Sunday, September 17, 2006

Chicken Little or Cassandra?

Last Tuesday's primary election mishaps in Maryland -- centered on Montgomery County but also including Prince Georges County and Baltimore -- have pricked up the ears of election watchers across the country, with increasing fears of disruptions in November because of faulty equipment and other factors.

The Washington Post reports today:

An overhaul in how states and localities record votes and administer elections since the Florida recount battle six years ago has created conditions that could trigger a repeat -- this time on a national scale -- of last week's Election Day debacle in the Maryland suburbs, election experts said.

In the Nov. 7 election, more than 80 percent of voters will use electronic voting machines, and a third of all precincts this year are using the technology for the first time. The changes are part of a national wave, prompted by the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002 and numerous revisions of state laws, that led to the replacement of outdated voting machines with computer-based electronic machines, along with centralized databases of registered voters and other steps to refine the administration of elections.
The Post goes on to cite the concerns of various people that these changes may result in problems and perhaps challenged or contested elections.

I take issue with what one former governor says, in the second paragraph below:
"It's hard to put a factor on how ill-prepared we are," said former Ohio governor Richard F. Celeste, a Democrat who recently co-chaired a study of new machines with Republican Richard L. Thornburgh, former governor of Pennsylvania, for the National Research Council. They advised local election officials to prepare backup plans for November.

"What we know is, these technologies require significant testing and debugging to make them work," added Celeste, now president of Colorado College. "Our concern -- particularly as we look to the November election, when there is a lot of pressure on -- is that election officials consider what kinds of fallbacks they can put in place."
Electronic voting machines, of various sorts, have been in use for more than 20 years. They are not only used in the United States, but in Latin America and other foreign lands.

These machines and their software and firmware have been tested and debugged and tested and debugged multiple times. New generations of voting machines are released every year, it seems, as improvements are implemented and defects are corrected. They are tested by independent testing labs, by state and local election officials, and by national standards boards.

In other words, by the time they are deployed, they are ready.

The only question is, are the people who use them ready?

There is a serious concern about the amount of training received by pollworkers across the country. An article in the August 2006 issue of Campaigns & Elections magazine (which is accessible online only by subscribers -- and I am not, though I should be) has an article entitled "The Neglected Threat," by Jeanne Zaino, which notes:
As we look toward midterms, the situation involving pollworkers remains problematic. Those working the more than 180,000 polling sites across the nation are aging; two years ago, the average poll worker in the United States was 72 years old. Most are temporary employees or volunteers who [are] asked to work long hours for little pay. In the 2004 election, poll workers in Indiana were paid $75 per day, while precinct leaders received $150. That same year poll workers in San Luis Obispo County received $97, plus $10 for attending a three-hour training course. Poll workers in New York City are paid more than most. In 2004, they got a $200 stipend that, after working the required shift of at least 16 hours, amounts to about $13 per hour after taxes.

In Washington state shifts run 15 hours or more with a one-hour break. As poll worker Genie Dickinson noted, "Most poll workers are seniors, and few are accustomed to even an eight-hour workday. When polls close, a portion of workers can't compute the arithmetic necessary to complete paperwork. Others feel too pooped to care."
I am pleased to report that in Charlottesville, we are and have been addressing these issues.

First, in concert with the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, the Office of Voter Registration and Elections is recruiting and training college students to perform the duties of election officials in Charlottesville, thereby lowering the average age of the pollworkers here. Last year's crop of college election officials was enthusiastic, hardworking, and almost uniformly said they would do the job again in coming years. In addition, Charlottesville has for several years -- from the time it became legal to do so -- recruited and deployed high school students, not yet eligible to vote and therefore not yet eligible to serve as an election officials, to be "pages" on election day, helping the precinct chiefs in whatever capacity they can, from running errands and making phone calls to handing out "I Voted!" stickers -- tasks that are not required to be done by properly appointed election officials.

In regard to long hours, Charlottesville was the first jurisdiction in Virginia to adopt "split shifts," in an effort to lessen the burden on senior citizens, parents, and others who want to contribute something to the community on election day but cannot devote a full 14, 15, or 16 hours to do so.

The way the split shift works is this: Some of our election officials work all day, including the chiefs and assistant chiefs in each precinct. Others work from 5:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. (the morning shift) and the rest work from 12:00 noon to the close of polls at 7:00 p.m. (the afternoon shift). Some workers have to remain behind after the polls close to perform closing operations after the last voter has cast her ballot and the doors are locked shut.

There is no legal reason, in Virginia at least, for other cities and counties not to adopt the split shift format. In other states, their election law codes may prohibit pollworkers from entering or leaving the polling place during the course of the voting day, so those laws would have to be modified to allow it.

In her article, Zaino quotes Thad Hall, a professor at the University of Utah, who notes:
A voter's experience with their poll worker plays a key role in determining how satisfied they are in the election process and whether they have confidence that their vote was counted accurately.
Charlottesville's Electoral Board receives very few complaints from voters about surly, unhelpful, incompetent, or otherwise unacceptable election officials. (I won't exaggerate and say we receive no such complaints, but at each election they can be counted on the fingers of one hand.) We attribute this both to the high quality of the persons who volunteer to work as election officials twice (or more) each year, but also to our insistence on training each worker in the weeks leading up to election day. (Virginia state law requires a certain amount of training before each election, but Charlottesville generally goes beyond the minimum requirement.)

Training is vital. As Jeanne Zaino says in her C&E article:
Poorly trained workers can rob citizens of their vote and change an election's outcome. Since 2006 and 2008 promise to include a number of close and hotly contested races, it is more critical than ever to have enough well-trained workers manning the nations' polling sites.
A first-person account of Tuesday's Maryland elections in this morning's Washington Post adds some flavor and insight to Zaino's broader point. Karen Yudelson Sandler writes:
None of us election officials had assembled as a team before Monday night, when we set up the polls and went through a flurry of checklists. There were eight of us: four Republicans and four Democrats. That night, we spent most of our time hunting for things. Finding the little printers that go with the electronic poll books required a call to the Montgomery County Board of Elections. And then there was the big bag that was not to be opened until the next morning -- where the voting access cards were supposed to be found....

The complaint I heard most often from would-be voters was that they didn't believe the provisional ballot was confidential. However, my main concern was a result of what I learned during our brief training: that a provisional ballot is the lowest of the low when it comes to the caste system of ballots. Our trainer more than implied that such ballots might end up on a shelf somewhere and never be looked at by anyone. And long before we were informed by the Board of Elections late in the afternoon, we heard an announcement on the radio that the closing time would be extended until 9 p.m.
That trainer was just plain wrong -- now because of HAVA (the Help America Vote Act of 2002), every state, and for many years before that, in Virginia, provisional ballots are treated both with utmost confidentiality and with respect. A provisional vote is a real vote. If the voter who casts the ballot is a qualified voter, it is counted just as every other ballot is counted. It is not discarded or ignored.

No wonder Montgomery County turned into such a royal mess.

When I meet election officials from across the country (registrars, election administrators, and others who are in charge of their local operations), I am always impressed at their attention to detail, insistence on discipline, and dedication to serving their "customers" (that is, voters and candidates) with professionalism and political neutrality.

Of course, most of those I meet from outside Virginia are those who use the Hart Intercivic eSlate and BallotNow systems, so perhaps that group of users constitutes a special breed. Yet I don't think that narrow interpretation is warranted. I think it applies across the board, with a few bad apples (think Montgomery County, Maryland) strewn here and there.

Still, if I want to leave any message here, it is that whatever problems are encountered on November 7, those problems will be human problems, not technological problems. Don't blame the machine.

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