Tuesday, November 07, 2006

My Day at the Polls - Maryland General Election 2006

I woke up at 4:30 this morning, although the alarm was set for 5:15. I guess I had a lot of adrenalin pumping about the election. Would it be a total meltdown? Would the e-poll books work? Would the voting machines boot up playing cartoon videos on the screen, or would they appear to work fine? Last night, I went into the precinct after work to help set up the voting machines. We spent about an hour and a half figuring out the best way to configure them and the best way to process the voters, assuming we had long lines like we did in the primary. That saved us a lot of time, and I believe is the only reason we were able to open the polls on time this morning. But, I think that getting started the night before is what triggered the adrenalin rush that caused me to get so little sleep. I am pretty certain that the machines stayed in the synagogue great room unattended overnight.

For the most part things went fine in our precinct. Turnout was extremely high, and we had long lines at times, but I don't believe anybody left without voting due to that. We averted several problems that could have been serious due to the diligence and foresight of our excellent chief judges and the rest of the poll workers. For example, one of our chief judges discovered during the day that we were short two tamper tape seals, which would have caused us to be unable to properly seal two of the voting machines when we closed the polls. She discovered this because she was checking and double checking everything throughout the day. She placed a call to the board of elections, and they sent us the missing tamper seals. Here's another example: When voters check in, there is a voter authority card printed that has the voter's name and party affiliation on it, and which the voters sign. This paper is then put in an envelope on the machine that the voter uses. We we running out of paper, and when one of the printers could not print anymore, we shut down that poll book temporarily, and one of our judges rushed off to another precinct to get some paper for the e-poll book printer. Then, we were able to reopen that e-poll book. We laughed when we discovered 4 extra rolls of paper in one of our boxes at the end of the election. We had just missed them earlier.

The judge who went to the other precinct to get the paper reported that the other precinct had only two voting machines there, and that one of them had died after around 75 votes had been cast on it. That machine was taken out of service and sent to the nearby town of Towson, where presumably the internal flash of the machine would be used to recover those votes. Meanwhile, another voting machine was supposed to be delivered to replace it. I never found out if that happened.

In the early goings, about the most dramatic thing that happened in our precinct was that a woman thought she dropped her hearing aid into one of the machines and insisted that we take it apart to try to recover it. Luckily, it was found nearby on the floor. As to our technical support, once again, as in the primary, our technician was a representative from Diebold who had been hired the day before, and who was servicing three precincts. I saw her from time to time during the day, but as far as I could tell, she really did not have much to do. She was not allowed to touch the machines.

I was impressed with the performance of the e-poll books that failed so miserably in our primary. In our precinct, they worked flawlessly. I observed them very carefully. One test I did was when a couple split up and the husband checked in on my e-poll book, while his wife checked in on the one at another table. The instant that the wife was checked in, she appeared as having voted on my e-poll book. I repeated this test several times. We ran three e-poll books, and I watched them in many different situations throughout the day, and I did not find a single problem. In fact, as a poll worker, I can say that they were quite handy, especially when people came in who were in the wrong precinct, and we were able to tell them where to go because we had the whole state's database on each e-poll book. I still feel that I would prefer a paper card check in system because of fear of how stuck we would be if the power went out, or if the machines failed in an unexpected way. But, with a simple augmentation to our procedures, I would be happy to use these poll books. The modification I would make would be for the check in judges to also have a printed booklet of all the registered voters, sorted in alphabetical order. It would only have to have names, and say, birth dates (to make duplicates unlikely). The judges would have to place a check mark next to each voter's name as they voted. Thus, if the e-poll books worked fine, the burden would be rather small. If they failed in the middle of the election, we would have 3 booklets with sorted lists of who had voted, and we could continue checking in voters with the booklets, making sure nobody checked in more than once. It would be enough of a backup system to make me happy, and under those circumstances, I would support using the e-poll books. (The privacy issues about whether it is a good idea to have so many electronic copies of this database out there is another story. It's important, but I will not address it here because I'm exhausted, and I have a lot of other things to say about our election today.)

I was on a media black out while at the polls, and I just returned home a few minutes ago, so I have no idea what happened in the rest of the country, or in the rest of Maryland today. I can say that in my precinct we only had one serious event with the Diebold voting machines. It happened after we had already closed the polls, and the last few voters who were in line when we closed the doors at 8 pm were voting. This occurrence underscored my biggest concerns and fears about these machines. Before I describe this problem, let me talk about one aspect of my day at the polls. After the primary in September, I wrote a blog entry like this one about my day at the polls. Many of my fellow judges that day eventually read that blog entry, and between that day and today, I have been in the local media in Baltimore quite a bit, appearing on radio shows almost daily, and several times on many days, and appearing on local television a few times a week. By the time our election came around today, my position on e-voting was pretty well known to my fellow judges and to many of the voters who came into the precinct today. As a result, several of the other judges, and quite a few voters commented to me that they were going to read my blog entry tonight; it was a given that I would blog about it. Knowing that I was going to write this, and that many people were going to read it, made people pretty careful to include me in every discussion about issues that came up, and to make sure every single aspect of our election was by the book, which I don't think is the way the majority of precincts are run, based on emails I've received from many election judges in other precincts after the last several elections.

So, while we were watching the last handful of voters cast their ballots (oops, I should say "touch their candidates names on a screen" because we don't use ballots in Maryland, except for absentee and provisional), one of the chief judges came up to me and said that there was a "situation". I was called over where a voter was explaining to one of the judges what had happened, and he repeated his story to me. The voter had made his selections and pressed the "cast ballot" button on the machine. The machine spit out his smartcard, as it is supposed to do, but his summary screen remained, and it did not appear that his vote had been cast. So, he pushed the smartcard back in, and it came out saying that he had already voted. But, he was still in the screen that showed he was in the process of voting. The voter then pressed the "cast ballot" again, and an error message appeared on the screen that said that he needs to call a judge for assistance. The voter was very patient, but was clearly taking this very seriously, as one would expect. After discussing the details about what happened with him very carefully, I believed that there was a glitch with his machine, and that it was in an unexpected state after it spit out the smartcard. The question we had to figure out was whether or not his vote had been recorded. The machine said that there had been 145 votes cast. So, I suggested that we count the voter authority cards in the envelope attached to the machine. Since we were grouping them into bundles of 25 throughout the day, that was pretty easy, and we found that there were 146 authority cards. So, this meant that either his vote had not been counted, or that the count was off for some other reason. Considering that the count on that machine had been perfect all day, I thought that the most likely thing is that this glitch had caused his vote not to count. Unfortunately, because while this was going on, all the other voters had left, other election judges had taken down and put away the e-poll books, and we had no way to encode a smartcard for him. We were left with the possibility of having the voter vote on a provisional ballot, which is what he did. He was gracious, and understood our predicament.

The thing is, that I don't know for sure now if this voter's vote will be counted once or twice (or not at all if the board of election rejects his provisional ballot). In fact, the purpose of counting the voter authority cards is to check the counts on the machines hourly. What we had done was to use the number of cards to conclude something about whether a particular voter had voted, and that is not information that these cards can provide. Unfortunately, I believe there are an unimaginable number of problems that could crop up with these machines where we would not know for sure if a voter's vote had been recorded, and the machines provide no way to check on such questions. If we had paper ballots that were counted by optical scanners, this kind of situation could never occur.

Some conclusions now before I go off to bed. I believe that with proper care, diligent following of procedures, and no unexpected computer or power glitches, there is the possibility that an election in Maryland can run smoothly in a given precinct. We will never know if the results produced by the machines are an accurate tally of the votes that were cast. Did we get it right today in my precinct? It's very possible. The results were consistent with the expected outcome based on our demographics. The only surprise was that Republican Governor Ehrlich beat out Democratic Mayor O'Malley in the governor's race by about 14% of the vote. This was surprising because our precinct voted 2-1 or more for Democrats in all other races, and the precinct is known for having that ratio. Still, I think that the governor's race results are not unrealistic given conversations I've had with democrats who were going to vote for him. But here's the rub. We cannot audit our election. We cannot perform a recount. We cannot see how the votes were really counted. We had election observers in our precinct, and they had nothing to observe, except to write down the final tallies when the outcome was computed.

So, the election is finally over. In the morning, we'll probably have many results across the country and some places where the races are too close to call. In Maryland there are still over 180,000 absentee ballots that need to be counted. All around America, poll workers such as myself are going to sleep now, exhausted after working at least 16 hours as volunteers, putting in this day so that we can continue to enjoy the benefits of democracy. Now its time for partisans to put aside their differences and to figure out how to design better voting systems that can be independently audited, that are not too vulnerable to failures and human error, and that are completely transparent to voters in every way. In Maryland, the pendulum has swung far away from such systems, and I am hopeful and optimistic that we will switch to a precinct-count optical scan paper ballot system with random spot audits before the elections in 2008.