I worked at my polling place for 14 straight hours on Tuesday. I
walked half a block to First United Methodist Church, the polling
location for Lancaster's 6th Ward, 1st Precinct, at 6:30 a.m. and left
at 9:30 p.m. I had a good time with the other poll workers—Bill from
state senator Gib Armstrong's staff, who was there to oppose the
Lancaster County Home Rule Charter; Charlie the Democratic Committee's
precinct captain; Roy, a gentleman of 67 who was there to support Bob
Barr and other Libertarian-minded third-party candidates; and Leslie
and Jessica who came from Millersville University to help
I was there to support a vote in favor of the Home Rule Charter.
I'm pleased to say that my neighbors came through—our precinct voted in
favor of the charter by 61% to 39%, and only 83 of 584 voters chose not
to vote on the question at all. Every voter was interesting, and I wish
I could remember and write about them all.
The most interesting stuff, however, happened after the polls
closed, when I took of my propaganda T-shirt and pin, stuck on my
official "Poll Watcher" sticker, and walked inside just before the
doors were locked, with my certificate from the county authorizing me
to be there.
First, a "voting abnormality" story from the afternoon. A
true patriot named Sarah, who is about my age and lives just down the
block from me on the other side of the street (I'd never met her
before), came to vote and found she was no longer in the signature book
for this voting location. She had voted there on the last four
elections, but somehow she had been purged from the rolls. The election
workers at our polling place made a good-faith effort to find out where
she was supposed to vote. They successfully helped at least a dozen
other people find their correct polling place throughout the day, but
not so with Sarah. She wound up going to three other polling places,
only to be sent back to our location an hour and a half later. The
judge of elections inside our location then instructed her to cast a
The certificate and sticker that allowed me to stay past closing.
The idea behind a provisional ballot is simple: you complete a regular ballot, then have it sealed inside a green envelope on
which is written your contact information and a description of the
problem. You and an elections official then sign the envelope. Later,
your provisional ballot is reviewed by the Board of Elections. They
determine if in fact the mistake was their own (it usually is), and if
so, they then include the provisionally-cast ballot in the final,
official vote count. They also correct the mistake for the next
election. (They don't tell you if they have counted your vote or not,
or if they have corrected the mistake or not. You either have to go to
all sorts of trouble to find out on your own, or just wait until the
next election and try your luck then.)
Here's what happened: Sarah filled out her provisional ballot, then
took it, along with the big green envelope, to the nearest election
worker inside the polling place. He didn't speak much English, was
generally excited and antsy (and an ardent Obama supporter), and had
never done the job before. He took the ballot from her and immediately
ran it through the ballot scanner. He thanked her and sent her outside.
When she walked out the door, we saw her still holding the big green
envelope and the legal-sized manila folder in which the ballots are
We realized something was wrong and tried to figure out what to
advise her to do. When we realized that her vote had been counted but
her name had not been written on the list of people who voted there, we
realized something had to be said, or else there would be trouble
reconciling the votes at the end of the night. (We were wrong about
that. It wouldn't have caused any problem or discrepancy to be noticed
at all. More on that in a second.) Charlie called his folks at the
Democratic headquarters. They couldn't find anything in the elections
laws or procedures covering the situation. So Charlie went back inside
with Sarah and explained the situation to the judge of elections. She
didn't know what to do, but took note of the problem and wrote detailed
notes to be included in her report to the Board of Elections at the end
of the night.
Let's jump back to 8 p.m., when the polls closed. Two of the
elections workers had to leave right away, though the judge of
elections had been counting on them to stay through the counting and
closing, leaving four people to do all the work.
They proceeded with the vote count in the prescribed order:
Only 35 of 565 voters at my polling place chose to vote via eSlate, which leaves no paper trail.
- Close the eSlate machine. Throughout the day, 35 people had used
the fully-electronic, touch-screen machine, which leaves no paper trail
of any sort. Their votes were processed: 14 had voted straight
Democratic and 1 had voted straight Republican; Obama registered 29
votes total, McCain 5, and Nader 1.
- Remove the paper ballots from the scanner machine, stack them
neatly, and put them in a big zippered canvas bag to be returned to the
Board of Elections.
- Open the absentee ballots that belonged to this precinct and scan
them. There were 21 absentee ballots. One of them wouldn't scan, even
though it only had a minor tear at the bottom, and even though the
scanner will accept a ballot oriented in any direction (and even though
they attempted a fix with Scotch tape). The one that wouldn't scan was
sent to the Board of Elections, but was never included in the count
that the polling place submitted in its election-night return.
- Close out the ballot scanning machine. Obama had 431 votes, McCain
105, Nader 4, and Bob Barr 4. Write-ins are counted and entered up to
one month later, mostly by hand.
Because I was concerned to make sure that the earlier situation with
Sarah's provisional ballot was handled properly, I was keeping close
tabs on the total vote count. Here is the raw data I wound up
- 565 names had been written in the book of voters who entered the
polling place. (When you sign your name in the signature book, an
election worker writes your name on a numbered list.)
- 555 paper ballots had been used that day. 13 of those were
"spoiled"—i.e., someone messed up and needed to start over. (The
"spoiled" ballots were collected, put in a sealed envelope, and
returned to the Board of Elections.) The polling venue had started the
day with 1,120 paper ballots. They had 565 left over. (That, at least,
- 35 voters had voted via the eSlate.
- 1 voter (Sarah) had her paper ballot scanned but did not have her name recorded on the list of voters.
- 21 absentee ballots had been received. 20 of those had been
scanned; 1 was unable to be scanned. (None of them had been checked
against the list of people who voted, to double-check that no one cast
an absentee ballot and then wound up attempting to vote in person.)
- 548 ballots had been counted by the scanning machine.
- 17 provisional ballots had been (properly) cast and were waiting in green envelopes to be sent to the Board of Elections.
Here then, is the problem:
565 voters had come through the door and had their names written down on the list of people who voted
+1 voter's ballot was counted but her name did not appear on that list
+21 voters' absentee ballots had submitted
Compare that to this:
548 ballots were counted by the scanning machine
+1 ballot (absentee) would not scan
+35 ballots were cast electronically (via the eSlate)
=584 ballots counted.
Oops. Our polling place records showed 587
legitimate voters (they appeared in the signature book and thus were
allowed to vote at this precinct). Our polling place records showed 584
ballots had been counted.
This concerned the judge of elections when I was able to spell it
out clearly and simply. She asked to keep the piece of paper on which I
had written the (above) simple arithmetic with notes, and she included
those in her report. But, she said, "that always happens every time."
There are possible explanations.
- Someone could have come through the door, signed the signature
page, had his or her name written on the list of voters, and then
decided it wasn't worth waiting in line any more and left without
actually casting a ballot. That's unlikely, though, because they would
likely have made that decision after having been handed a paper ballot,
and all the paper ballots were accounted for. (No one walked out the
door with a ballot, in other words.) With only 35 people using the
eSlate, there was never a line for people who weren't using paper ballots.
- An election worker could have written down someone's name on the
list of voters, only to discover that (oops!) that person wasn't in the
signature book and needed to cast a provisional ballot instead. (And
then didn't do anything about the mistake.) This, too, is unlikely. One
of the election workers remaining at the end of the day had been at the
"registration" table all day, where they check voters' names against
the signature book and write down their names on the list. She had no
recollection of any mishap like the one I suggest was possible. Also,
for much of the day a poll watcher from the Democratic Committee was
there checking names against her own list, serving as a sort of
watchdog. Further, the person writing down people's names refers to the
signature book for the proper spelling of the name. If it's not there
in the signature book, it's unlikely it would be written down on the
What happened to those three voters, their three ballots?
I registered my concern and the judge of elections duly noted it,
even as she said that such abnormalities are the norm. I had no desire
to make a stink, only to do what I considered my duty as a poll watcher.
Instant runoff ballots are surprisingly straightforward.
We live in a democracy, the world's first and
longest-standing. If there is one thing we should get all but perfect,
it is voting. We obviously don't. The means of voting we use
are grossly inconsistent between locales. We use electronic machines
that can be tampered with and that leave no paper trail, verifiable or
otherwise. (State representative Mike Sturla told me and my fellow poll
workers of a reported tampering method: At the beginning of the day,
the machines are checked to make sure that they have "zero" votes.
McCain having -10 votes and Obama having +10 votes equals zero, and
counts as zero. Diebold has claimed that they have corrected the error that allows that to happen, but even if that is true, what have they not caught or accounted for?) Perhaps worst of all, we staff the polling
places with honorable and noble citizens who unfortunately are
under-trained and unable to stay a full day to ensure consistency. They
are responsible for making calculations and following strict (but often
obscure) procedures at the end of a tiring 14- or 15-hour shift. We
have yet to adopt worthwhile advances in modern-day voting such as instant-runoff voting, which would allow people to vote based on their conscience rather than based on political strategy.
I am troubled by all of this, but at the moment not all that deeply,
and I have no plans to take any real action on these problems any time
soon. Should I be more troubled? Should we be doing something more?
P.S. Be sure to check out the detailed initial returns from Tuesday for Lancaster County.