Election day in a vote center

One of our vote centers is a terrific place to spend election day. It's strictly non-partisan. In the case of VC26, where I spent yesterday, it is also a calm oasis where the goal of all workers was helping as many people as possible vote, quickly and with technical support and warm encouragement, regardless of how they might mark their ballots.

If this post is a little less coherent than usual, it's because I'm short on sleep, although I wanted to continue my story of election processing because this is stuff I didn't know before I got into it.


The night before, Noah, our center's supervisor, called all of the judges who would be serving with him. He gave us his cell phone number in case anything came up or we had questions. He reminded us to be on site at 6. He told us that the church where our center was located would let us use the fridge and stove for our food (as it turned out, the church folks also provided us with hot water, coffee, two kinds of cookies, and a bowl of candy; it was lovely).

I had packed up food for what would be at minimum a fourteen-hour day and might drag on well past that. I had also planned to take a cooler, but after Noah's call I shifted to a less bulky grocery bag. Peanut butter on a bagel; a small container of sauteed tofu with chili peppers (the peppers turned out to be a great, spicy pick-me-up around dinner time); a couple of small bananas; "green juice" (SuperFood = liquid vegetables); a cookie, cut into fourths for quick nibbling; a container of yogurt; tea bags; and, although they ended up being inconvenient to eat and came home with me, an apple and an orange.

Getting started

Here's what the morning looked like when I headed for the vote center:


When I arrived, about eight people clustered outside the door. A few minutes later, Noah the supervisor and Connie, the site troubleshooter (second in command), arrived. As with everything else throughout the day, people had to work in teams composed of different party affiliations. That included opening the center.

By the time we got inside, the gathered group had expanded. Twenty people staffed this small center.

Election judges are sworn officials. It's a lot like jury duty. The
work is paid . . . about as well as jury duty. Overall, our county had
about a thousand election judges in action during this season. We also
ended up with about 90 percent turnout of registered voters.

Here's how we were allocated:

  • Greeters: 2 (greeters actually have one of the most challenging jobs . . . they make sure no election-related material comes into or within 100 feet of a voting center, and they also prep people to be ready for the computer judges)
  • Computer judges: 4 (look people up in poll books, check or issue signature cards, direct people to correct balloting areas)
  • Ballot judges: 6, working with paper ballots
  • Electronic voting judges: 2
  • Provisional ballot judges: 2 (including me)
  • Ballot box judges: 2
  • Supervisor and troubleshooter: 2

When any worker wanted or needed to take a break (get food, run to the restroom, stretch legs by walking up and down the hall), a qualifying person from another team would substitute or cover two adjacent positions. "Qualifying" means "of a different party affiliation." Independents and student election judges could pinch-hit anywhere. We had five student judges, who were high schoolers earning class credit. They worked regular stations, as computer, ballot, and ballot-box judges.

In addition, the center was occupied all day by poll watchers, also party-balanced, who arrived at the official opening time (an hour after we got there) and pretty much stayed all day. They had to be registered in advance and wore name tags. Unlike the judges, they were free to come and go, and although we generally had four at any given time at least one of them was there all day until closing.

I was initially a little confused when the poll watchers kept coming up to us and asking how many provisional ballots had been voted. Figuring it was just curiosity, we counted ballot stubs whenever they asked. (Toward the end of the day, this resulted in a little competition between the provisional ballot station and the electronic voting station to see who was processing more voters . . . we provisional judges won, but it was close.)

After a while, I realized that if there was a question later about how many voters had been processed by a station, the poll watchers would have information that was completely outside the carefully multiply-documented official system. They also asked perceptive questions about the process, fortunately when we weren't busy.

I discovered shortly after I arrived that I'd left my freshly brewed hot tea, in a cup with a cover, as we'd been told we would be required to use, at home on the counter. Fortunately, Noah said that folks who were not working near the computers could use mugs from the church kitchen, and there was hot water so I had time to make some tea by about 8:30 a.m.

Back to setup. The basics were in place: booths, tables, chairs, computers.

The ballots were in boxes on a large, rolling shelving unit that was shrinkwrapped. Teams cut the wrap off and inspected the boxes, all of which were sealed with security tape. We had lists of procedures that we'd been trained in that involved who was responsible for which boxes when, as well as counting and recounting ballots and filling out and signing off on other official paperwork. Chain of custody procedures were followed carefully throughout every piece of the process that I observed.

For people who were voting with paper ballots, our center had twenty-one privacy booths (those spindly-legged aluminum things). We also had one electronic voting machine. This particular electronic machine did permit voter verification of the votes before they were cast, and did produce an auditable paper trail.

By 7 a.m., we were ready to go and the first group of voters was lined up outside the door.

The day

The many hours didn't drag, although we were far from the busiest of voting centers. There were times when we'd joke about asking other centers to send us busloads, please, and times when people had to wait. After the early morning rush, I'd guess the longest wait for any voter at our center was about ten minutes. We had a few problems with phone lines and routers through the day, but thanks to the two backup systems we could, in general, proceed without delays. One of the county tech people spent about half the day at our site, but the problems did not have much impact on our work.

I did have a little time for knitting. I ripped back several times before I figured out that while working at a voting center even an experienced knitter needs a tally sheet in order to work a simple four-row twisted-rib.

There's a rule that no cell phones are allowed in the vote center. One reason is so that people can't take photographs. The bigger reason as far as the judges were concerned is related to my knitting problem: judges need to perform a large number of intricately intertwined tasks very quickly, and we needed to do them in a way that makes everything accurate and auditable. When someone's talking on a cell phone nearby, that becomes extremely difficult. We had a couple of people who got calls while in the center and getting them off the line became a top priority.

All the areas were color coded. I trained first as a ballot judge (regular paper ballots), so I had a purple manual. Then I was called in to train as a provisional judge (orange). This is also the fingerless glove I was working on as it looked by the time we started our closing procedures after the voting ended:


Over the course of the day, I especially enjoyed the diversity of the people who came through the center. Although it was located in a part of the city that I don't think of in conjunction with the word diversity, our parade could have exemplified that concept. We had people of all ages and a full range of ethnicities, sporting tattoos, greasy work clothes, or fancy suits. We had quite a few people who were not native English speakers.

There were two rules on the site:

  1. No election-related material in or near the voting center.
  2. Everyone who wants to vote gets to.

Everything else was a regulation or procedure: which form to use when, how to mark and file the paperwork, and so on.

In the provisional area, we saw all the irregularities. Mostly we helped people who were on the mail-in ballot list but had not received or had not voted or had damaged their mail-in ballots. They voted a provisional ballot so the tallying judges (elsewhere) could verify that they hadn't voted twice. We also saw people whose registered addresses did not match the addresses on the identification they presented. And anything else that didn't fit the norm.

One forty-ish woman who came in had never voted. She said she was not registered, but that her husband thought she could both register and vote on this day. It was past the registration deadline, but we told her that yes, she could vote. Her ballot almost certainly wouldn't be counted, unless she had registered at some time she'd forgotten (perhaps at the Division of Motor Vehicles when renewing her license), but at the very least she would be registered for the next time and she'd get practice in the process.

Not turning anyone away who wants to vote is my idea of a good time. At the provisional ballot table, we did a lot of education and a fair amount of soothing, because people are sometimes upset to discover they have to vote this type of ballot.

A lot of kids came in with their parents. We ended up holding (and bouncing) one three-month-old boy while his parents voted, his mother with a provisional ballot and his father on the electronic machine.

Noah and Connie could answer most procedural questions that came up, and in case of emergency Noah had what we called "the bat phone," with which he could call the county's highest election officials. We used it a couple of times.

Anything that was far enough out of the ordinary to require a consultation with Noah, Connie, or the bat-phone folks was written up in an incident report, so that it could be sorted out more thoroughly later.

Closing down

At 7 p.m., we closed promptly and according to the procedures in the manual. We counted and cross-checked all ballots. It's like balancing a checkbook about three times. We filled out more paperwork and signed off. Judges who were finished with their stations' duties helped out at other stations.

The unvoted paper ballots no longer have any value, so we sealed up the boxes for convenience but no longer needed to maintain chain of custody for them. The tallies of ballots and the voted ballots continued to be guarded and backed up vigilantly. The final tallies were recorded and transmitted in three ways:

  1. One copy put into the sealed ballot box.
  2. One copy given to the supervisor in the master paperwork for the center.
  3. One copy given to the supervisor in a stamped envelope to be immediately mailed back to the elections officials.

Everything else was similarly documented with appropriate, not excessive, redundancy.

None of us could leave until the ballot boxes had been picked up for the final time . . . by the same team that had been transporting our ballot boxes at intervals throughout the day. One of the ways this semi-closed system works is that the people who are working together become familiar with who is there and who should be doing a particular job at a particular time. Even though we'd never met each other before, and I can't tell you the names or party affiliations of anyone I didn't work directly with or sub for, a sense of order, community, and responsibility prevailed.

We folded up and stacked the tables and chairs, and disassembled the computers and voting station. Soon the entire complex center had been reduced to a neat pile of boxes that would be moved the next day; a set of accordion files (one for each station); a green container with all the summary information for the center; and the final ballot boxes, one regular and one provisional.

We had been in a news blackout all day. After we were basically done, Noah checked his cell phone and gave us a couple of preliminary results: Ohio and Pennsylvania. When we left the center, that was all we knew.

As soon as the ballot-box couriers had arrived and the appropriate people had checked the necessary security procedures and signed the necessary papers for the last time, we were done.

Noah thanked us, and dismissed us.

Here's what the parking lot looked like as I left:



Regular life waited for me to get back. Here are vote stickers on the computer log that I maintain to track changes to and events on the system:


My summary thoughts

I personally welcome the move to mail-in ballots, because I like the leisurely timing and ease of voting. However, if we lose our vote centers by changing to voting methods that do not bring people together physically then we lose an unusual neutral ground and a way of building community that seems unique and not easy to replace.

The U.S. Electoral College
favored the Republicans in the last election and the Democrats
in this election. Overall, I think the system is outdated and needs to
be revised. I also think that revision needs to take place in
conjunction with a shift to a system of preferential voting
that would give people the flexibility to move away from the two-party
lock on our government without potentially wasting their votes. It's
time to take democracy to the next level, in many ways.

When I got home in the dark evening, I took down our yard signs.
Regardless of anyone's sentiments, we now all need to pull together.

In terms of the results, if the country is run as well as the Obama campaign was, we'll be okay . . . or better.


7 thoughts on “Election day in a vote center”

  1. Great post, Deb, and a wonderful turnout where you were: well above average from what I saw watching the coverage last night (we switched between CBC and BBC mostly, with the odd foray to CNN and the other networks).

    I find it interesting the amount of staffing redundancy interesting — that’s one thing the Canadian system definitely lacks. There’s the Deputy Returning Officer with a Poll Clerk, and if one of them is off on a break, the entire poll must be closed. Period.

    Despite the differences in our procedures (and I think many of them are nomenclature-related anyway), I’m interested to note that you have also come to the same conclusion about the first-past-the-post system that is starting to gather a bit of steam here in the Great White North.

    There’s been some discussion about the single-transferrable vote, and I’d like to see more of it before I throw my support behind it. Certainly here, where there is a longer-standing tradition of more than two parties, it could definitely change the face of our federal government, but I’m not so sure about provincial ones outside of Québec.

  2. I was thinking about you yesterday and hoping you were having a good experience there. 🙂 My MIL was working at one of the polling places here in town. Made me wish I’d signed up to help too. Next election, maybe!

  3. Thanks for the peek behind the scenes! It was fascinating.
    I agree that the electoral college system has to go. It’s a holdover from the days when communication took days rather than nano-seconds.

  4. Thanks for this post; very interesting. My Mom works at the polls here in our county (though way, way smaller … we only have a total of 7,200 people in our county).

    I am so with you on the electoral college system. It’s a dinosaur who’s time should come to an end. In this age of lightning-speed technology, a vote should count for a vote, period.

    I have several friends who don’t vote at all, because they say their votes don’t count (I disagree with them, but can see their point in some ways … the 2004 election was a good example). But not to vote at all isn’t the answer, that’s for sure.

  5. Interesting to read about the “rules” in your neck of the woods. I have worked several elections here in Canada, both Provincial and Federal. What I was quite surprised about was that cameras seemed to be allowed in the voting areas. Many people took pictures of either themselves voting in this historic election or had papparazzi following them…”stars”??… No cell phones, cameras or other electronic gadgets are allowed here in Canada. There are always pictures of the party leaders voting, which requires special permission from the Chief Electoral officer. Hard to convince people to get off their cell phones when they come in to vote. I was also surprised to learn about how voting regulations differ from state to state, even though this was a “federal” election. There doesn’t seem to be a governing body that regulates things in this type of election on a country wide basis. very interesting…

  6. There were no cell phones or cameras allowed in our vote center, *except* for special permission for a short period granted to a photographer from the local newspaper. Rules may be different elsewhere, or other special permissions may have been granted.

    The Help America Vote Act of 2002 made voting regulations more consistent between the states, but there are still variations . . . many fewer than there used to be.

    It is still “the United States,” rather than “the Combined States,” with interesting ans sometimes bizarre push-pull dynamics between state and federal levels of government.

  7. I’m in the UK, and it was really interesting to read your breakdown of your day in the voting station, and a more ‘personal’ view of the entire system than we usually get on the news here. Thank you.

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