Wednesday, November 05, 2008

My first day as a pollworker

Like many Americans, I had a long day yesterday - I'm a pollworker in Fairfax County Virginia. I started my day at 415am (haven't gotten up that early in a while!) so I could be at my polling place by 500am to start setting up. (I'm jealous of Avi Rubin whose polling place didn't open until 700am, so he got to sleep later!) By the time I arrived, there were already 10 people in line - even though polls didn't open until 600am.

Virginia is a hodge-podge when it comes to voting equipment. Each city or county (they're different in Virginia) can choose their equipment from a list approved by the state - and they make many different choices. Fairfax County uses a hybrid system: Diebold optical scanners and AVS WinVote touchscreen DREs. The WinVote machines have been used for the past few years and voters are familiar with them; the optical scan is new this year thanks to a bill I helped write and pass a couple years ago.

Once we got the machines set up, the doors opened right on time. I heard (but didn't see) that by the time polls opened, the line went out the door of the school where our polling place was held, and down the street a couple hundred feet. What I know is that the line was non-stop from 600am until about 830am - after which we never had more than a handful of people in line for the rest of the day.

When voters came in, they went to one of two desks (A-L and M-Z) by last name (yes, some voters asked if it was by first or last name). This turned out to be our bottleneck - thanks to the optical scan machine and the privacy booths described below, we could have completely eliminated lines if we had been able to divide our pollbook into three or four groups, but Virginia law doesn't allow us to do that. Given what I've read in other places, I think I'm happy we didn't have electronic pollbooks.

In our training, the county election officials had told us we were to give voters the optical scan ballot in a folder with instructions on how to fill it out. If the voter explicitly asked for a DRE, we were to allow them to choose that, but we were not to offer that choice. Some of the pollworkers in my precinct, including the chief, seemed to disagree with that guidance and either suggested the DRE, or asked voters their preference. (Later on in the day the deputy chief noticed this aberration from the policy, and instructed everyone what to do. I heard from friends working in other polling places that they similarly had problems with giving instructions.)

Most voters were fine with the optical scan, and a few expressed a strong preference for it. Some expressed a strong preference for the DREs - mostly older voters, to my surprise. Why is that? Is it familiarity from the past few elections?

One of the frustrating parts about this "choice" was that we weren't allowed to tell voters why they should choose one or the other - we couldn't say "the DREs are inaccurate and unauditable" or "it saves money" anything like that. (In fact, during the training, the instructors didn't even know why the change was being made, other than the law told them to.) One of the great things about optical scan is that when the line gets long, you get more pens - unlike DREs, where when the line gets long, you're out of luck. But I couldn't say that either.

Back to the story, we had seven "privacy booths" (basically stand-up cardboard boxes where you can mark your ballot) and three "privacy desktops" (cardboard boxes that sit on a table) for use by voters while coloring their optical scan ovals. During the morning rush, and several other times during the day, we had all 10 of them in use, and sometimes the three DREs were in use also. To do that with all DREs would have taken at least a dozen, at a cost of $3000 each (vs. $5000 for a single optical scanner). So I figure we saved the taxpayers at least $30,000 in my precinct alone (that's before counting the cost of the optical scan ballots, but those are relatively cheap).

Virginia law says you can have no more than 750 registered voters per DRE (if you're using DREs). My precinct, which has just under 2000 registered voters, could therefore have had as few as three DREs, if we weren't using optical scan. If we had three DREs, instead of 10 cardboard boxes plus three DREs, the lines would have been hours long, and might well have lasted all day - the line which started at 600am might well have had voters waiting six hours or more.

By about 1100am, over 50% of registered voters had cast their ballots (including absentees). That meant the remaining 8 hours were slow - there just weren't that many voters left. There was no last minute rush with people running in to cast their ballot just before the doors closed at 700pm - in fact, our last voter came in about 5 minutes before closing. When we closed the polls, just over 80% of registered voters had cast ballots - consistent with the rest of the county.

Then came the long process of closing out the machines, packing everything up, accounting for every piece of paper, reconciling totals, etc. (There was one mistake which initially caused us to think we had one more votes than voters - until we discovered by careful review that in the pollbooks, someone had marked two different people as the 59th voter of the day. Mystery solved.) We didn’t finish until 930pm. Then I went home and watched election results.

For working from 500am to 930pm, I earned $100. (Plus I had to take training, which is unpaid.) Definitely not a way to get rich.

Some lessons learned and other notes:

When I went to pollworker training, I had to present an ID. But when I showed up to work as a pollworker, no one asked to see my ID. This is similar to the TSA "identity triangle" problem - the TSA matches your ID against your boarding pass, and the airline makes sure you have a valid boarding pass, but no one checks that the two are the same, which allows for subverting the system. If someone knew that I was a pollworker in my precinct, they could show up at 500am and claim to be me - and get access to things like the key that authorizes casting multiple votes on a machine. Of course, if the real person showed up, that would make things sticky - but in the meantime, it highlights a low-risk vulnerability in the system.

The most novel way to cast a ballot incorrectly was a voter who after marking his ballot, slipped it in between the base and side of the cardboard privacy booth (so it fell to the floor underneath the box). Luckily, I realized this as he started to walk out the door without scanning his ballot (I was standing at the scanner at that point helping voters), so I retrieved his ballot and got it scanned in.

At the close of the night, I noticed that the presidential breakdown was roughly 55%/45% for Obama on the optical scan machine vs. 50%/50% on the DRE. Friends in other precincts noticed similar discrepancies. Why is that? Are people who like DREs more likely to vote Republican? I don't think it's just coincidence, given the wide difference and the consistency across precincts.

Localities in Virginia that use DREs only learned the hard way that the lines just get too long, since you can't just go out and buy more when lots of voters show up. Perhaps instead of arguing against DREs on the basis of security or reliability, we should argue on the basis of line length - that's something everyone can understand!

And finally: several voters came up to me and other pollworkers during the day and thanked us for being there. While it didn't make me any less tired, it sure was nice to feel appreciated!


Blogger Aaron said...

I had pretty much the same experience at the precinct where I served. I also thought that at training we were told to offer the paper ballot, and only send people to the DRE if they asked for it (it was plainly visible). However, one of the party poll watchers complained about this after the morning rush, so our chief told the people handing out paper ballots to offer the choice up front, at which point more people chose DRE than paper (I think because they were more familiar with the DRE and were not aware of any problems with it.) But if we hadn't had voters use predominantly paper ballots to begin with, it would've taken much longer to clear the morning rush.

I was not asked for identification when I showed up at the polls to work, though I had worked with this chief before (but he didn't ask me for id the first time, either). However, to impersonate someone, you probably have to know that they aren't going to show up, otherwise you get two people claiming to be the same person. Once there, there is very little to stop an insider from acting maliciously during the time the polls are open, as pollworkers usually only keep loose track of each other. However, to go unnoticed, the attacker would have to do something that didn't get caught by all the cross-checks at the end of the day (e.g., comparing number of paper ballots used to number counted by the optical scanner.)

4:05 PM  

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