The entrance where I spent 12.5 hours Tuesday. First UMC, Lancaster.

I worked at my polling place for 14 straight hours on Tuesday. I walked half a block to First United Methodist Church, the polling location for Lancaster’s 6th Ward, 1st Precinct, at 6:30 a.m. and left at 9:30 p.m.  I had a good time with the other poll workers—Bill from state senator Gib Armstrong’s staff, who was there to oppose the Lancaster County Home Rule Charter; Charlie the Democratic Committee’s precinct captain; Roy, a gentleman of 67 who was there to support Bob Barr and other Libertarian-minded third-party candidates; and Leslie and Jessica who came from Millersville University to help Spanish-speaking voters.

I was there to support a vote in favor of the Home Rule Charter. I’m pleased to say that my neighbors came through—our precinct voted in favor of the charter by 61% to 39%, and only 83 of 584 voters chose not to vote on the question at all. Every voter was interesting, and I wish I could remember and write about them all.

The most interesting stuff, however, happened after the polls closed, when I took of my propaganda T-shirt and pin, stuck on my official “Poll Watcher” sticker, and walked inside just before the doors were locked, with my certificate from the county authorizing me to be there.

First, a “voting abnormality” story from the afternoon. A true patriot named Sarah, who is about my age and lives just down the block from me on the other side of the street (I’d never met her before), came to vote and found she was no longer in the signature book for this voting location. She had voted there on the last four elections, but somehow she had been purged from the rolls. The election workers at our polling place made a good-faith effort to find out where she was supposed to vote. They successfully helped at least a dozen other people find their correct polling place throughout the day, but not so with Sarah. She wound up going to three other polling places, only to be sent back to our location an hour and a half later. The judge of elections inside our location then instructed her to cast a provisional ballot.

The certificate and sticker that allowed me to stay past closing.

The idea behind a provisional ballot is simple: you complete a regular ballot, then have it sealed inside a green envelope on which is written your contact information and a description of the problem. You and an elections official then sign the envelope. Later, your provisional ballot is reviewed by the Board of Elections. They determine if in fact the mistake was their own (it usually is), and if so, they then include the provisionally-cast ballot in the final, official vote count. They also correct the mistake for the next election. (They don’t tell you if they have counted your vote or not, or if they have corrected the mistake or not. You either have to go to all sorts of trouble to find out on your own, or just wait until the next election and try your luck then.)

Here’s what happened: Sarah filled out her provisional ballot, then took it, along with the big green envelope, to the nearest election worker inside the polling place. He didn’t speak much English, was generally excited and antsy (and an ardent Obama supporter), and had never done the job before. He took the ballot from her and immediately ran it through the ballot scanner. He thanked her and sent her outside. When she walked out the door, we saw her still holding the big green envelope and the legal-sized manila folder in which the ballots are handed out.

We realized something was wrong and tried to figure out what to advise her to do. When we realized that her vote had been counted but her name had not been written on the list of people who voted there, we realized something had to be said, or else there would be trouble reconciling the votes at the end of the night. (We were wrong about that. It wouldn’t have caused any problem or discrepancy to be noticed at all. More on that in a second.) Charlie called his folks at the Democratic headquarters. They couldn’t find anything in the elections laws or procedures covering the situation. So Charlie went back inside with Sarah and explained the situation to the judge of elections. She didn’t know what to do, but took note of the problem and wrote detailed notes to be included in her report to the Board of Elections at the end of the night.

Let’s jump back to 8 p.m., when the polls closed. Two of the elections workers had to leave right away, though the judge of elections had been counting on them to stay through the counting and closing, leaving four people to do all the work.

They proceeded with the vote count in the prescribed order:

Only 35 of 565 voters at my polling place chose to vote via eSlate, which leaves no paper trail.
  1. Close the eSlate machine. Throughout the day, 35 people had used the fully-electronic, touch-screen machine, which leaves no paper trail of any sort. Their votes were processed: 14 had voted straight Democratic and 1 had voted straight Republican; Obama registered 29 votes total, McCain 5, and Nader 1.
  2. Remove the paper ballots from the scanner machine, stack them neatly, and put them in a big zippered canvas bag to be returned to the Board of Elections.
  3. Open the absentee ballots that belonged to this precinct and scan them. There were 21 absentee ballots. One of them wouldn’t scan, even though it only had a minor tear at the bottom, and even though the scanner will accept a ballot oriented in any direction (and even though they attempted a fix with Scotch tape). The one that wouldn’t scan was sent to the Board of Elections, but was never included in the count that the polling place submitted in its election-night return.
  4. Close out the ballot scanning machine. Obama had 431 votes, McCain 105, Nader 4, and Bob Barr 4. Write-ins are counted and entered up to one month later, mostly by hand.

Because I was concerned to make sure that the earlier situation with Sarah’s provisional ballot was handled properly, I was keeping close tabs on the total vote count. Here is the raw data I wound up collecting:

  • 565 names had been written in the book of voters who entered the polling place. (When you sign your name in the signature book, an election worker writes your name on a numbered list.)
  • 555 paper ballots had been used that day. 13 of those were “spoiled”—i.e., someone messed up and needed to start over. (The “spoiled” ballots were collected, put in a sealed envelope, and returned to the Board of Elections.) The polling venue had started the day with 1,120 paper ballots. They had 565 left over. (That, at least, added up.)
  • 35 voters had voted via the eSlate.
  • 1 voter (Sarah) had her paper ballot scanned but did not have her name recorded on the list of voters.
  • 21 absentee ballots had been received. 20 of those had been scanned; 1 was unable to be scanned. (None of them had been checked against the list of people who voted, to double-check that no one cast an absentee ballot and then wound up attempting to vote in person.)
  • 548 ballots had been counted by the scanning machine.
  • 17 provisional ballots had been (properly) cast and were waiting in green envelopes to be sent to the Board of Elections.

Here then, is the problem:

565 voters had come through the door and had their names written down on the list of people who voted
+1 voter’s ballot was counted but her name did not appear on that list
+21 voters’ absentee ballots had submitted
=587 voters.

Compare that to this:

548 ballots were counted by the scanning machine
+1 ballot (absentee) would not scan
+35 ballots were cast electronically (via the eSlate)
=584 ballots counted.

Oops. Our polling place records showed 587 legitimate voters (they appeared in the signature book and thus were allowed to vote at this precinct). Our polling place records showed 584 ballots had been counted.


This concerned the judge of elections when I was able to spell it out clearly and simply. She asked to keep the piece of paper on which I had written the (above) simple arithmetic with notes, and she included those in her report. But, she said, “that always happens every time.”

There are possible explanations.

  • Someone could have come through the door, signed the signature page, had his or her name written on the list of voters, and then decided it wasn’t worth waiting in line any more and left without actually casting a ballot. That’s unlikely, though, because they would likely have made that decision after having been handed a paper ballot, and all the paper ballots were accounted for. (No one walked out the door with a ballot, in other words.) With only 35 people using the eSlate, there was never a line for people who weren’t using paper ballots.
  • An election worker could have written down someone’s name on the list of voters, only to discover that (oops!) that person wasn’t in the signature book and needed to cast a provisional ballot instead. (And then didn’t do anything about the mistake.) This, too, is unlikely. One of the election workers remaining at the end of the day had been at the “registration” table all day, where they check voters’ names against the signature book and write down their names on the list. She had no recollection of any mishap like the one I suggest was possible. Also, for much of the day a poll watcher from the Democratic Committee was there checking names against her own list, serving as a sort of watchdog. Further, the person writing down people’s names refers to the signature book for the proper spelling of the name. If it’s not there in the signature book, it’s unlikely it would be written down on the list.

What happened to those three voters, their three ballots?

I registered my concern and the judge of elections duly noted it, even as she said that such abnormalities are the norm. I had no desire to make a stink, only to do what I considered my duty as a poll watcher.

Instant runoff ballots are surprisingly straightforward.

We live in a democracy, the world’s first and longest-standing. If there is one thing we should get all but perfect, it is voting. We obviously don’t. The means of voting we use are grossly inconsistent between locales. We use electronic machines that can be tampered with and that leave no paper trail, verifiable or otherwise. (State representative Mike Sturla told me and my fellow poll workers of a reported tampering method: At the beginning of the day, the machines are checked to make sure that they have “zero” votes. McCain having -10 votes and Obama having +10 votes equals zero, and counts as zero. Diebold has claimed that they have corrected the error that allows that to happen, but even if that is true, what have they not caught or accounted for?) Perhaps worst of all, we staff the polling places with honorable and noble citizens who unfortunately are under-trained and unable to stay a full day to ensure consistency. They are responsible for making calculations and following strict (but often obscure) procedures at the end of a tiring 14- or 15-hour shift. We have yet to adopt worthwhile advances in modern-day voting such as instant-runoff voting, which would allow people to vote based on their conscience rather than based on political strategy.

I am troubled by all of this, but at the moment not all that deeply, and I have no plans to take any real action on these problems any time soon. Should I be more troubled? Should we be doing something more?

P.S. Be sure to check out the detailed initial returns from Tuesday for Lancaster County.

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8 thoughts on “What I Saw as a Poll Watcher

  1. As disconcerting as this is…I would imagine that it IS the norm. And that is in a small precinct where distractions, etc. are at a minimum, and therefore you would expect things to run fairly smoothly. Just imagine, though, what the “norm” must be in an election like this for large and extremely busy precincts in places like Philadelphia.

    I guess all that we can hope is that the margin of error is small enough, and that it impacts all parties equally, and therefore, somehow, kinda maybe balances out.

    Just seems that no matter what method you use: paper, punch, electronic…there will always be some inherent problem, along with built-in possibilities for fraud.

  2. Let me add to my last comment that I have one friend who moved from York County to Lancaster County this year. Her father went to one of the polling places to vote and called her and said “I saw your name on the books and that you hadn’t voted yet!” She responded that she had voted. But in the other county. So theoretically, if she had known, she could have voted twice…once in each county. Not sure if, or how, that would have been caught. And that’s just one example of a flaw in this highly imperfect system. It was some sort of accident, but makes you wonder how someone could use that flaw to perpetuate voter fraud…

  3. I’m confused; are you allowed to wear propaganda while working at a poll? In our state that’s not allowed. That’s really interesting!

    Our son, who had an absentee ballot and managed to lose it, was hassled a wee bit by an older man who was working at our polling point. The guy probably thought, “You silly boy, you lose your ballot, you lose your vote!” Just like what most parents might think. 🙂

    Our neighbors used to be on the list twice, once as Republicans and once as Democrats. Since I now vote absentee I have no idea if they ever fixed that. Guess they could get two votes in, although they are rather striking people (incredibly tall) so folks who work at the polling place might recognize them.

  4. We’re allowed to wear propaganda while standing 10 feet or more from where people actually vote. In my case, that was just outside the front doors of the church. I worked there all day until the poll closed, then I took off the propaganda to go inside and watch the votes get counted.

  5. I like your detailed analysis. We need more folks like you to keep us from falling through the cracks.

  6. I had a similar non-issue with my registration status to some of the people above. When my husband went online to confirm that we’re both registered to vote, the website said I was registered twice. I called and they said it would be fixed after the election. When I got to my polling place, there was my name in the book twice! I don’t know if I could have gotten away with it in a precinct like mine (Leola, PA), but in a larger city I probably could have voted twice if I spaced it out by 6 hours or so.

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