Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Diary of a Montgomery County Election Judge

In 2004, I answered a call sent out on a public radio PSA that was asking for bilingual-Spanish people to work as election judges. I was assigned outside my own district to Pine Crest Elementary School in the Four Corners area of Silver Spring. During that presidential election, I assisted only about three votes out of nearly a thousand with Spanish, but did pretty well with helping voters use new touch-screens. The Republican Chief Judge (a really nice guy) suggested that I apply to be Chief myself for the next election. So earlier this year, when the Democrat recruiter begged me to be a Chief for the same school, I said yes. What could possibly go wrong?


I should note before I go on that I have been up since 5:00AM. Tomorrow, I have to wake up with my son no matter what (because he could care less what I did today, he wants to play), take him for a doctor's visit (avec les shots), then race to campus to catch a post-screening discussion for one class, followed by a block class for which I am quite underprepared. All that said, I feel compelled to write this, and to do it right away. (Marcy, Jenny: This is especially for both of you.)

To start with, if you're reading this, you should know that on Monday night, I met with all my poll-workers to set up as much as we could before the morning rush. We set up the actual touch-machine polls on their legs, hung up some signs, coordinated what we would do with meals and when. You should also know that most items immediately applicable to the election cannot be opened the night before: the machines themselves, bags contained secured voting items, etc. All these items have tamper tape and locks and what-not to ensure lack of fraud. (We will not go into the Diebold issue, which is separate from what happened today. Yes, these are Diebold machines.) The crew seemed apt and congenial and G (my Republican counterpart, a lovely retired woman) and I both were confident we would be OK. Neither one of us had been a Chief before, but we had some good vibes. My main concern was that I still had to go home after set-up to (a) review my notes for the election and (b) make a curried lentil dip for my fellow election judges that I had already bought ingredients for.

We all arrived at 6:00AM as scheduled. Actually, G arrived about 5 minutes late. No big deal, except she had the bags with the keys and what-not. Everyone started doing what they were supposed to be doing with set-up. I opened the bag with all the secured equipment to get the keys and to get the plastic Voter Assistance Cards that would allow each voter to vote. (As a voter, you need to first have the card encoded with the proper primary election, then you are allowed to vote on the machines.)

No cards.

My first thought was: We must have dropped them somewhere when we opened the bag.

We searched the bag again, the table that the bag had been placed on, other secured bags. We thought about checking G's car for another bag, even though she insisted she had brought all the bags and besides, by law, once we were in the polling place, we weren't supposed to leave. We checked our handbooks for the excruciantingly inclusive checklist of items ("8 pencils"), trying to figure out where the bags were supposed to be.

I thought: No. There is no way they would have forgotten to pack all of the single item that people actually needed to vote with.

We call the hotline. I get put on hold for a while, tell everyone else to do what they can do to get ready. Someone finally answers. I tell them we have no VAC cards. The man says that they are aware of the problem.

For a split second, I try not to faint.

They continue to tell us that they are on their way with the cards, but that if they don't arrive in time, we need to prepare to do provisional voting.

More explanation: provisional voting usually occurs when there is a discrepancy between what is in the log book and what a voter says is true -- for example, party affiliation doesn't match, or they just moved from another part of the state, or they got married and their name changed, but none of these changes are yet in the pollbook. If this occurs, the voter fills out some forms at the Assistant Chiefs' table and is then given a paper ballot; after they fill that out, they seal the ballot in a special envelope and drop it in a big bag. This shouldn't happen very often, but it can be a somewhat lengthy process. Indeed, at 6AM, I had joked to the Assistant Chiefs (E and M, hereafter referred as a pair as ACs) that they were the ones who would be lounging around all day.

I hang up and relay the information to all the staff. Everyone's mouths drop open: they forgot the VAC cards??I warn the ACs to prepare for the worst. We are confident that they will get the cards to us before we open. We start all the machines up as usual.

Mind you, once again, it should be remembered that once we go into the polling area, we are sealed off from the world. No one can call us, there is no news, no radio, nada. We had no idea that this was happening practically all over the county. Because, who would forget such an important item in EVERYONE'S PACKETS?

At around 6:50, we realize that the VACs probably aren't going to arrive. G and I (OK, I...) decide that we have to open on time, that there were people there to vote and they needed to vote. And that we would do it provisionally.

At some point during all of this, our student arrives. Montgomery County offers community service credit to students who work a four-hour shift at the polls doing unobtrusive stuff like handing out stickers or making sure people don't walk away with the expensive VACs. I sit Mary down and tell her that we have a different job for her. We explain what's going on and then tell her that her job will be to inform everyone outside what is going on: that we will be voting on provisional ballots until the VACs arrive (which they should at any minute) and, because of the paperwork involved, that the process would be relatively slow. They could wait in line or, if they had to go to work or wanted to vote on the machines, to come back later; no matter what, their vote would be counted. (Bless your heart, Mary: she had potentially the most crucial job today and she performed it flawlessly.)

We open at 7:00AM. On time.

G and I quickly inform all the voters of the situation, but that we will continue voting provisionally until the cards arrive, which should be at any minute. I then call again to ask if they knew where the cards were.

A word now about G: she is a wonderful woman, and a real trooper for agreeing to be the Chief. She's also retired and, frankly, can get a little frazzled. She had already confessed to me when we first met (days ago, when we checked out the school space before the election) that she thought she was in over her head; I assured her that us newbies would be fine. That woman is fabulous for letting me drag her along with everything I thought we should do to ensure that everything would be bipartisan.

G and I decide to help the ACs out, who are swamped in paperwork. At this point, I realize that I had just glanced at this section of my handbook, assuming that there would be so few provisional votes that the ACs could handle it.

Around 8:30, we realize that we are going to run out of Democrat ballots. (Montgomery County, not Bethesda: not a surprise.) We call and ask them to send some. They indicate that ballots are on their way. Realizing that that was what they said about the VACs two hours ago (and several phone calls later, and still not here), we ask what to do. They tell us to photocopy some ballots. One of the judges has the presence of mind to point out that we are in a Montgomery County school which therefore should have a copier. Indeed, they do: in fact, a big shout out to the fab people at Pine Crest Elementary, for giving us all the supplies we begged for without a blink.

At around 8:45, we realize we will run out of the special provisional envelopes written in English. We photocopy the instructions off of one of them and start using the Spanish-language ones.

Soon after, we run out of those. When we called the BOE about this, we are told to "make do the best we can." Thankfully, I am a professor and I have to write lots of letters of recommendation. We ask the school for bunches of envelopes, which we direct people to write the pertinent information on, then sign across the back flap to ensure that no one has tampered with their vote.

Mind you, everyone is voting. We told no one that they could not vote. We never stopped the process, thinking ahead to prevent a pause at every step. The good people of Woodmoor, if they were upset, never took it out on us, who realized that we were doing the best we could. Thankfully, the new electronic pollbooks work wonderfully and speed up that part of the process exponentially. We later find out that at other districts, the polls did not open, or people were turned away. We did none of this.

A new set of provisional ballots arrive around 9:00. This was the last thing we had asked for. We ask about the VAC cards, the provisional application envelopes, anything about other items we had previously begged for. The person has no clue, leaves.

The VAC cards arrive at 9:25. I attack the woman who brings them with a gigantic bear hug view her as the Second Coming.

Finally, we start doing things "normally." Everyone is in great spirits. Things move quickly. I get to share my lentil dip (finally in the refrigerator, since we had forgotten about breakfast in the hullabaloo) and the folks who try it love it, want the recipe. (If anyone wants it, let me know: I can post it, or email it.) The voters are thrilled all around. Even better, folks are buying lots from the school's bake sale outside our door. The watchers -- who have been frantically scribbling notes about what we're doing -- commend us for what we've done. I eat lunch after I let all the other Dems eat, don't have enough brain left to grade the papers I've brought with me, choose instead to read Redbook in the Teacher's Lounge and how much Julianne Moore loves her kids.

Sometime during more calls to the BOE, I ask about who will call us about staying open late, since we assume something will happen. They inform us that a decision has already been made to keep polls open an hour later. (I think: Why did I have to ask the question first? Shouldn't you be telling me this?) We open up our materials, discover that we have to temporarily shut the door to close down all the polling machines, then restart with special provisional ballots we had already been given just in case of extended voting. By the time we close the doors at 8:00PM to quickly do what we need to do, we're ready and we're back open in 10 or 15 minutes. (More about that changeover below.)

We close at 9:00, with no one banging on the door at all. I give some last guava pastries I had brought for breakfast to the last voters, then to the electioneers outside, who cheer. It takes us forever to go back and reconcile all our machines and or numbers (which don't really match all over the place but, given everything else, that is the least of our problems), but we finish just after 11.

There is blame. I will assign it.

I will start by saying that the problems today at our polling place had nothing to do with the machines or Diebold. This is not to say that I am fine without a paper trail; I wish we had one as well -- but Maryland made a decision to go this route and, quite frankly, the actual machines were fine and working as they should. In fact, the electronic pollbooks (new this year) were fantastic and earned raves from staff and voters alike. Sure, I can't be sure what the machines actually do on the inside -- but I have no problems with them for what they are.

The Board of Elections should take the brunt of the blame, naturally. The main cause of this was human error, plain and simple, and on a colossal scale. I fully expect lawsuits from all corners with what happened here and every one will be deserved. I am particularly disgusted that when we asked for specific help as to what to do, we were told on more than one occasion to "make do the best you can." Luckily, we had a more-than-competent crew who all kept their heads (and voters who did the same). We knew that it could have been much worse, as it apparently was elsewhere. From my small point of view, the BOE did a piss-poor job and made the situation much worse by not being able to provide uniform advice for this election catastrophe.

They do not get all the blame: I turn to the media. All outlets -- television, Internet, radio, news. You will not convince me otherwise and they are all to blame for one major thing: voters told us that the media -- specifically www.washingtonpost.com -- indicated in lead paragraphs that polls would remain open until 9:00PM without disclosing that votes between 8:00 and 9:00PM would, by law, be cast as provisional votes, not as regular votes until far into the story. Because many people read these reports but only really paid attention to the part that said "polls would be open," the folks that arrived at 8:05 were shocked, frustrated, hurt and upset that their votes would be provisional. ("Provisional? What does that mean? My vote won't be counted!") I had a real jewel of a guy who got in my face about how his rights were being infringed upon because his watch said 7:59 and the one at the school -- which is how we opened the poll -- said 8:04. He rattled on about international elections and vote infringement, not letting us explain what the law says we had to do, braying about how if we worked on international elections we would know not to do this. (Guess what? One of our ACs was an observer in elections in Bosnia.) And yet, while I wanted to tell the fucking prick to stop yapping (and let the people who actually know what they're doing to ensure as best as possible that your votes will be counted, and that the longer you keep us out here, the longer it will take us to turn everything over so you can FUCKING VOTE, ASSHOLE!!!!!), I also understood exactly what they were feeling. And he and the others who were out were right to be upset, saying over and over, "But the media said the polls would be open, they didn't say anything about provisional voting!" If that's what WaPo.com was publishing, then WaPo deserves a firm knuckle sandwich for being irresponsible in detailing that information at the beginning. (The links from before 8PM at WaPo appear to be gone; if anyone can find a story from there that corroborates this, I would appreciate it.) Yes, that lawyer guy was an utter asshole; I'm still glad that he cared. And when we let them in to vote ten minutes later, everyone was fine again. (Even that guy.)

Here's the question: will I serve again as a Judge in November for the general election? Yes. I'm not even working in my home district, but I'm proud as hell of what my crew and I did today. We did our damnedest to ensure that everyone who wanted to vote in our district did vote, and that their votes could not be disqualified for any error on our part.

But here's a warning, directly squarely at all those politicians who were elected in these primary elections today: however problematic things were, you'd better not blame the poll-workers themselves as a whole for this. We were largely left out to dry and we did the best we could. And I will be listening to anything said against us and will almost surely vote against anyone who wants to blame the volunteers at the polls for anything that happened today. Just so you know.

I have to get up in about 4 1/2 hours to hug my son. I'm going to bed.


Anonymous said...

I'm really glad you took time to write this down, and I'm glad at least one polling place had someone smart and responsible in charge (I'm sure many others did too). Fascinating account. Not too good for MoCo! On the other hand, all the people I wanted to win seem to have won, so it seems to have worked out.


Anonymous said...

Sure! Blame the media! Its always my fault, isn't it? *wink* Actually, I thought the reports on WTOP radio were confusing as well...and I do this for a living.

So, Jeff, in November, you'll be throwing the doors to your precinct wide open to me and my trusty camera, right? The public's gotta know! Even those "durn furriners" in places like South Africa, Singapore and Poland!

My mother did not vote because the poll worker at her place rather rudely told her to sit in an chair and just wait - so my mom chose to leave...and then didn't return.


Anonymous said...

I am certain that the article on washingtonpost.com did specify provisional ballots because I thought it far from ideal. I live in a Prince George's precinct that had troubles and discussed it with coworkers and spouse. I headed over to the school (Dem volunteer) wondering why we had not been given the option of provisional ballots to make up for the late opening.

KC said...

What a fiasco! You are perfect for that job though- supplying dip and all. I don't think everyone would be able to keep a level head in a situation like that.

Amazing incompetence! It boggles the mind.

Middento said...

Priscilla -- That's right! You damn media! *banging fist on table* Seriously though, I read the rules for media and the polling areas and, while I was glad random media people weren't at our polling place this time, you would be welcome at my polling place for sure, haha.

KC -- My only regret is not making enough dip for everyone in line as well. I'll no better for next time. :)

Oh and a big hello to anybody coming on over from WaPo.com. I find it mildly amusing that I blasted the website and now this posting is linked to it.

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