator certification classes, than they might better appreciate the dedication and fairness instilled in them.

    The problem has always been the lack of willing workers, their advancing age, and the difficulty of training them to accept the new procedures defined by the optical scan process. Registrars across the state have spent many hours, with much success, develloping training programs for workers, while working with their local High Schools in getting students involved as election workers. The ever changing regulations by the Secretary of State, written as problems or need has been raised and often distributed at the last moment has been a constant challenge, but should lessen as the system is fine tuned.

    As you properly point out it is a long day filled with repetition. Workers are pretty worn out by 8:00 pm. (I shuddered at the thought of the extended hours suggested by some) Candidates, the press, and the public have little appreciation of the post election work required, which often keeps officials working long into the night. Your next effort should be directed to working with (Or as) the Moderator in filling out the post election forms required. This has become a source of confusion and frustration for most Registrars and Moderators. The forms have multiplied and become more confusing in their requirements.

    Absentee ballot counting is tedious and time consuming, especially so in a Presidential election with it’s inherrent high volume and in the variety of ballots to be counted and recorded seperately. The delays you spoke of are a result of types of ballots appearing only in Presidential elections; Presidential Ballots, Overseas Ballots, Blank Ballots, Military Ballots, and certain special blank ballots identified in the last week of the election for faxed balloting that I still don’t uhderstand. Complicate that with the fact that ballots are delivered several times a day, some not arriving until after the polls close (Presidential), and that several of the ballot types must be counted by hand. Add to this, that this was the first time tabulators have been added to the Absentee counting mix for most towns. (Vernon has used Tabulators for over five years, so has a much higher comfort level)

    The ‘comfort level’ issue I just alluded to is a major factor. rarely in our state history has our election system been tested to this volume and level. Over 50% of the voters had never experienced the optiscan system. Our central voter registry system and local maintenance assured reduced polling place eligeabillity problems and timely review of the local files. Moderators, Registrars , voters and Town Clerks all approached election day with trepidation, and for the most part (I have not heard of any major problems) brought it off with flying colors.

    Overall, Connecticut should be proud of where our state stands with the new voting system. We chose right the first time, took the time to0 properly introduce it, and interfaced it with a voter registry system that works. All we need to do is look to those states that chose poorly, still can’t figure out whose registered, and still face major replacement issues.

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