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Working the Polls

5 November 2008

Following Avi Rubin's lead, I volunteered as a poll worker in Union County, NJ, for this election. It was partly happenstance — by chance I stumbled on a link on a county web site asking for people — and partly professional curiousity: as a systems and security guy with a strong interest in public policy, I was curious how they protected the integrity of the election while still handling exceptions.

The polling place I was assigned to has about 2000 registered voters split among three districts; each district had one machine. The ballot was relatively short by American standards (president, senator, representative, three votes (out of N candidates) for members of the county legislature, plus two constitutional amendments; lines were generally not too long. Each district had a crew of four or five people; one to work the machine, two or three handling the check-in, and one filling in or handling special situations such as provisional ballots.

All poll workers are required to attend a training session at least every other year. I originally thought that the training was not thorough enough; in fact, it covered more than we needed to know for most of what we encountered, and experience and common sense generally served to fill in the blanks. If you're curious, the training session slides can be found via the links here.

To vote, one first has to check in with the proper district's desk. Districts are geograhically assigned; most voters do not know their districts, but remember that "I usually go to this part of the room". We had booklets that mapped addresses to districts; we needed to consult them frequently. Once the poll worker has found your name in the proper poll book, you're asked to sign in. The signature space is marked in various ways, for example to note that the voter must provide ID or that address verification is needed. New Jersey does not, in general, require voters to show ID; however, by Federal law new voters who registered by mail must show ID the first time they vote. That said, a very high percentage of people walked up to the desk with driver's license or passport in hand. This was useful because it eliminated questions about spelling or address.

The poll worker then fills out the voting authority slip. This is a two-part piece of paper. Both halves are numbered; the number is recorded in the poll book next to the signature. The voter then signs the top half, which is retained by the poll worker; the bottom half is given to the voter to bring to the machine. The voter's ID number is written on the retained half of the slip. One can thus go both ways, from the voter's name and address to a slip number (and therefore on which machine that person voted), or from the slips retained at a machine to the voter's record.

The poll worker controlling the machine verifies and retains the authority slip; in my county, the slips are strung on a wire attached to the machine. (Not surprisingly, lots of people opt for the shortest voting machine line; unfortunately, that's wrong, since you're supposed to use the machine for your district.) If all is in order, he or she activates the machine; the vote enters the booth, chooses among the various candidates, presses the "cast vote" button, and leaves.

We use Sequoia AVC Advantage machines similar to the ones Andrew Appel bought. They are direct recording electronic (DRE) voting machines; others have written about the evils of such machines and I won't belabor the point here, save to note that I'm more afraid of bugs than malware. (Appel did a detailed analysis of security issues concerning this machine. Although I'm not sure I agree on all points, I regard it as largely correct. The report also has a detailed explanation of the voting procedure used.)

Many voters were confused by the machine. To vote for a candidate, you're supposed to press a square next to the person's name, at which point a green X lights up. If you've never used these machines, the location to press is not intuitive. Many people tried to type names using the keypad; it, however, should only be used for write-in (so-called "personal choice") votes. People would call out from inside the machine, asking for help. We'd try to describe what they should do; on more than one occasion, someone would come out and ask us to come in to "help me vote for Obama". (I was never asked for help in voting for McCain. I'm not sure what that means...) We're not supposed to do that. Fortunately, if someone is having trouble voting, generally they haven't managed to record anything, so there is no privacy violation in me looking at the screen and pointing to squares — but again, we're not supposed to be inside the booths.

The personal choice option caused the one significant problem we had. Someone accidentally pressed that option, activating the keypad. At that point, nothing else would work until the person either pressed the personal choice option again, disabling it, or typed in a name via the keypad and hit enter. We were worried that we were going to have to call for service before I finally figured out what had happened. We did have some emergency paper ballots, but the room was not set up for that; there was no suitably private table for voters to use.

Another weak point is the delay between when one voter leaves and when the machine can be activated for the next voter. For reasons I don't undertand, there was about a 10-second delay between the two events. Anecdotal reports from another polling place suggest that pressing the activation button too soon crashed the machine. I did not experience that at all.

Turnout was heavy, especially between 6:00am (there were 30-40 people waiting outside when we opened the polls) and 8:30. After that, things slowed down. Frequently, there is an evening rush; that didn't happen this time. My assumption is that people really wanted to be sure they got to vote, even if there were traffic or late trains home. In-person turnout was about 74%; about another 10% of voters in the district requested absentee ballots. The more experienced members of the crew said that seeing 25% was unusually good.

There were a few problematic voters: people who had moved, one person whose name appeared twice: a middle initial in one listing, the full middle name in the other, etc. If we couldn't sort things out, we gave them provisional ballots. One woman went to the trouble of going to the county seat (Elizabeth, about a 30 minute drive each way, even without traffic) and seeing a judge; she got a court order giving her the right to vote on the machine. None of us had ever seen such a thing before (though there is a staff of judges on duty on Election Day, for just such eventualities), and while we puzzled through the procedures the woman seemed a bit concerned that we were going to deny her the right to vote. She calmed down when she realized that we simply had to figure out the paperwork necessary. The pollbooks, for example, do have blank slots for just such eventualities, but we had no documentation on what to use for a voter's ID number to put on the authority slip.

Because the districts are geographically dileneated, they have somewhat different demographics. One of them includes some apartment buildings, which are unusual in my town; perhaps as a consequence, that district had a notably higher percentage of African-Americans. Many of them (and many of the young, new voters) were very excited and very eager to participate in what everyone knew was a historic event. There was a fair amount of picture-taking, too, a tangible symbol of participation in this election. There was no discernible grumbling about the delays this caused. This district gave Obama a signficant win; McCain had a slight edge in a second, and the third was essentially a tie.

In general, things went smoothly. We closed the machines on schedule and packed up the printouts and memory cartridge for delivery to the Elections Board. (My county, at least, does not use electronic transmission of results.)

So — what were the security flaws? First, of course, there are the ones identified in Appel report. There is really nothing I can add to it. Voting multiple times would have been difficult unless the poll books were tampered with. A corrupt poll worker could have issued authority slips to someone whose name did not appear in the poll books, but it would have been difficult for a small number of people to cast a large number of votes that way; the repeat-voting would likely have been identified. We certainly recognized the little kids who came first to "help Mommy vote" and then came back to "help Daddy". (My perception, I should add, is that most of those very young voters wanted Obama; I could often hear the discussions in the voting booth. Five-year-old: "Daddy, I want to press the button for Obama!. Slightly older sib: "No, I want to!" We were told to advise parents to have their child stand on the left, where it's harder for them to hit the big red button prematurely...)

It was a long day — 0515-2025 — but it was interesting. I'll probably volunteer again for the next general election.

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