My Day as an Election Clerk in Santa Clara County

Election official name tag

On election day for the last 4 years, I try to put aside my political preferences and my incessant blabbing about voting equipment, and I work as an election clerk at a polling station. In 2006, I worked as a precinct warden in Boston, and before that as an election clerk in Boston and Cambridge. I’ve been asked whether I get anything out of it, especially now that I’ve done it a few times, and the answer is a resounding YES. I find the act of voting exhilarating, and the ability to directly help someone cast their ballot particularly fulfilling. Also, I can’t imagine reasoning about election equipment and processes without the regular sanity check of actually being a poll worker.

Tuesday was my first time as a California poll worker. The big deal this year: touch-screen voting machines were recently de-certified by Secretary of State Debra Bowen after an in-depth security review performed in cooperation with UC Berkeley. There was no time to deploy an alternative, so voters cast paper ballots into a cardboard ballot box. Only at the end of the day were the ballots collected and scanned at a central county location.

Some thoughts, in no particular order.

Poll Worker Training in Santa Clara County is very good

I received 4 to 5 hours of material available in a particularly simple and well organized web-based training system. This was followed by a 90-minute in-person session where, instead of sitting through a boring lecture, we were split into 5-person groups led by an experienced instructor who went through every detail of the process, letting us handle every piece of equipment including the setup and shutdown of the one electronic voting machine each precinct retains for voters with disabilities. Only after the session were we given detailed manuals, so that we wouldn’t be distracted during the session. And the manuals are fantastic: they clearly outline everyone’s role, contain checklists for every major event, and include the crucial “What If” guide that details the step-by-step for every odd eventuality during the voting process. After my training, even with a process quite different from Boston’s, I felt quite comfortable and ready to be a poll worker.

There are always oddities in a voting process due to conflicting requirements. For example, each precinct retains one voting machine for voters with disabilities, but the poll worker cannot question a person’s disability claim, so anyone who asks to use the machine should be allowed to use the machine. However, if only one person votes on the voting machine, then there is an anonymity problem when that machine prints out a vote count at the end of the day. So, the law says that if one person votes on the machine, at least 5 people must vote on it…. but the Secretary of State says that no one should be forced to vote on the machine!

Fortunately, the poll worker training was very clear on how to address this annoying contradiction: at the beginning of the day, leave the voting machine folded up in a corner. If someone asks to vote on the machine, then open it up and display it prominently, so that other voters will be tempted to use it and the 5-person minimum will likely be fulfilled. You cannot tell voters what to do, but apparently you can make subliminal suggestions. Funny, but really, what other reconciliation is there to this problem?

So hats off to the folks who do training for Santa Clara County, I was quite impressed.

Secretary Bowen deserves much praise

Voting activists and academics often don’t realize how difficult it is to take away an electronic voting machine from a public that’s become accustomed to them. Voters were disappointed. Some complained that “things change every year!” and wondered “why are we going back to the stone age?” Poll workers moaned about “all of this paper” with good reason: ballots had to be stocked in multiple languages and, in this primary election, multiple party types. With 4 languages and 7 parties, that’s 28 ballot types. Counting left-over ballots at the end of the day was one heck of a party.

Plus, in a contested race like the current primary fights, there are bound to be problems, and there are bound to be dozens of ways of blaming those problems on the Secretary’s decision to go back to paper. With a record turnout and dozens of non-partisan voters opting to vote in the Democratic Primary, we ran out of Democratic paper ballots at 7pm, one hour before poll closing. Thanks to a prepared field officer, we were granted immediate permission to use sample ballots as a replacement, and to open up to the public the lone electronic voting machine supposedly reserved for voters with disabilities. Though it was a close call, everyone was able to cast a vote.

Interestingly enough, once voters had the option of using the electronic voting machine, a majority chose it over paper, except when the line was too long (a single voting machine can be quite a bottleneck). Only one voter specifically expressed his happiness about paper voting, declaring “I’m glad those stupid electronic voting machines are gone!”, eliciting confused looks from my fellow poll workers who seemed to think this guy was a nutcase.

De-certifying the electronic voting machines was the right decision given he reports commissioned by the Secretary, but it was a particularly difficult political decision. Secretary Bowen is to be praised for her courageous decision and her ability to pull together a temporary solution in under a year.

Damn You Vote-By-Mail!

California is pushing all of its residents to vote by mail. We were told in training to issue vote-by-mail registration cards to all voters who showed up at the precinct. We also received a massive sign to post at the polls informing voters that “voting by mail is more convenient and secure!” Most of us poll workers forgot to hand out the registration cards, and I wasn’t all that upset about it, given my strong dislike of vote-by-mail because of its coercion risk. But it’s quite clear that the Secretary of State is pushing this solution, and that a number of paper-ballot activists are endorsing this move since, hey, it’s by mail, so it’s paper, so it must be good…

I don’t know if we can ever reverse this trend. Voters were upset to “downgrade” to paper ballots from touchscreen voting machines. Imagine how difficult it would be to tell them that their “no-fault, permanent vote-by-mail status” is, well, no longer permanent and now requires a good reason. I wonder if Secretary Bowen, even given her courage and willingness to cooperate with academics, would be willing to go there. This is, by far, the issue that worries me the most about voting: bad voting machines can be fixed, poor voting processes can be tweaked, but voter expectations of vote-by-mail convenience are going to be impossible to fight.

To the Secretary’s credit, it’s understandable why vote-by-mail is appealing. Poll workers make mistakes, precincts change and voters show up to the wrong location saying “but I’ve always voted at the fire station!” Ballots are long and complicated, making in-precinct voting stressful and prone to uninformed decisions. Running a polling place like ours, with all of the logistics, coordination, and setup, is quite tedious and expensive for all of 288 votes (our count for the day.) One poll worker even remarked “I can’t wait until we can all vote from the privacy of our own homes.”

The problem, of course, is that voluntary privacy is vulnerable to coercion, and coerced elections are not democratic. I just wonder what it will take for folks to understand this and and whether it’s even possible anymore to convince voters of this need, especially when everything else in life is available online.

Ron Rivest’s concept of pre-voting may be the right solution here.

It’s not easy being an election officer

There is much to coordinate, and there is so much that can go wrong, all usually at the tail end of a 16-hour day. On-edge voters are easily ticked off, and it takes just a handful to report “election irregularities.” One voter wanted a sample ballot, but we could not find any in English (they were packaged such that only the voter registration forms on their backs were showing, so we assumed they were stacks of voter registration forms.) He immediately complained that we were “really disorganized!” In the confusion, I handed him a ballot for the wrong party. When, in the booth, he realized his candidate was not on the ballot, he returned, quite angry that I “had not listened to him.”

A number of voters that reached our precinct had visited one or two or sometimes three precincts before coming to ours: clearly the other precincts weren’t doing a very good job directing them, and I’m sure we made our share of mistakes directing voters to other precincts. Trying to find a voter’s street on an approximate map where different sides of one street vote in different precincts, all while 20 people are waiting in line, is a bit stressful.

So be nice to your poll worker. It’s not easy.

Complete the … what?

We used old-school optical scan ballots, where voters are expected to complete a broken arrow near the candidate of their choice.

Why is this so contrived? Because this is old technology. But yeah, a user interface nightmare.

Can we figure out the provisional ballot already?

The provisional ballot is a federal mandate that says that anyone who is not on the voting roster for any reason can ask to vote, and that vote will be counted when the voter’s identity is verified and all cast votes are reconciled. It’s the same thing everywhere, and yet no one seems to get it right. Just like in Boston 2 years ago, there was confusion in Santa Clara as to whether a provisional vote cast in the wrong precinct would count. I thought yes, two poll worker colleagues thought “no,” and the central office said “yes.”

In truth, the provisional ballot is a pain in the butt. It requires a good 2-3 minutes of time to set up, and while you’re doing that, the voting line is usually held up, especially in Santa Clara where, given the number of tasks required to check in a voter, there is a tight pipeline process that blocks easily. The county probably doesn’t like it, given the extra work required to reconcile provisional ballots with roster lists of people who voted in person and by mail, etc… So, while voters must have the right to vote provisionally, it’s a lot easier if we can find a way for them to vote normally. If a voter shows up to the wrong precinct, should she be sent to the right precinct or simply allowed to vote provisionally? Theoretically, it doesn’t matter, but practically speaking, it’s easier for the voter to vote provisionally, but it’s easier for voting officials to send the voter to the right precinct.

I think the provisional voting process needs to be significantly improved and clarified, but the conflicting interests here are going to make that difficult.

The Obama campaign was on the ball

At 3pm, we got a visit from two friendly college students. “We are with the Obama campaign, and we just wanted to ask you what you do if a non-partisan voter asks to vote Democratic.” I answered “we give them a Democratic ballot.” They smiled and said “Thanks, we were just checking, because we’ve heard reports that some precincts are forcing those voters to vote provisionally.” They thanked us for our work, and left. Two hours later, another Obama staffer came by to double-check. Obviously independent voters are crucial to Obama, and so is getting their vote counted right away in time for the news reports, not next week once nobody cares.

At 6:30pm, two more Obama staffers came by and asked “are you doing okay with ballots, we’ve heard reports that precincts are running low?” We checked, and no, we were fine. 5 minutes later, we got the mad evening rush, and by 7pm, we were out of ballots. But we were ready for it and checking, so we we were able to call our field officer and get instructions right away.

That’s pretty impressive. The Obama campaign not only kept track of issues, but dispatched folks to help election officials. Of course, this was all to their advantage, but their approach actually made our jobs easier.

Most people don’t understand security

One of my poll worker colleagues lectured me for 20 minutes on how the Secretary of State doesn’t know what she’s doing, because “the poll workers are always watching the voting machines,” and “you’d have to be a programmer with lots of time on your hands to hack into those machines,” and “since we’re always watching the machines, how can they ever do it?” It is amazing how, even with how unreliable computers are today, people seem to trust machines far more than people, even when machines are obviously entirely programmed by people.

Another poll worker remarked “I hear they’re worried about poll workers hacking the machine, but if you can’t trust your poll workers, the election is insecure anyways!” How interesting. Of course, an election is considered secure not because we trust all poll workers, but because we trust that there are enough poll workers and watchers to make sure no one is screwing around. The issue of a rogue poll worker with access to a machine for long enough to corrupt it is very real. In my precinct, three of the poll workers were related. Two brothers set up the voting machine. Now, they were extremely honest and I really don’t think they did anything to that machine. But they certainly could have had they been so inclined, and no one would have known the difference.

Security is tough to explain and tough to understand. The opinions of the poll workers shouldn’t really factor into security decisions, because, obviously, they’re not trained to understand security, and most human beings are simply not paranoid enough. During a spontaneous security discussion between two poll worker colleagues, one concluded with “wow, they really come up with some intricate schemes for cheating, don’t they?”

Yes, they do. The economic incentive to cheat and coerce is extremely high. Most people just don’t see it.

My suggestions for the future

Precinct Count — California has moved away from touch-screen voting machines, and I doubt they will bring them back anytime soon. But central-count optical scan is a bad solution. We need to move to precinct-count ASAP, so that voters can get instantaneous feedback on whether or not they filled out the ballot correctly. And we need a better optical scan user-interface, e.g. filling in a bubble.

On-Demand Ballot Printing — For multiple language support, I hope we move to on-demand ballot printing: just tell me your language and I’ll print you a ballot. Printers are cheap and fast, and replacing them in case of a breakdown is trivial. This would have to be coupled with good opscan technology of course, but all of this can be done well when a precinct needs only one scanner rather than 4 touchscreens.

Streamline the Process: in Boston, the precinct lead had the specific role of taking any “special case” out of the pipeline so that the voting flow could proceed. This wasn’t implemented well in Santa Clara: each provisional ballot, each voter from a different precinct, and generally any irregular situation caused a line pileup.

Cut Down on the Extraneous Signage: we had to put up literally dozens of informational signs. It seems that every year, someone decides we need to tell voters more stuff, so another sign is added to the list. Enough with more. We need a UI engineer to come in and think about the entire voting experience. Maybe everyone should get a copy of the voter’s bill of rights on a single sheet of paper with a URL. Certainly, everyone should get a simple explanation of how to fill out their ballot immediately as they walk in the door. But the experience right now is ridiculous: dozens of signs as you come into the precinct, and no one reads them.

Preliminary Voting: we should begin to implement Ron Rivest’s preliminary voting idea right away, at least in its simplest form. Let voters fill out a ballot on their home computer, print it out, and bring it with them to the polls to cast it. It would streamline the process, make for more informed decisions, all without weakening voter privacy.

Next, the November Presidential Elections….






6 responses to “My Day as an Election Clerk in Santa Clara County”

  1. joe Avatar

    some of the stuff above is probably miscredited to the SoS instead of the Santa Clara RoV. For example, urging vote-by-mail upon voters is no policy of the SoS and I haven’t heard other counties doing what you were required to do. Plus, PCOS or CCOS is specific to the locality (we had PCOS here in Alamdea). I wrote up my experience as well and it was nice to read yours again, but this time in Cali.

  2. joe Avatar

    some of the stuff above is probably miscredited to the SoS instead of the Santa Clara RoV. For example, urging vote-by-mail upon voters is no policy of the SoS and I haven’t heard other counties doing what you were required to do. Plus, PCOS or CCOS is specific to the locality (we had PCOS here in Alamdea). I wrote up my experience as well and it was nice to read yours again, but this time in Cali.

  3. ben Avatar

    Hey Joe, thanks for the input. I was told in training, though, that the vote-by-mail thing was a state-wide policy by the SOS. Could be wrong, but that’s what they said.

  4. ben Avatar

    Hey Joe, thanks for the input. I was told in training, though, that the vote-by-mail thing was a state-wide policy by the SOS. Could be wrong, but that’s what they said.

  5. joe Avatar

    Yeah, I work with a number of counties and no other did that. Thanks for volunteering… June will be even tougher as the R’s will allow crossover voting.

  6. joe Avatar

    Yeah, I work with a number of counties and no other did that. Thanks for volunteering… June will be even tougher as the R’s will allow crossover voting.

%d bloggers like this: