Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Observations of a First-Time Pollworker

Several years ago, the County of Los Angeles decided to boost the number of people willing to volunteer as pollworkers by 1) letting County employees who are also registered California voters (regardless of where they are registered) serve as pollworkers in Los Angeles without taking personal time from their jobs, and 2) promoting said program. I was at Public Works when that began, and promoting and tracking Public Works employee participation of this program was assigned to me. I had that as one of my responsibilities until I took a promotion to come to Department of Agricultural Commissioner/Weights and Measures, but I'd never served as a pollworker.

I've been a registered voter in Orange County for quite some time, and have been a permanent vote-by-mail voter for a couple of years now, so my experience with voting at the polls in Los Angeles is a distant and outdated memory.

This time around, my boss encouraged me to volunteer, and I did. I attended a two-hour training session on a day off (pollworkers get some compensation for attending training), and I served all day at a polling place within Los Angeles County yesterday.

It's a long day. We were told to arrive by 6 a.m. to set up, as the polls opened at 7 a.m. I was slightly early, but so were others, so we were able to begin setting up. I was given a 1-hour lunch break, but I decided to return after 30 minutes away. The polls closed at 8 p.m. and then after taking everything down and doing the ballot organization procedures, I was released a little after 9 p.m. There were a few voters who thanked us for volunteering, and that was a nice touch.

We were a "Neighborhood Voting Center", meaning we had three precinct polling places in one room. All three had their own check-in tables, ballots, polling tables/stands, and ballot box. Fortunately, I was teamed with three women who were longtime veterans of pollworking and lived in the local neighborhood.

I was mostly dealing with the address list, which had the names and addresses and party affiliation of each voter registered in that precinct, listed by address. It was my job to keep copies of the list updated with who had voted, and keep a copy tacked to the wall for anyone to check. I also, at times, handled the alphabetical list where people were asked to sign their signature, and a bit of handing out ballots, and answered a lot of questions. Every vote – absentee, vote by mail, provisional, whatever - in Los Angeles County gets counted, even if the races are decided because there aren't enough ballots left to make a difference in the outcome.

Los Angeles County uses an inking system. The ballots are sent through a machine before they are dropped into the box to 1) count the number of ballots and 2) check for "overvotes" and other errors on each ballot – according to the election officials, the machines DO NOT count actual votes, as in tallying how many people are voting "YES" vs."NO". Someone who has overvoted or had some other error who doesn't want to fill out another ballot is allowed to deposit their ballot anyway – the pollworker simply overrides the machine, and ballots such as the provisionals can be slipped in the box without going through the machine.

Here are some observations:

1. If the votes really aren't being tallied by the machines, then most votes are not even arriving to where they ARE tallied until 9:30 p.m. or later, and THEN they have to be removed from the sealed containers and tallied. So when outcomes are announced at 8 p.m. or even 10 p.m., those announcements are based almost entirely on previous polling and exit polling. Some early voting might be part of that, but how many people really go vote early using one of the electronic machines? Our ballots were not sent in throughout the day. All of them were turned in together at 9:30 p.m. or later. That is standard.

2. I.D. is almost never required. Anyone can come in and claim to be one of the people on our list and vote. Yes, they'd be breaking the law, but how will anyone know?

3. I was told by more than one person that two of the people on the list were really one person – themselves. For example, Jim Smith at 123 Main Street and James Q. Smith at 123 Main Street. Jim could have easily brought along someone else and claimed that James was his son. Or, Jim could have come back later and voted as James.

4.Voters also told me that there were people on the list at their address who have moved away or never lived at their address in the first place. Those people, or someone pretending to be them, could have come in and voted.

5. Given observations 2-4, why is it standard to post the updated name and address list? I know it aids those who want to check to see who has not voted yet and call people to get out the vote, but why should election officials care about helping partisans in that way? Seems to me that fraud prevention would be more important. Wouldn't it?

6. There was at least one instance where I’m almost positive someone committed voter fraud. A distinctively dressed young man came in to vote, and noted his sister listed just after his name, and asked if she would be able to vote, given that she was in another city that day – a city that was sufficiently far away that it would take hours for her to come back. I explained what her voting options had been. I thought maybe she was a student attending college in this other city, or something like that. No, she was only there for a week. The young man voted, and maybe an hour later, he returned with his “sister”, who voted as his sister. I wasn't the only pollworker at our precinct who noticed this. If there was a way we were allowed to challenge this, we were unaware.

7. Despite this, and the long hours, overall, I enjoyed the experience. But then I'm the kind of guy who was happy to see people voting, even if I could tell from their party affiliation that they were likely voting in opposition to the votes I’d made. I believe in having a democratic republic, which means that people who disagree with me have just as much right to vote and just as much of a vote as I do.

8. Single people who want to get married and are politically active should consider volunteering as pollworkers. Why? They can ask to be placed in their own neighborhoods and they might meet someone who lives close to them who they don't bump into during their daily routines. They'll already know the person votes, and they can see their party affiliation (if that is important). Or, ask to be placed in a more upscale neighborhood, where sometimes it is hard to find enough pollworkers. You just might marry up!

It was a tiring day, and a disruption of my weekly routines. But unless the way we vote is radically changed, volunteers are needed, and I'm glad I was able to do my part to continue our democratic republic.