Friday, October 10, 2008

Official pollworker training

Like many technical professionals involved in the voting world, I've decided to become a pollworker. I almost wrote "volunteer", but it is paid in Virginia - $100 for a 16 hour day (and no pay for training)! I live in Fairfax County, which is the most populous in Virginia, and so probably a "best case" in terms of organization and technology.

Last night I went to pollworker training. There are four "levels" of pollworkers in Virginia - the pages, the ordinary grunts, the assistant chief, and the chief. The pages are high school students who get credit for helping (all schools in Fairfax County on election day); they can do limited tasks. The ordinary grunts, like me, can do most of the jobs that don’t require exception processing (such as dealing with machine failures, or provisional ballots). The assistant chief and chief seem to be generally interchangeable, and have the responsibility for oversight of the whole thing (setup, opening, voting, and closing), and handling all of the exceptions that occur. [Assistant chiefs are paid $150 and chiefs are paid $200/day - showing that these are very dedicated individuals.]

I was quite impressed by several things at training:

  • The folks doing the training are well organized. Last night was their 25th training session this year; they're planning on about 60 in all.
  • All pollworkers are required to go through training this year, even if they've worked before, due to the change in equipment (described more below). Having said that, about half the people in the room last night were first-time workers like me.
  • The average age of the pollworkers was well below the widely-reported national median of 74. In fact, I'd guess it was two decades younger than that. There were a few people in their 30s; most looked to be in their 40s or 50s. That seems to be a good sign.
  • The county is providing 104% ballots - that is, 104% of the number of eligible voters. That should (hopefully!) ensure that we don't run out of ballots, even accounting for spoiled ballots.
  • If a voter spoils more than about 3 ballots, they are encouraged to switch to the DRE. That makes sense, as they're having trouble following the instructions.

Presidential elections in Virginia tend to have short ballots, since we elect state and local officials in odd-numbered years. So the ballot in Fairfax will have only four items: president/VP, US Senate, US House, and one bond issue. That's good, as the expectation is for very heavy turnout.

For the past 5 years, Fairfax has been a DRE-only county, except for absentee voters. This year, we're going to a hybrid voting system this year - Premier AccuVote-OS optical scan and AVS WinVote DREs. Voters are being encouraged to use the optical scan (we're to offer an optical scan ballot, and a voter has to explicitly request to use the DREs). Precincts in Fairfax vary greatly in size from about 500 voters to over 5000. Depending on the number of voters, there will be 1-3 AccuVote readers and 3-7 DREs, plus 3-15 "privacy booths" (cardboard box dividers) for use in marking the optical scan ballots, and 10 plain old clipboards for people who don't want to wait for a booth.

The training mentioned several times that turnout is expected to be very heavy all day long, and pollworkers should vote early at one of the central locations in the county (the polls are already open) or by absentee. I hope they're right - I get very frustrated by low turnouts, especially at important elections like this one.

There are only three critiques I have of the way the election is being run in Fairfax County.

  • The AccuVote readers are being set up to reject overvotes (selecting more candidates for a race than are allowed), although the voter can, with assistance from the chief, override that and cast a ballot anyway. However, they're not set up to even give a warning if someone undervotes - for example, forgetting to vote for Senate. Voters shouldn't have to vote for all races, but they should get a warning if the machine doesn't detect a vote. This isn't a fault of the machines; it's how they've been set up.
  • There's no minimum number of votes to be cast on DREs (the trainer thought I meant maximum and I had to explain why a minimum was also a concern). As I expect most people will select the optical scan, there's a risk that if there are only one or two votes cast per DRE, the end-of-day totals will reveal those voters choices. My preference would be to use the first DRE for the first five (or so) votes, then switch to the second, then to the third, etc., until all machines have at least five votes - and after that it doesn't matter which ones get used. [The pollworkers should have the discretion to note that there's almost no one voting on the DREs, and not to even use more than one or two if the load demands it.]
  • There was no training on inspecting or watching for physical security issues. Perhaps this is part of the chief/assistant chief training, but I expected to hear something about watching out for evidence of tampering with seals before, during, and after the election.

The county election officials seem to have come to the conclusion that at least one part of our arguments against DREs was right: they scale better. Even if they don't agree on the reliability & security issues, they now understand that more voters means more pencils, instead of more $5000 machines!

Virginia still has some serious election problems, including possibly the worst audit law in the country (it's generally speaking illegal to look at the paper ballots, except after all the election results have been certified, and then only if there's a margin of victory more than 10%), and a recount law that's almost as bad, but at least having the optical scan ballots is making it possible to do the audits and recounts if we can change the law in the future.

I'm looking forward to election day - sorry I won't be able to keep up on the minute-by-minute developments since I'll be working at the polls, but excited to be part of the process!

Watch for my post-election-day report on how things go...


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