The Nuts and Bolts of Voting

I said I was going to blog about my poll-worker experience, and it’s taken me a while, because I’ve been distracted with many other things since Tuesday, and nothing very exciting happened that gave me the urge to write about it. I’m tempted to just excerpt Trucie’s blurb and be done with. Still, it remains an experience worth sharing.

“Everyone should be a poll-worker at least once in their life,” Kenya exclaimed when I told him. He’d worked the polls twice before. “Well, we need to work on getting everyone to vote regularly, before we get to that.”
In Australia, you’re fined for NOT voting. In some places, they have three day voting weekends.

I got assigned to a precinct in Palo Alto. All these years I’ve driven from the 101 off-ramp up University Avenue to get to downtown Palo Alto, but that day was my first time in the residential neighborhood ‘behind’ University Avenue.

The houses were more like estates really. There’s an aura of ‘old money’ in that neighborhood. Not ‘old money’ in the East Coast sense of ‘before the Industrial Revolution’, but definitely those homes were million dollar homes when the term meant something, back when Bill Gates was probably in diapers. The polling place for this precinct was in the garage of one of those homes. The owner had just installed a new spray-on faux linoleum floor in the garage a couple of weeks before.

I was rather fortunate. The precinct inspector had been working this area for twelve years, and had her act together. She did a good job guiding us three other clerks, of which I was one of two newbies. She also lived nearby, and throughout the day she would chat with the voters who came in with whom she was acquainted, “She was my daughter’s third grade teacher”; or she knew most of them by face/name and would tell me asides. “That’s the grouchiest of the voters who comes into this polling place,” “That’s Steve Bono’s wife.”

We had to get there at 6 AM. (With the anticipatory nervousness and excitement at the assignment, I didn’t sleep too well, and was rather tired throughout the day. I didn’t get any coffee until 2 PM, and even then I was fading by the 5 PM home stretch. I got home at 9:30 PM and conked out. You’d think that sitting around in a garage all day wouldn’t be tiring, but I honestly can’t remember the last time I’d felt so exhausted.)

The polls opened at 7 AM. The 5 voting machines had been set up the night before, so the one hour prep time was for switching on the machines, calibrating them, and making sure they were working. We found one printer with a paper jam, so the field inspector was duly called to bring a replacement. A field inspector is in charge of several precincts, roving around to troubleshoot. Nowadays, all polling place precincts get a cell-phone, as integral to the supplies as the roster. I wonder what they did in the era of landlines?

The printers were being debuted in this June election in Santa Clara County, in response to concerns about the lack of a paper trail. In case of a recount, the Registrar staff can use it to double check. It’s a narrow self-contained box with a plastic window that shows the print-out of how you voted, so you can double check your choices before casting your ballot. The paper rolls back into itself like those rolls of hand towels you see in some public restrooms.
But no one can touch the paper, take it out or tear it off. After each voter is done, it tares itself , by winding the paper roll such that when the next voter comes, all they see is blank paper, and don’t know how the previous person voted. A necessary waste of paper to preserve privacy.

The printer and voting machines are sealed with tamper-proof stickers. Once you lift them up to open the on-switch, the watermark pattern appears. After you switch the on-switch on, another tamper-proof seal goes on to seal it again.

Why are 4 clerks needed for each voting place? For set-up and take down, a lot of the tasks require teams of two, i.e. the machines are heavy, or there needs to be two people to ensure prevention of fraud. Even though you get checklists with the supplies from the County, it’s a bit long and complicated, and with two people, you are less likely to miss a step.

During the actual time polls are open, three clerks sit at the table to process the voters. One looks up the voters’ name in the roster, in which the voter has to sign their name, as well as write in their street address. The roster lists the voters in that precinct by name, and party affiliation. That clerk is also in charge of keeping a tally of how many voters sign in, because that number will be matched up against the number of votes that the voting machines tally up at the close of polls. If they don’t match, they will have to manually counted, which takes a long time and is tedious.

The next clerk looks up a voter list that’s sorted by street address and crosses out their name on that list. There are three copies of this list, they are used for three 3-hour shifts: 7 AM – 11 AM; 11 AM – 2 PM and 2 PM-5 PM. They serve a nefarious legal requirement: anyone can come and look at the list to see who has voted. Political consultants/campaign workers are the only ones who might care: so they might look up the list and call up people to remind them to vote, because the list contains not only the voters’ names and addresses, but phone numbers and party affiliation! This vulnerability to privacy is alarming; and annoying. Our answering machine gets tons of pre-recorded messages in the days preceding the election.

I think I will re-register, and leave my phone number blank. That might foil them.

The third clerk gets to play with the card machine. Each voter gets a plastic card with a chip that they use to activate the touch-screen voting machine. Like a hotel card key, the voting card needs to be programmed for each user, which is what third clerk does.

In this case, because it was a primary, the cards were tailored to allow the voter to vote the Republican, Democrat or whatever party-affiliation slate that the voter had registered for. In primaries, voters are only allowed to vote for the candidates of their designated party, i.e. a registered Republican would not have been able to vote for Angelides or Westley. However, in the upcoming November general election, every voter gets the same slate of candidates to pick from, so a Republican could vote for Angelides instead of Arnold, etc.

Of course there are loophole wrinkles. If you happen to be registered as ‘decline to state’ for party affiliation, you were allowed the option of voting the Democrat, Republican or American Independant slate for this primary vote, but not Green, Libertarian or Peace and Freedom. It’s some deal that was worked out; that’s all I know. This posed a slight challenge for the card-machine clerk: how do you get the non-partisan voter to tell you what party he wants to vote for, without leading questions like “Do you want to vote Democrat, Republican or American Independent?” Because ‘Democrat’ is listed first, it could be construed that the polling clerk was trying to ‘influence’ the voter. We just ended up asking it that way, and no one gave us any hassle about it. In this neighborhood of well-heeled, well-educated Palo Altans, they knew we weren’t trying to do any funny business, just trying to do our job efficiently.

The one question that did irk some people was the Preferred Language survey. In Santa Clara County, voting materials are also available in Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese and Tagalog. The Registrar of Voters is on a request to cut costs by sending voting materials in only one language of choice to each registered voter. Previously, they might have looked at the names, and if it was a Vietnamese name, they would send both English and Vietnamese language materials. For those voters who had not previously selected a preferred language, we were supposed to ask them to fill out a postage-paid card to send back to the registrar to state their preferred language. English was the preferred language of 100% of the voters in this precinct, no surprise. But some of them felt almost insulted by the question. “I don’t see why there should materials in other languages, if you come to this country, you should learn English!”

“There are 1200 registered in this precinct, and half of them are absentee voters,” the poll inspector told me. “And since this was a primary election, it tends to draw fewer voters than the general election.” Turnout was expected at 30%. That said, we had 291 people show up to vote, plus at least 50 people who came by to drop off their absentee ballots. So while we had the expected morning rush and afternoon queues, it never got s-l-ow. There was always a steady stream of people. Joggers. People with dogs. Bicyclists. Retirees. Students home from college. Executives with cell phones. Ladies who lunch. One very nerdy guy who talked about some sci-fi TV show at length. A man who had a brain tumor came with his son, who tenderly helped him out. Many parents brought their kids with them, and allowed the youngsters to tap the touchscreens to let them participate. There were more Republicans than I expected, but I think they are slightly outnumbered by Democrats here.

The four of us would rotate jobs, for variety. The fourth person get to stand and trouble shoot, i.e. help the voters with machines, etc. During the brief lulls, when there were no voters, the young clerk who was being treated for cancer was trying to teach the older retiree clerk how to play sudoku, which I was also doing. The inspector was more into crossword puzzles. Interestingly enough, our group was all women.

We each took turns for a one-hour for lunch break, and a half-hour afternoon break. I drove to downtown Palo Alto for both.

You’re allowed to drop your absentee ballot at any voting place in the county, but if you drop it off on election day, there’s a good chance it won’t be counted, unless it’s a close call. People who come to drop off absentee ballots can skip the line, since they’re not included in the tally.

Like scuba diving class, the poll-worker training we took spent more time dealing with ‘exception’ situations. But there weren’t many exceptions, i.e. people who had misplaced their absentee ballot, and wanted to come in to vote in person, or people who had registered but somehow hadn’t made it onto the roster. It turns out that most of those cases were people who registered through the DMV, which apparently has not been very effective!

At 8 PM, the polls close, and we spend an hour dismantling everything and packing everything away according to the checklist. We were only off by one between the signature count and the machines, which we quickly found and corrected. The heaviest things we have to load into the poll inspector’s car are the printers. She and another clerk have to take them to central drop-off point. The voting machines which we have loaded onto the cart are left for Registrar staff to come pickup the following day.

So it wasn’t all that exciting, which is good, because it was well-run. I think one’s poll-working experience varies widely, depending on where and with whom you are posted. Truc’s experience at an Albertson’s with a flakey and clueless inspector was very different from mine. At least, she got to use her Vietnamese.

I think I’ll sign up to do it again though, not so much for the pay, which is pittance, but still appreciated. Rather it’s the feeling of helping out one’s community. Besides, hopefully I’d get posted somewhere different, and compare the voting experiences at other precincts.

One thought on “The Nuts and Bolts of Voting

  1. We also had a situation with the printer besides for the Activation card machine. One printer didn’t work and so we called for a new one. That definitely put a delay when the poll opened. The field inspector didn’t get there until half and hour to 45 minutes after we called for a new printer. Just our luck that day.
    Our place also had more of those provisional voters. One was because this one VN couple didn’t bring their absentee ballott and wanted to vote anyways.
    The others were that they were there already and didn’t want to trek over to their precinct so they voted provisional.
    Then there are 2 people who came in to vote cuz their precinct didn’t have a polling place and they didn’t know they had to do absentee.
    And there’s this one older gentleman who couldn’t find his polling place that he has been going to for the past umpteen years. He found us and decided that this was the best way for him to vote.
    Besides for the clueless precinct inspector that we got and a lower turn out than what you got, it was quite interesting to do this.
    I might just sign up to do this again but for half day next time.

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