Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Capitol of Democracy

On the day that Fidel Castro resigned and we're focused on bringing Democracy to Cuba, it's good to know that we've got it under control here at home. Check out this day in the life of an election worker from the Electionline.org newsletter.

A Ballot-Less Nightmare in the District
No fuzzy math: High turnout + not enough ballots = election-day chaos

By Dan Seligson

WASHINGTON, D.C.- During the past seven years as an journalist covering election reform and as an election administration analyst for both Stateline.org and electionline.org, I drove around on election day looking for trouble. Which polls had long lines? Where were voters having problems casting ballots? What precincts were drawing the other reporters, campaign volunteers and poll watchers?

On Tuesday, I didn't have to go far.

It was my own polling place, a short walk from my house in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood in the northwest section of the District of Columbia. And I was the touch-screen ballot clerk.

As my precinct descended into chaos during the evening rush, and as I scrambled to activate voter cards, help people navigate the touch-screen machine and explain why the system required three separate verifications before casting the ballot, I caught myself thinking: damn, this is the place that was always out there on election day and I always wanted to find.

Then I thought - I really want to get out of here.

It was my third stint as a poll worker, which I consider not only a community service, but an essential component of my understanding of the election process.

My first was a 2006 mayoral primary. It attracted a huge turnout, as primaries usually do, since the winner among the Democrats is assured victory in this basically one-party town.

I served as a precinct technician in that election, responsible for the functioning of both the optical-scan and direct-recording electronic (DRE), or touch-screen voting machine. Both are offered in the District; however, the vast majority of voters opt for the paper-based optical-scan system.

The second, a 2007 special election to fill a school board seat, had a miniscule turnout. We averaged only a few voters an hour, and fewer than 100 for the entire day.

Neither one prepared me for Tuesday's primary.

A brief summation - we ran out of ballots three times. Voters waited well over an hour during the evening rush to cast ballots on a DRE voting system without voter-verified paper trails many said they had strong objections to using. Some voters might have cast two ballots. The provisional voting system was cumbersome and confusing. The DRE audio output confused the only voter of the day who needed it. The Spanish-language ballot wasn't programmed in Spanish.

But on to the specifics:

One of the first voters of the day, a neighbor who serves on my community's condominium board of directors, asked me why she had two ballots. "Is one for practice," she asked. I took one of them and apologized for the error. Then another voter asked the same question. Apparently, the first batch was sticking together, or else the paper ballot clerks just weren't noticing. Either way, I hope we followed the "one person, one vote" rule, but I wouldn't stake my life on it.

By late morning, 500 voters, the vast majority of whom were Democrats, had cast ballots. It became clear we were about to run out. The District's Board of Elections delivered another packet.

A Spanish-language ballot on the direct-recording electronic machine was less than half programmed. A voter who chose the Spanish language option saw the election name, "presidential preference primary" and the date in Spanish. However, all other controls on the DRE, "next," "review," "previous" and "touch here to cast ballot" were in English, causing confusion among a number of voters, including one who accused me of telling her she "made a mistake" when I told her the review button was used if she wanted to make any changes or corrections on her choices.

The three separate verification screens - one to review the choices, the second to cast the ballot and the third which asks if voters are sure they want to cast the ballot -- confused some and annoyed just about everyone else.

The instructions for visually-impaired voters confused the one man who used the audio system. When I listened along to see if I could offer assistance, I heard the slow-talking male voice instruct me to "touch the yellow triangle." I wondered aloud whether District officials and Sequoia technicians realized that people who can't see also can't see colors.

Instructions on casting provisional ballots on the DRE (a necessity once we ran out of paper ballots) were exceedingly difficult to follow. The precinct captain had to call the headquarters for step-by-step instructions at least three times during the day. During that time, all of the voters in the precinct lined up to use the DRE had to wait, as the precinct's only card activator, was tied up.

We ran out of ballots again in the mid-afternoon. This time, the city delivered another small batch, but said "this would be the last time," sounding somewhat punitive. (I guess we should have discouraged people from voting?)

As we started to run low on ballots, a voter came over after making a mistake marking her choice. Another ballot clerk, who was growing concerned over the dwindling pile of ballots, admonished the voter for "not paying attention."

Just before 6 p.m., at the height of the evening rush, we ran out of Democratic ballots for the last time. Voters started lining up behind the one method alternative for voting - using the DRE machine. About every third voter expressed concern that the machine would not count their vote. Comments reviews ranged from "cool" to "evil." As the touch-screen clerk, I was the gatekeeper, and when tempers started to flare, they tended to flare in my direction. At the worst of the line, voters waited approximately 90 minutes to cast a ballot - after waiting 15-20 minutes to check in.

Throughout the day, we were short on the blue index cards (for Democrats) that are handed to ballot clerks to make sure the number of voters who check in does not exceed the number of ballots cast. We resorted to using scraps of paper. At the end of the day, when we performed our counts, the scraps of paper were either bundled together with the index cards or rewritten if we had the time to do it. If the election is audited, good luck to the examiners working their way through the scraps and ripped white paper that is supposed to represent each Democratic Party voter.

D.C. delivered more ballots around 7:20 p.m., giving the much-preferred option of paper to Democratic voters again. The lines dissipated in about 20 more minutes, and by 8 p.m., we were ready to close on time.

The District closes registration rolls nearly one month before elections. Voters and poll workers alike marveled at the Board of Election's miscalculation of ballot distribution. The media, the voters and poll workers all knew a competitive primary in a politically active city with an overwhelming number of Democrats would draw a huge turnout. Yet, we ran out of ballots three times, while the same happened elsewhere in the city. Whatever formula was used to allocate ballots for the primary has to be reconsidered. It was an utter failure on Tuesday.

The District's closed primary - in which only registered party members can cast ballots in the election - left many confused and more than a few disappointed. A few Republicans said they wanted to vote for Sen. Barack Obama (D). Statehood/Green Party members said they weren't expecting the ballot that they received and independents wanted to be able to vote at all.

While the District has no requirement for voter identification, the vast majority of voters presented their drivers' licenses or voter registration cards twice without being asked; once when checking in and again to receive their ballot.

Throughout the day there were a few bright spots.

Our precinct captain, Mary, was absolutely unflappable. As chaos raged around her, she remained competent, attentive and in control. Her steadiness anchored the rest of us as things got ugly. In the District, precinct captains have an incredible array of responsibilities, from setting up polling places to organizing registration lists, signage and ballots at the end of the day. They troubleshoot, fill in for workers eating lunch and communicate with unhappy voters. Mary handled them all.

When things were calm, the sense of community in the precinct was overwhelming.

While some voters were understandably upset at the long lines, most said they were pleased to see the high level of interest. Some first-time voters said they really enjoyed the experience - even though many said they were disappointed they wouldn't get to use paper ballots.

The results produced a clear winner in my precinct and in the rest of the city, so it seems unlikely that all of the problems we experienced will amount to much. In my experience, that's usually the case. A large margin of victory overshadows even the messiest election. But this was one of the messiest I can recall.

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