Doctor Science Knows

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

My Pollworker Story: Part 3

Previously: Parts 1&2: What it's like being a pollworker; mood of the electorate as I (over)heard it

Part 3. What I did as a pollworker, in mind-numbing detail.
(yeah, I said there would be stories about people next. I lied.)

I've been voting in Hopewell Township, Mercer County, NJ since 1985, so due to the extreme inconsistency of US voting practices I have no idea what goes on elsewhere. Thus, this report will be mind-numbingly detailed.

a. Who we were.

Our badges said "Official District Board Member", but I'm just going to call us "pollworkers". Pollworkers (at least in this part of NJ) are supposed to come in groups of at least four: 2 Democrats and 2 Republicans. We all showed up: two white Republican Catholics (I'll call them E and L), one black retired union Democrat (F), and me -- the white hyper-liberal granola technocrat Democrat. All women, and at age 50 I was by far the youngest. We talked about our kids and grandkids a lot -- political discussions are officially forbidden, which is just as well because I'm sure we would all agree on very little except not understanding people who don't bother to vote.

E and F had been pollworkers before, L and I were newbies -- L had been called in by the Republican Party only a few days ahead of time, to be the second Republican pollworker for this district. As it happened, none of us actually vote in the district where we were working, but we all live no more than one district away. Many, many of the voters were known to one or more of us personally, which is one of the reasons for having local pollworkers -- to have enough local knowledge to spot inconsistencies and to vouch for people. It also makes pollworking a very political experience in a classic sense: it gives you a real feeling for the polis, the community, as both a social and political unit.

b. The pre-dawn's early non-light.

The polls open at 6 AM, so we all got to the school which was the polling place at around 5:15, walking across the parking lot in the moonlight. We said hello to the night watchman, put the flag outside in the hallway, and started setting up the machines.

The machines we (and all of NJ?) uses are Sequoia AVC Advantage. In use the machines differ from the picture in having a curtain across the front that the voter pushes through to go into the "booth". When we got to the polling place the two machines were there, sealed and folded up. We had to unfold them, turn them on, initialize them, and get the "zero point" printout which verifies that the machine has zero votes recorded.

One of the machines gave an error message as it was booting up and one of the other pollworkers called the county voting machine office. They were able to send a signal of some sort -- I don't know what, I was setting up the other machine -- to the machine to get it properly initialized. That was the only glitch, and we were all set up and ready to go at 6AM when the first voters arrived.

c. How we vote around here.

We have two books of voter records, "A-K" and "L-Z" by last name. This particular district has about 830 registered voters. Each page of the registry book lists 5 voters, with name, address, date of birth, a copy of their signature on one side and a place for them to sign on the other. I can probably scan in part of a training example if people want to see what they look like.

The voter walks up to our table and if we're lucky has noticed the "A-K" and "L-Z" signs, so is in front of the pollworker with the correct book. We ask "Last name?", then flip through the book to the correct page, then verify their first name and/or address:


"Susie Q.?"

"No, Susan B."

"15 Heartbreak Lane?"


"Sign here." The voter then signs next to their old signature so we can compare the two -- and it's amazing to me how consistent a person's signature is. This is also when we ask for ID, which we only check for people who haven't voted in this district before.

While the voter is signing the book, the pollworker gets the Voting Authority ready. The VA is in two parts with matching numbers. One part stays bound in its book, and the voter prints and signs their name on that part. Meanwhile, the pollworker writes the VA number in the voter registry next to the voter's name. The voter then gets the second half of the VA and brings it up to the voting machine.

At the voting machine, a pollworker takes the VA and pushes a control button on the side to activate the machine to record a vote. We then use a needle to put the VA on a string tied to the side of the voting machine.

The voter goes through the curtains to the machine, where they see a piece of paper similar to the sample ballot:

stretched over a touchpad. They press the buttons marked on the paper, and lights appear on the touchpad underneath. There's also a keypad for write-in votes. When they're done, they push a red button at the bottom, the vote is recorded and the machine beeps to show that the vote has been recorded. The vote counter on the side of the machine increments the number of votes.

As you can see, voters could cast up to 11 votes, for 7 officials and 4 public questions. I would say this is about average for an even-numbered year. New Jersey's gubernatorial elections are held every four years, but in "off-years": 2001, 2005, 2009, etc. There are almost always public questions on the ballot, normally of a strictly fiscal nature.

d. Provisional ballots.

We only had two provisional ballots all day, while about 400 regular ballots were cast. The two cases were: a person who claimed to be registered but not to have voted in years, whose last name & address matched a person who was on the rolls and who he said was his wife; and a woman who had changed her name but was on the rolls under her old name.

Only one person was listed as "ID required" on the voter roll but had no ID. This was an 18 or 19-year old guy, first-time voter, there with his father because he doesn't drive. We offered him the choice of voting Provisional or going home and getting his wallet with his school photo ID, and he went home and came back. We hardly had any lines in the course of the day and the district is pretty small, so it delayed him less than half an hour.

New Jersey's Provisional Ballot has a brand-new design and doubles as a registration form, so no-one had used it before and we don't know yet how or if the system worked.

e. Wrapping up.

We had no challengers at our polling place until the last 15 or 20 minutes, when Democratic and Republican representatives showed up to wait for the results. As soon as the last voter got done we started packing up the machines. None of us had ever done this particular task before, which meant that we took the instruction sheet and went through it step by step, very carefully.

The basic steps are:

  1. Turn the switch to stop the voting. We were warned most strictly during training that once the switch was turned we wouldn't be able to re-start the machines and on no account to do it before 8 PM.
  2. When the switch is turned, the machine automatically starts printing out four copies of the the vote totals, which we all sign. We also sign the voter registry, and maybe something else, too -- there was a lot of signing.
  3. The provisional ballots get put in a special bag, and sealed. The recording cassettes from the voting machines get put into a very special bag and sealed.
  4. The machines are shut down and folded up, the vote totals are posted, we clean up and leave. The machines get picked up later.

f. Adding it up.

Then I drove the special bags, etc., over to the Township Offices and waited in line with people from the other polling places. We were all punchy with exhaustion, trading stories about what it had been like at our stations, who had done their share of the work and who hadn't, which places were well-organized and which weren't, where turnout was light or heavy. We gave the printed-out vote tallies and the sealed bags to the Township Clerk. The tallies were used as the basis for the numbers reported to the press by the Clerk, before she sent the sealed cassettes off to Trenton to the County Clerk for the official tally.

It was about 9:15PM when I finally staggered out, turned on the car, and heard election returns for the first time that day.


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