Working the Polls: All over but the waiting

Photo courtesy of erin m

courtesy of erin m

Did you read part 1 and part 2?

If it seems like forever since part 2, you have only the smallest inkling of what the second half of the day was like at the polls. It wasn’t just that we had less than a hundred people – under 10% of our total for the day – come through between 2pm and closing time at 7.  It was the three hours it took to do the closing procedure once we did close the doors.

The lack of any kind of afternoon rush was a surprise to all of us, particularly considering the debacle it was if you tried to vote in the evening of the primary earlier this year. For five hours we had a steady trickle of folks, though such a small number that the eighteen of us workers usually outnumbered voters by more than 5 to 1. If there had been people in line at 7 we’d have been required to stay open till we’d processed them all, but you could have fired a cannon down the hall without hurting a soul. So we closed the doors right on time, and that’s where the truly long wait began.

Photo courtesy of Me

courtesy of Me

You’re looking at a sample statement of results from my training packet, above. What you can’t easily tell is that you’re looking at page one of about, oh, a billion. The paperwork that has to be completed at the close of the day is nothing less than terrifying, even considering the importance of the operation.

The interesting parts, and the parts that require even a majority of us working, were over in under thirty minutes. You can see above the section at the bottom with the electronic pollbook count, which is the modern equivalent of those flip binders full of names. With three networked tablets that handle tracking who has signed in there was nothing to it but to look at the running totals number at the bottom of the screen. Once that’s done it’s the matter of a few clicks to shut them down and then they go into their crates.

Photo courtesy of Me

courtesy of Me

Once that’s done it’s on to the touch screen machines. Look at the one on the right of this shot and you can see the paper tape spooling out of one of them. That process started after the vote totals – votes cast, not who or what they were cast for – on the individual machines were recorded. There’s several lines for it because there’s several places they show up – public and private numbers, with the private numbers hidden under a locked cover and including all the votes ever cast on that machine. Once those machines are done running their tapes they get broken down into their self-contained carrying cases and the tapes head off to be attached to those reports.

Photo courtesy of Me

courtesy of Me

Then, since Virginia is running a mixed system, the scanning machine needs to be shut down. It similarly has a locked cover and a printing tape. Before it can be shut off, however, any ballots that might have been collected but not scanned – like those cast curbside by people who can’t make it into the polling place – are cut out of the sealed ballot envelope where they were earlier deposited and run. There is, of course, procedure and paperwork associated with that too.

Once that’s completed the machine is fed a special card – which you can see in our precinct captain’s hand in the picture above – is fed in and it starts spewing out its print tape. That, of course, is attached to closing paperwork and the scanner is removed from the collection box. The ballots inside are removed and placed in a box and sealed with a kiss packing tape and signatures on the seam.

If you’re thinking “that doesn’t sound so bad,” you’re correct. It’s the two and a half hours past that point that dragged on painfully.

Photo courtesy of Me

courtesy of Me

Above you see most of the staff sitting at the long table as the 8 part report and envelope process is done. There’s not really work for most of us most of that time, so it’s a lot of sitting around. We traded off different bits, with some folks working on the totals and transcribing write-in votes, others boxing paper ballots, others packing up electronics and taking down wall signs, and pretty much all of us growing more and more tired by the minute.

I honestly don’t know why it took so long. Was it just our location? If not, was it a function of the increased number of things to fill out because of the combination of touch screen and scanned ballots? Certainly the Arlington board’s instructions weren’t what they could have been, requiring a few calls in for clarification. At least one of those times we were told that every single polling place had called in for direction on that point, which pretty well indicates a flaw in the documentation.

It’s hard to throw too many stones at the powers that be, however, since the changes that apparently happen with every election require changes in the paperwork to account for all the transitions. The forms had to reflect multiple ways votes might have been cast and a type of checking in of voters that was different than it used to be. At some point in the future the touch screens will go away and the forms will need alteration yet again. Streamlining a process that only happens the same way once isn’t a job I’d be thrilled to undertake, though I do think that some actual testing on naive users would solve some problems.

It was roughly 10 pm when we taped shut the last box and signed our names across the last envelope seal, seventeen hours after we’d all arrived and gotten started. It’s amazing to think that less than two hours after that point the Presidential election would have been called and the concession speech concluded. In my car on my way home I discovered that the Virginia Senate race had been called before we even completed breaking down the machines.

Being a part of the process was interesting, exausting, and rewarding, and I’m glad I did it. If you’ll excuse me now, I’ve got to figure out where to spend my $150 in worker pay. My check came in on Tuesday, exactly 14 days after election day.

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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