I spent Election Day as a Voter Advocate, a poll watcher on behalf of the party of my choice, intent on seeing that everyone who came to the polls in precinct where I was assigned was afforded the best opportunity to cast a ballot that would be counted.
Primed by reading the blogs and reports, trained by lawyers working pro bono to protect the right to vote, regardless of party preference -- well, I was ready for anything (I hoped).
From 5:15 am, when I arrived in the early morning darkness and chill, until 10 pm, when I hobbled out in the late evening chill and darkness, I witnessed the best of America in action -- the beating heart that keeps this democracy in a republic alive.
By 5:15, the precinct election officers and support crew were hard at work putting the polling place together, signs on the outside, tables and machines on the inside. The Chief Election Officer set the tone -- as apparently he has for the past 17 years including 5 Presidential elections -- ending with administering the oaths required of officers of election and a couple of election pages (a role I think the Chief invented, to get the new generation off to a good start.)
The Chief told his troops, "We leave our party affiliations outside the door," and, true to his intent, after nearly 17 hours in their company, I still have no idea who were the Republicans, the Democrats, or of any other affiliation. There was nothing visible in that set-apart space that hinted at bias -- just a single American flag and the mechanics of voting.
When the doors opened at 6 am, there was an orderly line of expectant voters winding through the parking lot; I couldn't see the end, and it was too cold to stay outside and try to count people, but I was glad to be the Inside Voter Advocate. The process began immediately in what suddenly seemed a very small venue.
The polling place had 5 touch-screen voting machines, of the sort I had voted absentee-in-person on a few weeks earlier and was inclined to distrust after reading incident reports and blogs, and two optical scanners which would receive paper ballots filled out at one of the 10 privacy stations where tabletop, chair, and pen were provided.
Compare voter + ID to poll book
Four election officers checked in the incoming voters (a total of about 3000 of the 5000 registered in the precinct) and their IDs to check against the poll book -- in this case, via 4 laptop computers with access to a precinct-wide database. If the voter and ID could not be verified with the information at hand, the voter was directed to a chair next to the Chief, who, throughout the day, was kept quite busy seeking every bit of information that might allow him to permit the voter to cast a regular ballot -- which sometimes entailed searching through the county registration database for the correct precinct for the voter or trying varied spellings of the voter's name in search of a match, or chasing down the Registrar of Elections, or waiting on hold while a distant clerk compared Social Security numbers. Failing that, he facilitated the voter casting a provisional ballot sealed into an envelope with the best honest reason for the Board of Elections to accept the contents. In all cases, he walked the voter through the process of filling out a voter registration form to correct the discrepancies that had led to problems. Very few voters were unable to cast either a regular or a provisional ballot.
If match, then offer choice of voting methods
In most cases, in short order, the voter was offered a choice of electronic ballot or paper ballot (touchscreen or optical scan, respectively) and handed an orange voting permit and sent to the end of the queue for the touchscreens or given a paper ballot in a manila folder and directed toward the privacy stations.
In my head, I kept hearing the inquiry as "paper or plastic?" In my frustration as observer more than participant, it was hard not to leap in and suggest changing the wording to "touchscreen or scanner?" when it became clear that most voters opted for "electronic" and ended up in a long queue, while those who chose "paper" were able to proceed directly to voting and having the ballot read into the optical scanner in a much shorter time. I wonder if the rejection "paper" reflected an assumption of hand counting rather than the immediate tabulation of the optical scanner, which then retained the paper ballot as an audit trail.
It's OK to change your mind
With the growing queue, time to see what was going on, and some gentle encouragement from election officials directing traffic in the tight space, quite a few voters returned to the check-in tables to trade the orange voting permit for a paper ballot in a folder.
The election officials reflected the marvelous diversity of American, as did the long line of voters throughout the day. The people working the check-in process greeted each arrival cordially and handled the difficulties matter-of-factly. Despite the cold and, for some, rather long waits, the incoming voters were polite, cheerful, and cooperative. Given the recent changes in voter ID requirements, the State reissued the Voter Identification Cards a few months ago and sent them to all currently-registered voters. Despite the admonition to officials that only 1 valid ID was required, the voters most often presented a driver's license (photo ID) and the fresh Voter ID card -- this certainly speeded the process.
I learned that the precinct has quite a few high-rise apartment complexes and a number of retirement communities; people of all ages, all economic conditions, all shapes, and all colors appeared, and none seemed out of place in the crowd. Families came with children, from infants in carriages to school kids with the day off and older student learning the gut-level workings of democracy. Several times, an election officer would appear at a chick-in station with up to a dozen IDs -- from a bus load of folks from a retirement community -- and go back out to the curb with the ID plus a paper ballot in folder for each of the disabled voters. Voters who needed assistance were usually accompanied by a friend or relative to help them through the process, including very new citizens in very old bodies. All were welcomed cordially and helped to complete their missions.
From my hours watching the sheer mass of people, all intent on performing the same important action for which they were willing to endure the hassle and the long queue in the cold, I saw the life of this country and the devotion of the people who continually create and maintain it, flowing through this voting process and being sent on their way.
Locking the doors
While many precincts in many places were dealing with long lines of people still waiting to vote when the official end of the day arrived, in this precinct there was no line waiting to check in and two voters taking their time finishing their selections. The place had been pretty quiet for the final half hour, finally averaging about 200 voters per hour for the day. The same stalwart crew that started the day at O-dark-thirty was still there to close it out. The entrance door was locked promptly at 7 pm, and shortly thereafter, the final two voters left, and the exit door was locked behind them. No one would be allowed to leave until all the counting (and most of the cleanup) was done.
I can say with confidence, having watched the procedure from beginning to end and being invited to inspect every critical step, that there was little chance outside of software within the machines that the results announced differed in any way from the ballots cast. We checked, rechecked, and cross-tabulated every count and calculation.
As I left, the election officers -- all 18 of them, I think -- were taking turns signing and sealing the boxes of ballots (including just 17 provisional ballots) and other physical output of the election, a fitting end to a job well done.
My highest praise is reserved for the Chief, who, by example and long years of setting standards, presided over a fair, honest, and heart-warming election. And I don't know even now whether he was a Republican, a Democrat, a Libertarian, or affiliated with any of the five parties with Presidential candidates in this State. And I think that's the way it should be.