Just because you have technology to throw at a process or problem doesnt mean it will actually help. There are many places where pushing the technological envelope has no place at all. And next week, a record number of Americans are expected to visit one of them: Its their local polling place.
Here in California weve dumped a test of new touch-screen voting in favor of older technology that has proven itself over many years of use throughout the country. I know this because on Election Day, Ill be part of my precincts Election Board, a five-member group given the task of running the polling place.
Thursday, I spent nearly five hours in training with a group of my fellow election officials, a largely female group of mostly senior citizens. At 45, I wasnt the youngest person in the room, but it was close. There were about 50 of us, part of an army of 1,000 county election officials, by my count, who have to be trained before Tuesday.
Together, we learned the wonders of Diebold Election Systems AccuVote system.
We also learned how to handle the myriad problems we might face on Tuesday. Almost all are solved the same way: Let anybody vote who wants to, document the problems, and let the election department sort them out later.
In other words, if someone appears at our polling place and says, “Hello Earthlings, Im from Mars and I want to vote,” well hand the alien a provisional ballot, that all-purpose problem-solver, and send him/her/it off to vote. Once the alien makes its choice, the ballot will be sealed in an envelope, the outside of which has a place for our inspector—as a newbie I am merely a clerk—to write up the problem.
Back at headquarters and several days after the election, all the provisional ballots will be dealt with by other election workers and county staff. Some ballots will be counted and others thrown out based on an investigation of each individual problem. Thats what “provisional” means.
No one in our country who wants a chance to vote will be denied one. Its just that many of those votes will, for one reason or another, not count. Each provisional voter gets a receipt and can call in and find out what happens with their ballot.
What the AccuVote system has that I like—and all-electronic systems lack—is an auditable paper trail and a signature from every voter, each of whom leaves with a receipt.
AccuVote uses paper ballots on which the voter uses a marking pen to fill in ovals for each candidate and issue they choose to vote on. The voter, or one of the election officials, then feeds the marked ballot through a scanning reader that records the votes and then slides the ballot into the locked ballot box.
Thats if everything goes well, which it should for the vast majority of our voters.
More Paperwork, Better Reliability
At the end of the day, following 13 hours of voting, we will scan a special card that locks the AccuVote reader.
The machine will print two copies of our precincts voting tallies, one that gets posted outside the polling place, which in our case is a residential garage. We will then account for every ballot assigned to our precinct and make sure the number of voter signatures we have matches the number of ballots cast.
Theres more paperwork to complete, but in the end the whole package is signed, sealed and delivered to one of several collection locations.
I spent most of the training time trying to find holes in the system or ways our election could be compromised. There are many safeguards, the most basic of which is that two of us must be physically with the ballots at all times. Our signatures will appear on all the documents and seals. There is also a memory chip locked into each AccuVote machine that can also be used to tally the votes if all the paper is lost.
We wont be using the modem built into the AccuVote scanner. While this could speed getting the results into election HQ, California has—wisely, I think—decided that sending results via modem is too prone to spoofing. While any bogus modem results would quickly be discovered through cross-checking, why risk putting out bad numbers in the first place?
Eventually, Diebold or someone will get electronic voting right, though I bet it will still involve some form of auditable paper ballot. Perhaps the touch screens will merely generate paper ballots, capable of being counted separately and providing a receipt for voters.
But I really dont know what the hurry is. The AccuVote system we have is a vast improvement over the hanging chads generated by punch-card balloting and seems to work well. Our scanned ballot system is simple enough that an average voter can help run an election. It also lacks the fraud potential of an all-electronic system.
Surveys find many Americans are concerned about Tuesdays election becoming a repeat of the controversial 2000 vote. Im concerned, too, so much that on Tuesday Ill spend 15 hours making sure that at least in my precinct everybodys vote gets counted.
Sure, I can think of a better way to spend a Tuesday. But compared with the sacrifices many have made—and are making even as you read this—my contribution to democracy is a small one. Yours is even easier to make: Just brave the lines and go vote. See you at the polls!