Doing Time in Allegheny County

Thu, May 18, 2006 with tags allegheny county , election , electronic voting , voting

Ah yes, spring time in Pittsburgh. That wonderful time of the year when you leave the windows open, enjoy walks in the park, and get excited because baseball is now well under way. Well, most years this happens – just not this year – a combination of cold and rainy weather along with dismal starts from both the Pirates and the Twins has made May a little less than exciting. However, one thing still happened right as planned, the Pennsylvania state primary.

Yes, the primary, that wonderful time of year when you discover a real democrat is running against Doyle. However, aside from that race, and selecting the seven representatives for the state democratic committee, there really isn’t much to do. Nope, for most people the primary on Tuesday was nothing more than a formality. What made it interesting is that it was the first time that Allegheny County used the new electronic voting machines from ES&S.

I was curious about how all of this was going to work out, so I volunteered with the county board of elections to serve as an election judge. Within the county, each polling place has 5 or 6 people assigned to it - a judge who is in charge of the polling place, two inspectors who are the ones who run the machines, and two clerks who check folks in. Some polling places also have a constable present to help maintain order – especially useful when your senator, who lives in Virginia, tries to vote in Penn Hills. These folks get up dreadfully early the morning of the election and arrive at the polling place no later than 6:30 in order to have the polls set up and running by 7am.

Upon arrival, nothing is set up, but the machines had already been delivered. Before anything starts up, everyone must be sworn in. This requires at the minimum the minority inspector and judge to be present as the minority inspector swears in the judge who swears in everyone else – a sort of checks and balances system. At this point the machines can be opened up and the initial zero tape can be printed out. This tape, which must be posted at the polling place, shows that at the start of the morning all machines reported zero votes cast. Throughout the entire day only two people asked to see the zero tape, but I suppose that’s better than nothing. Along with the zero tape, a plethora of other literature is posted on the walls, some related to the duties of the election workers, some related to voters, others on how to use the machines, and of course, the American Flag and no smoking signs.

Processing voters is relatively easy and straight forward. One of the election works takes the PEB over to the machine and sets up the ballot for them, they then start to vote. The user interface is a bit nightmarish and inconsistent – but it looks like that’s something they can fix in the future. On our setup, one needs to select all their candidates, then hit a new touch screen button labeled “Review”, then hit a blinking red button not on the screen that says “Vote”, then hit the green button that appears on the touch screen that says “Confirm”. It’s confusing for lots of folks. We found that if we gave the voters a quick tour of how to interact with the machines that they usually could figure it out.

On occasion we had voters who had some issues with the machines. Usually, thanks largely to the setup of the machines, we could get a very good idea of what was going on without seeing their ballot. I think throughout the entire day I only saw one persons ballot and that was because they forgot they needed to press the review button after viewing page two of the ballot. Overall, we did not have to cancel a single vote and every one of the 143 voters at our polling place used the machines. There was one voter who wanted to use a paper ballot, but the worker who has processing them did not provide the correct information and made it sound as though the paper were only if the machines broke – this was not the case on Tuesday – any voter could have used the paper ballot. In our case we lucked out because dealing with paper ballots would have been much more difficult for us.

Turnout was VERY low for the election. By noon only about 60 people had voted – by the end of the day we hit about 23% turnout - 143 people. The afternoon was certainly the slowest time, lots of time to talk to Ian and learn how to do Sudoku and that sorta stuff. At 8pm everyone was certainly eager to close the polls. Scratch that, at 7:30pm they were eager to close the polls and started taking stuff down. They were very disappointed when we discovered that we cannot close the voting machines before 8pm. When 8pm rolled around closing the machines was pretty straight forward, using a special master PEB we closed the machines sequentially and printed out a tape of the final tally at the end. The tape came out, and told us who won each race in our district. Unfortunately, we have no way to verify that this was the case.

The hardest part of the night was dealing with all the other paper work required. Unfortunately, the instructions are in a dozen different places and seemed to be conflicting. For the November election I’m going to make one master list of what needs to be done so we can just follow that. We produced four copies of our final tallies, sent one with the minority inspector, posted one on the front door of the school, and I took two with me to the county elections board – along with the absentee ballots, which are counted at the central county location.

Dropping stuff off at the county was a mad house. Hundreds of election judges dropping off dozens of boxes. Security was pretty good though, plenty of officers directing people and watching the ballot boxes. I was in and out in about 20 minutes. Paperwork all stamped, and in another few days I should get my $120 for my hard work.

In another few days I’ll write up some stuff on issues voters had with the machines. Particular regarding the number of voters concerned with both usability of the machines and the lack of a voter verifiable paper trail.