Working the Polls: The Big Day

Photo courtesy of Me

Badges, courtesy of Me

You read part one, right?

I’m not sure I’m prepared to say “I woke up on the morning of the 4th” because I was up at 4 am, an hour of the day best suited for garbage-eating raccoons and Paris Hilton. 4am is not an hour for civilized people. 4am is not morning, it’s pre-morning. However if you expect to get up, shower, and be at the polling place at 5am that’s the time you set on your alarm.

I felt marginally bad about my mental grumblings when I showed up at 5 on the dot and discovered half a dozen people already in line, waiting for the polls to open at 6. For a moment I stopped and stood with them because I assumed they were other workers, waiting for the doors to be unlocked. Once I realized my mistake I went in and joined the ten other people already inside.

The first moments of the day in the polling place are a lot like the last moments: odds are you’re going to be standing around without enough to do. The polls are staffed with the number of people you need at the busiest moments, not the least busy. In our case it was a total of nineteen of us, including one who made most of us grin from ear to ear: Stephanie, who had turned 18 just two days prior. She was not only voting for the first time, but also helping others to vote.

After an initial introduction and swearing in from Heather, the chief, some of us were set to moving tables and unpacking voting machines and the rest of us were assigned to hand up signs. Trying to find wall space for all the signs – elections generate a lot of signs – was a minor challenge, but pretty uneventful. The folks doing the machine setup had just as uneventful a sequence of events, but with a lot more structure and paperwork.

For this election Virginia was running what they called a mixed system. Voters coming in would be asked if they preferred to vote on a touch-screen machine or a paper ballot which would be optically scanned. At one point later in the day one of my fellow workers at the poll books would quip to someone “paper or plastic?” The reason for the dual system is that the legislature, tired of all the brouhaha and controversy and apparently finally realizing the inherent weakness of pure machine voting, banned further purchase of touch screen machines.

However they didn’t require scrapping the existing stuff, so the machines were kept in service and supplimented by the paper ballots. As they get old and break they’ll be taken out of service, but for the moment both are in play. Getting the optical scanner set up is a pretty simple process since only one is necessary. The touchscreens, of which we had six, require a little more synchronization. Before that point, however, they have to be taken out of their sealed cases one by one and and the numbers off the seals recorded.

After that point the machines are powered up and go through a process of “finding” each other. More numbers are recorded off the machines, including the total number of votes ever accepted on them. Once that’s done they’re “zeroed” and print a bunch of crap on an internal tape. More things are written down. Eventually they printing compartment is locked up and the machines are ready to go.

The optical scanner doesn’t require as much co-ordination, though it has its own seals and numbers to record. Once it’s locked in place it accepts paper ballots and drops them into a locked cabinet that we won’t open till the end of the day.

The list bit of machinery that needs setting up are the electronic pollbooks I mentioned back in part one. We had four, three of which were set up in a row on the table. I assisted in the setup and this is where I worked for the first two and a half hours. The tablets on the table all get connected to a hub via network cord and are constantly talking to each other. They also keep a count of the number of ballots issued which is shown on the bottom center of the screen. This is what made it so easy for me to provide attendance numbers throughout the day, some of which Tom posted. As one of us would issue a ballot to someone the tablet would update its cohorts so all of them showed that person as having voted, removing the need to ever again have those paper rolls and A-K, L-Z lines.

The fourth tablet was used read-only, and one of our workers would walk up and down the lines with it. I spent about five hours that day taking IDs and issuing ballots – I probably did over 300. Out of all those I had one person who was in the wrong polling place and one who had information out of sync. Both incidents happened once the crush was over because these people hadn’t already been helped by a worker walking up and down the line with the tablet.

I wouldn’t learn that till later, however, because once the doors opened at 6 sharp – as required by law, whether we’re ready or not – the flood started and didn’t let up till two and a half hours later. As quick as I could handle them, people would walk up, present their identification, and we’d go through the ritual. State your name. Affirm your address. I’d read their name and address back and ask them if they wanted to vote on a machine or paper ballot. Click issue ballot, hand them a “voting permit,” which is a fancy name for a little laminated yellow card, and direct them to the correct area to cast their vote. Next!

Re-stating their name is part of the legally mandated process because you’re not the only people at that table. Every polling place has observers from the major political parties sitting behind the check-in table and they’re listening to those names. In our case the three people there were two representatives from the Democratic party and one from the Republican party. The two Democrats had printouts with names of voters – though, it would turn out, not all of them – and were ticking them off as they heard them, best they could.

I’d find out later that the lists weren’t complete lists, they were lists of people in the district who the Dems had identified as supporters but “erratic voters.” Perhaps they turned out in 2000 but not 2004, etc. Come afternoon the Dem reps had left with their lists, off to call up people who, as far as they could tell, had not voted that day. It’s my understanding that in some areas they even offer rides to the polls. I couldn’t tell you, never having done that kind of thing. Our Republican representative was their through the day, and when I asked her about it she said that their focus was different. “We don’t have voter turnout problems in our party.”

I gave that the eye-roll it deserved, and she explained that they were more interested in voting irregularities. We chatted a bit about it but I don’t know that I ever got a feeling for what they were looking for or thought they might find. I’m not 100% sure she really expected to see anything either, based on our conversation about the likelyhood of malice as an explantion for irregularities versus the likelyhood of simple incompetence, but perhaps she was just humoring me.

Once we were past the initial rush I got up and someone else took my place at the pollbook. Over the course of the day I did a few other jobs, but the only other really interesting one was escorting people to a touch screen machine. As a long-time crank about touch-screen voting, I was surprised that the majority of people opted to cast their vote on the machines. Even when presented with a line twenty people deep for the touch screen and no wait for the paper… they would reject the paper.

Although the initial rush let up by 11am, it wasn’t till after 4pm before we didn’t have at least one voter in the room. So there was a slow but steady flow of people to take to the voting machines. Doing so required taking their little yellow card that showed they’d checked in, walking them to the machine, inserting the smart card we wore on a lanyard around our neck into the machine and starting the process. This has to happen before every vote, and is part of the security measure to insure there’s not extra votes cast.

When I took people over I’d ask them if they’d used the machines before, though I tended to give them mostly the same instructions regardless of their answer. Here’s the screen, touch the button at the bottom once you’re ready to start. You’ll have options to pick that look like these samples taped up here on the privacy screen. Touch an item to select it, touch it again if you change your mind. Most importantly, when you’re done make sure you press the big red button that says VOTE, because if you don’t we can’t do it for you.

Thankfully it never happened, but if someone were to make all their selections and then leave without pressing the button we’d have to get the chief, who would cancel out the process and void the vote. We got in the habit of walking around the machine to make sure it was back at the main screen, and I did once see one of my co-workers dash out to grab the voter before they left and come back to press the button. Nobody ever asked me, but there were also a few times where I saw one of my co-workers called over to answer a question. It’s a tricky situation, since we’re not allowed to look at the screen once the person starts the vote.

Well, not without – of course – paperwork. To take another adult back with you to cast your ballot you’ve got to fill out a request for assistance form. That applies whether someone is taking their relative back to translate for them or if one of us is asked to assist. I only saw one form filed, but more might have been done.

You don’t need any paperwork in order to take along folks too young to vote, however, and a lot of people had their kids in tow. I saw moms and dads with little ones in baby bjorns strapped to their chest and I count myself fortunate that one asked me to take their picture standing in front of the voting booth. Mom had her “Arlington Voter” sticker on and we put the “Future Voter” sticker on her little girl’s pink hat. There’s no way that kid was more than two weeks old, she was so little. Most of the rest were older and almost all where happy and excited, having picked up on the enthusiasm of their parents.

My favorite, though, was the woman as pale as me who took her cafe au lait daughter in with her to cast her vote. I didn’t presume to guess who they were voting for, though I think I know based on hearing them when they were leaving. While the little one might have known who they were selecting, she seemed a little surprised not to find him there at the polling place. As they left we heard her ask “Where is he momma? Where’s Obama?” I certainly hope she realized that the dozen people who burst out laughing were doing so with her, not at her.

The moments between then and when we closed our doors at 7pm weren’t bad, but they certainly weren’t entertaining.  The next noteworthy events to tell you about were in the hours – yes, hours – after closing. I’ll get to them in the third installment.

Well I used to say something in my profile about not quite being a “tinker, tailor, soldier, or spy” but Tom stole that for our about us page, so I guess I’ll have to find another way to express that I am a man of many interests.

Hmm, guess I just did.

My tastes run the gamut from sophomoric to Shakespeare and in my “professional” life I’ve sold things, served beer, written software, and carried heavy objects… sometimes at the same place. It’s that range of loves and activities that makes it so easy for me to love DC – we’ve got it all.


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