Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Diary of a Mad Poll-Worker, Part Four

Yesterday was the big day, where I clocked in as a traditional poll worker, as part of my behind-the-scenes hard-hitting four-part investigative series on electronic voting. (See Part One, Part Two, and Part Three for context.) This was the actual t-shirt that I wore during my 6AM to 9PM shift.

I'll put the big idea up front. I'm not an expert on e-voting, but I do know something about how technology works (or doesn't work) when it is introduced in other institutional contexts. Here's my basic thesis: introducing technology into the political process is like introducing it into education. There needs to be a reason to do it; it shouldn't just be about adding bells and whistles only because changes can be made. Two principles need always to be kept in mind: 1) the technology should be added to solve the actual problems of users and 2) planners need to be prepared for when users put the technology to different ends. I'm usually an advocate for technology but not always, and for years I have seen college administrators who don't keep these two rules in mind and have thus undervalued time-tested traditional teaching methods and low-tech solutions. I think that a similar thing may have happened to election officials who have been pursuing a crazy patchwork of whizz-bang approaches to e-voting without any unified vision.

That's why I'd say that the approach of Los Angeles County makes sense when it comes to computerized voting; local election officials decided to focus on using computers either to help disabled people cast ballots without assistance or to alert harried voters that they had accidentally overvoted, thus nullifying whatever they had intended to indicate, and provide an opportunity to the voter for self-intervention.

Overall, it was a relatively disaster-free day. The lines never got that long, the limited technology that was used never failed, and it seemed like the optical readers processed inked ballots at a pretty rapid clip at the end of the day. The scene in the Santa Monica church that I presided over was nothing like the YouTube drama depicting Voter Intimidation in Philadelphia and other COPS-style hijinks.

My first task was assembling the actual polling booths, which were pretty abbreviated, because they came without curtains or elaborate mechanisms. They had to be unpacked from cardboard boxes as an assortment of parts. I never thought that I would feel nostalgic for the directions for assembling Ikea furniture, but the guidance on putting together a polling booth was even more minimal. It turned out that the one piece of actual advice, "LIGHT GOES HERE," would have put the device for illumination under the improvised table of the whole thing. In retrospect, I figured out that it was a directive for where to put the light away when all the parts were back in the box at the very end of the day.

My main duty, serving as the address clerk, involved lining out names in pencil and updating rosters on an hourly basis. I also handed out ballots and demonstrated the Inkavote system. The most heart-warming scene in the entire day was probably the sight of me explaining the election process to a kindergarten class from next door; I let each of them take turns joyfully poking at a demonstration ballot with the voting stylus. Many of the tykes were irritated that Thomas Jefferson was on the demonstrator ballot but not George Washington, but they were nonetheless respectful and enthusiastic about the prospect of voting in thirteen years.

I have to say that my experiences provided some anecdotal evidence that supports many of the generalizations being made in recent years about the two parties. Republicans did seem to vote earlier than Democrats, Republican precinct captains appeared to be checking the rosters more regularly in their get-out-the-vote efforts, and a gender divide was evident even at the level of couples at the same address. In other words, I saw marriages of male Republicans and female Democrats but never the reverse. One pair got into an actual fight in line.

Of course, there were some abusive would-be voters, but even impatient jerks have a constitutionally protected right to vote, and we were careful not to put any barriers in their way. Some tips to those voters for next year: please omit questions like "Can you go any slower?" or "What are you, stupid?" with poll workers in future. We might seem a bit distracted because we are trying to figure out if you are in the right precinct or getting ready to intervene before an elderly voter is dragged out of the polling place by an impatient adult child. These seemed also to be the same people who signed with illegible signatures on the line that says PRINT CLEARLY HERE.

Perhaps the most extreme case of voter belligerance was the mentally ill woman who appeared in the afternoon clutching her silver purse like we were trying to take it away from her. Her blonde hair was teased up as though there were a sea anemone on her head, and she had carefully applied eye makeup a half-inch below her actual eyes. She said she wanted to know "where to go to vote to kick out all the Mexicans." The printed list of real-life candidates and propositions had no interest for her, although she expressed some willingness to vote for Arnold Schwarzenegger if she had to cast a ballot for anyone real. Of course, when presented with this year's ballot, on which there was no legislation to eject the largest ethnic group in the state, she became truly agitated and then enraged. Our long-suffering provisional ballot clerk had been patiently enduring her antics, even when she told him that he was probably on the Mexicans' side, because he was "Oriental" and spoke "with an accent." The ironic part was that she herself had an accent and was from Scotland originally.

It was quite affecting to see someone actually vote with the audio ballot system. A well-dressed man in his fifties came in to vote. He was polite and lucid and seemed principally concerned that his son probably wouldn't make it into the polls that day. We didn't realize that he was almost blind until he tried to sign the register, which he finally did successfully with a ruler on either side. With the audio ballot he listened attentively, pushed buttons, and then expressed satisfaction when his printed card appeared. He didn't want help walking down the steps to the street; we watched him slowly negotiate the way, and I think we all thought about how many people take the act of voting for granted.

One drawback of being a "girl" for the day, which I almost hesitate to mention since I think more people under fifty should do this job at least once in their lives, was the fact that two male poll workers gave me very unsolicited "back rubs" while I was working. Yuck. These incidents were unfortunate because otherwise I really liked the people working the precinct. Even the county clerk who told me to put the booths really close together and then told me to put them really far apart earned my respect by the time we yelled "The polls are now closed!" out the front door. The woman sitting next to me most of the time I was working, who was having voters sign the register, said that she had also worked the primary on June 6th or 6/6/06. She said that after they counted all the ballots the total came to exactly 666. Spooky.

I was saddened to see the number of Democratic voters bringing in the deceptive official-looking voter guides printed by the oil companies into the booths with them. But I couldn't say anything, because that -- of course -- would be electioneering.

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