A few weeks ago I served as an election judge for Allegheny County. Today, four weeks after that election, the results have finally been certified. I’m a little worried that they claim they were finding misplaced ballots, but it’s not that surprising, all things considered.
I had quite a few people raise concerns about the election while I was serving as judge, and I informed all those people that I would forward their concerns to the board of elections. Shortly after the election I mailed a letter with these concerns and my own observations of the process and how to streamline the process some. It’s been three weeks now, and I still haven’t received even a phone call. What’s a guy to do? Post the letter in his blog. Yes, fellow citizens of Allegheny County, someone is trying to do stuff about this – however, we’ll have to wait and see if anything happens as a result of this.
Division of Elections Allegheny County 542 Forbes Ave., Room 609 Pittsburgh, PA 15219-2953
Dear Sir or Madam:
On May 16th, 2006 I had the privilege to serve as an election judge for the primary election in the 14th ward, 26th district of Pittsburgh. It was my first time serving on election day, which made things very interesting. Overall, the experience was very positive. The rest of the election board was very skilled, hard working, and most importantly, experienced. Thanks to their hard work, we had almost no issues for our district. The few voter issues we did have were resolved in fairly short order. However, it is likely that the only reason we had the time to resolve these issues was because of the very low voter turnout, during the November election, which will see much higher turnout, we may not be able to adequately address all the voter needs.
In particular, there are some issues that I would be negligent if I did not address before the November election. One of the largest issues is the lack of a paper trail related to the ballots. I volunteered to serve as a judge because I wanted insight into how these machines worked and how the voters used the machines and what their reactions were. During the day, I kept a tally of the voters who asked questions about the machines and their lack of a paper trail. Of the 143 voters at our district, 12 raised concerns about the lack of a paper trail from the voting machines. Each of these people raised their concerns without my prompting. In particular, one voter wanted to cast a paper ballot to show her opposition to the current voting machines. When I explained that she would most likely be the only person to vote on paper that day, and that as a result, her vote would not be at all anonymous, she expressed grave concern and said she was “stuck between a rock and a hard place”. She agreed to vote using the iVotronic machines only after I assured that I would forward her issues to the department of elections.
Many of these voters, eight to be precise, were aware of the issues with lever voting machines and their inaccuracies and lack of a true paper trail. However, they were concerned that with the lever machines small inaccuracies were common, but with the iVotronic machines, a large scale attack could possibly be launched. One voter, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, was concerned that although we posted a zero tape on the wall, it was trivially easy to write a program that would print out zeroes next to each candidates name at the start of the morning. He also expressed the opinion that a similar program could be created to print the final tapes at the end of the night. If combined with machine tampering, it would be impossible to know if the will of the people was followed or not. Four of these voters expressed the opinion that voting with optical scan ballots might be better. I took a chance to explain to these people some of the problems with optical scan ballots, in particular, the exploit from Harry Hursti that allows for placing negative votes for a candidate. Only one of these voters correctly realized that the Hursti exploit relies on AccuBasic, a feature only present on Diebold machines.
I also took a chance to explain to each of the voters who asked about the lack of a voter verifiable paper audit trail on the electronic voting machines why under the current set of laws we cannot have a paper trail in Pennsylvania. Namely that the current offering from ES&S produces a sequential roll of paper from which we could derive the votes of each voter. A few asked why they couldn’t have a stub to take home, and I explained the issue with vote selling. One voter correctly surmised that if ES&S iVotronic machines were able to cut off each stub of paper and drop it into a box, that this would satisfy the requirements for the commonwealth. Given the size of the contract from Allegheny county, it is my belief that the county would be well served in pressing ES&S for such a device. If this is not possible, it would be nice to have information for voters regarding the requirements of voting machines in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania and a brief explanation of the security measures of the iVotronic voting machines. I strongly believe that the addition of a paper trail will be bring confidence to the electoral process, however, if that is not possible, a better explanation would help significantly. The other people on the election board in my district were unaware of the controversy regarding the electronic voting machines.
While the paper trail was the largest issue raised by voters, there were a handful of other issues that should be addressed. Firstly, while the machines are a step forward in terms of accessibility from the old lever machines, they lack a consistent user interface. In particular, the shift from having to use the touch screen to the vote button and back to the touch screen confused many voters. After about ten voters had been processed at our district, we began to give a brief tutorial to the voter about how to use the machine when we brought up their ballot. Many people indicated this was very helpful, however we’re not sure how well it will work in November when we are much busier and cannot take an additional minute to explain the usage of the machine. Another common complaint about the user interface was that it was inconsistent about how to move around. In particular, we had numerous voters request assistance after getting to the end of page two of the ballot and not remember they needed to press “review” to continue with the process. Perhaps a smaller set of instructions that can be taped inside the “wings” of the voting machine would be helpful for explaining how to do common tasks on the machine.
Within our district we had several voters who had poor vision – each of these individuals was offered the ability to use an audio ballot instead of the visual ballot, however none took advantage of this. I’m not 100% sure why this is, but one voter in particular indicated he would feel “strange” doing that. This voter instead took a long time and looked very closely at the ballot to read the names on the ballot. Another voter signed a declaration of assistance and had his wife help him. Neither of these two voters were blind, however the font size on the display was far too small for them to easily read. The demonstration provided on the ES&S website for the iVotronic shows a machine with a “zoom” option. When pressed, this zooms in the ballot with large print on a particular race. For these voters, such an innovation would be a wonder. I highly recommend looking into this for the November race as it will bring new freedom for these voters. For those who cannot read at all (because of blindness, illiteracy, etc), more information may be helpful to describe what the audio ballot is. As poll workers, none of us had ever used the audio ballot, and when I asked about it at the training session I was told that it takes a long time. The ability to present the same ballot in multiple ways is one of the strongest features of these machines, I believe that Allegheny county should be taking advantage of it.
There were four voters that asked about the openness of the new machines layout, indicating that they were slightly leery of the fact that anyone could see who was voting even if they could not see their votes. While some of this was just yearning for the curtain enclosed lever booths, others seemed generally concerned they may be influenced or feel rushed – especially if a long line was developing. The best explanation I could come up with was that the open nature prevented someone from using a camera phone and taking a video of the casting of their ballot – thus preventing a new avenue for vote selling. Isthere an official explanation of why the booths are so open, or is it just a design issue?
There were several other minor issues mainly related to running of the election and not so much related to voter issues that should have been addressed too. Firstly, it was a poor decision to have the PEBs sealed in the ballot box at the end of the night as this required the election board to open up the ballot box which may have had optical scan ballots in it. Fortunately, our district had no optical scan ballots – there was a single absentee, which was a military write in ballot that was filled out completely. Were there a handful of people who voted by optical scan ballot, they ballots would be in nearly sequential order and their votes could be found out.
The process for the handling of absentee ballots was confusing. Firstly, there was little guidance about what to do if a voter who was on the absentee list arrived to vote. We were told that they could vote and we should dispose of their absentee ballot, however this is in direct contradiction to the text of the voting card which a voter signs. On these cards, the voter is making a declaration that they haven’t voted by absentee or any other means. Clearly, these issues need to be reconciled.
Another large difficulty we had was closing down the polls at the end of the night. There was no cohesive set of instructions for all the envelopes or source of all the documents. In fact, both districts at our polling place lacked the affidavit form we needed to sign if one initialed in the voter book. If this material were better organized, perhaps into a binder format with a checklist for the end of the night, it is my belief that things would go better and faster. As a judge, one thing I struggled with, and I noticed many others also were struggling with was what material to bring into Reisenstein school at the end of the night, what to put in the ballot box, and what to leave in the suitcase. A single checklist of tasks could make this much easier and save time for all those involved in the election process.
Finally, one point where there was much confusion was regarding canceled ballots. In the training session we were told that a canceled ballot would show up on the public count for the voting machine, when in fact they did not (this was confirmed by speaking with the judge in a neighboring district during the day who did not see any result from canceling votes). Was this the same issue that prevented the sample machines used in training from counting canceled ballots? Or are canceled ballots only counted in the protected count, or not at all? If canceled ballots are not counted is there harm in the judge opening up a ballot and showing a voter how to use it and then canceling that ballot before bringing the voter her ballot? Being able to show exactly what happens on the ballot would make explanation of the ballot much easier than having to leave the area around the voter as soon as they opening instructions disappeared.
Overall I had a very positive experience serving Allegheny County on election day. It was a wonderful introduction into the nitty-gritty elements of democracy. The election went much smoother than most imagined. However, if voter turnout is high in November, which given the current Governor and Senate races in the commonwealth it probably will be, then addressing some of these issues now could significantly help out in the future. The favor of a reply to these issues would be appreciated as I believe it will make the election process run smoother and allow me to better serve the county. You can reach me at the above address, or by telephone at 412-XXX-XXXX.