Tuesday, November 04, 2008

My day at the polls

This morning, I woke up at 4:08 a.m., and I could not fall back asleep. I was charged with adrenalin. It was Election Day again. And what an election; without a doubt the most hyped-up super-charged election in my entire life. I stayed in bed until about 4:45 and got ready to head out for a long, long day at the polls. I left the house at 5:40 a.m. and arrived at my precinct a few minutes later. About half of the election judges were already there, and I got busy helping to set up our precinct so that we could open on time at 7:00.

In Maryland, we use paperless Diebold DRE voting machines. The same ones that we analyzed in our report in 2003 and that were analyzed in several follow-up reports, all of which found serious security problems. The machines are set up in a daisy chain fashion, where one of them is plugged into the wall, and then each one plugs into the one next to it. I noticed that the judges had set up 9 of our 16 machines in a line, such that voters would have to walk all the way around to get to the middle ones. So, I broke them up into a group of 4 and a group of 5, with a passage in between them. This provided much better access for voters. I had plenty of discretion in setting up our precinct, as one of the chief judges was the same as in the last election, and she told me to make any decisions I wanted and to do whatever I thought was best. We worked very well together last time, and she and the other judges deferred to me whenever there was an issue - and there were several. I made several changes to the way our precinct was set up. Numerous times, I was called away by the person who was provided by the county as the technical person to help. It didn't take long before everybody, including the two chief judges, called me away from whatever I was doing, whenever we had a real problem.

I wondered what happened in other precincts that did not have someone who was very experienced with the machines and as a poll worker. This was my sixth election working as a judge with these voting machines. I attended a half a dozen training sessions, and my research team wrote a paper about the machines. Some of the problems I had to deal with related to human factors, and others were purely technical. Let me summarize some of the problems we had in my precinct today.

One of our voting machines was dead. The first thing I noticed was that it didn't boot correctly. It said "No Election Loaded" or something like that. This did not seem good. I noticed that the battery was at 0%, and I realized that this machine was probably shipped to us with an empty battery, so whatever information was loaded onto it about our election had been erased. We called the board of election, and they sent a technician out, but he was unable to do anything about it. However, we had 16 machines, and in the previous election we had only had 12 and we had managed. I was a bit concerned because the turnout was expected to be much higher. The thought crossed my mind about what would have happened if all the machines had arrived in that condition. We had 125 provisional ballots, no emergency backup ballots, 3,091 registered voters, and 2,080 voters showed up. It would have been a total disaster.

We had several other glitches with the machines, which I consider to be minor. Some of the machines have housings that are starting to wear. On one of them the screen had broken off the rest of the machine and was barely hanging together by some wires. On another one of the machines there was a gap next to the section where the smartcard is supposed to be inserted, and a couple of voters inserted their cards into the gap. The final one got it stuck so badly that we were unable to remove it and we had to issue him a different card. My overall impression is that these machines are showing the wear and tear of several election cycles, and that they will require some pretty serious maintenance and upkeep if they are to be used again. Thankfully, Maryland plans to switch to optically scanned paper ballots in 2010. (However, at the moment, there is a possibility that Maryland will not be able to fund this change, and that it will fall through. I believe it would be more expensive to fix up the current systems and to maintain them than what it would cost to switch to op scan.)

We were also missing a cable needed to hook up one of the electronic poll books. The e-poll books are used to check voters in. They contain a copy of the voter registration database. We were able to hook up the other three e-poll books, and they worked fine. However, about an hour and a half into the election, we realized that the ethernet hub that was connecting the e-poll books to each other was not working, and we found that it had become unplugged. This means that for some non-trivial amount of time, our e-poll books were not synchronized, meaning that people could have theoretically signed in and voted several times. During that busy time, there is no way we would have noticed that. Once we realized this and fixed the problem, the e-poll books synchronized. I felt pretty stupid because I should have noticed that the e-poll books were not synchronizing, but there was a lot going on, and I overlooked that. We had an incredible turnout between 7 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., and besides working at the e-poll books, I was getting called away by the chief judges every time there was a problem, or when a voter was having trouble. It was hectic, and I was not able to pay attention to all the details as much as I would have liked. We eventually got the cable and hooked up the fourth e-poll book. At that point, we were able to check in voters faster than they could vote, and as a result, we ended up with longer lines by the machines, and so we throttled down our check-in until we found a state of equilibrium inside. During that time, the lines outside were pretty long, but I think even at the worst, the most anybody waited today at our precinct was an hour and a half.

I think that the worst part of our election had to do with the voter registration database. We had numerous people who came in but were not listed as registered. One man I remember said he had voted forever in this precinct and had even voted in the primary. He was there with his wife who was in the system and who was able to vote. But, his name was simply not there. We looked in the statewide database and even in a paper printout we had of the registered voters, and he did not exist. We gave him a provisional ballot, but I don't have confidence that it will ever be counted. Numerous people were listed as not registered in our precinct despite having voted there before. This was also the hardest part for us as judges because we were on the front lines with these justifiably irritated voters. I didn't want to defend our system, but I didn't want to denigrate it either. Most people understood that we were volunteers who were working very hard to try to make the election work, but some of the ones with registration problems only saw us as part of the problem that was causing them to miss out on the ability to vote. I dreaded those moments when I realized that the voter in front of me was going to have a problem and I had to be the one to tell them.

At one point, the chief judge called me over because a voter had a serious problem. The voter was convinced that the machine was not working correctly. She showed me the problem. There was a race for judge that allowed the voter to pick up to two choices for judges. She had picked one but wanted to leave the other one blank. When she got to the summary screen, the race was colored in pink (to represent an undervote), and it had the name of the judge, and under it were the words "Not Selected". She told me that she had wanted to select the judge, but that her choice was not selected. It took me a few times going back and forth to the summary screen to figure out what was going on. Since she voted for one and not both candidates, the race was flagged as an undervote. Her two choices were shown as "the one she chose" and the other as "Not selected", rather than saying that the one she chose was not selected. Once I explained this to her, she was satisfied. There were about 5 or 6 times that I had to help voters because they misunderstood the machines.

At the end of the day, we shut down the machines and tallied the votes. Then, we transmitted the final tallies to the board of elections using the modem provided with the machines. Interestingly, in my precinct, registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by a 4-1 ratio, but Obama won over McCain by 20%. Surprisingly, on one of the machines, McCain actually beat Obama by 2 votes. Several of the other judges had some interesting theories about why the results diverged from the expected values, but nobody suggested that the machines had gotten it wrong somehow. Despite all kinds of glitches and mishaps throughout the day, people just believe the results that come out of the computer, and I think this is a natural human tendency.

Do I think that the machines were hacked or that some bug caused us to get the wrong results? I can't say that I do. However, what would have happened if McCain had won by a 2-1 ratio? Would we have come up with all kinds of interesting theories? Or, would someone have questioned the machines? What happens if a candidate in one of the local races that was close wants to challenge the result? The answer is - nothing. There is no way to recount the election. We have the totals that the machines produce, and that's it. No insight into how those numbers were achieved and no way to recreate them. The election cannot be audited. This is a terrible way to run elections, and I sincerely hope that when I work the 2010 election, it is with paper ballots and rigorous audit procedures.

So, now I'm home after another exhausting day. I'd like to propose that election judges work 8 hour days instead of 16 hour days. The current system is so physically exhausting that the judges, many of them elderly, are more concerned with getting out of there and going home than with taking the time to follow all of the procedures to the letter. And, the procedures are critical. I believe you could more than double the participation of poll workers if it wasn't such a grinding, unforgiving day. I don't know how I manage to get these blog entries written, and I'm not sure this is a tradition I can continue because after getting up before 5 a.m. and working all day in one room, writing all of this before I go to bed is getting harder and harder. But, now is when it's all fresh on my mind, and I was afraid I would forget some of it; I had to get this out tonight.

So, now I'm going to watch election returns for a while with Ann, have a glass of wine, and then go to bed. Good night!