The Intersection: Nov 2016

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The On-the-Ground Logic of Election Day

On Nov. 8, 2016, I worked as an election judge in Dallas County at the downtown courthouse. Beyond all the craziness of the day and the stories from the experience (“no, sir, I can’t hold your knife”), my main takeaway is the level of organization and logic behind it all.

At my location, there were 835 successful voters. Think of all of the logistics that go into that seemingly small number.

Dallas County has nearly 1.3 million registered voters. Over 750,000 voted for president. In Texas, there were over 8.9 million voters across the state. There are so many moving pieces and hidden costs I can’t even fathom. Even each “I voted” sticker costs an estimated 15 cents, or likely over $100,000 for Dallas county alone.

During Early Voting in Dallas County, a voter can go to at any of the 25 special early voting locations. Because there are fewer locations, votes can be cast through an electronic voting machine that can bring up an exact ballot from each precinct.

There are not enough voting machines for the 797 voting precincts in Dallas County, so on Election Day a voter’s name only appears in one place, at their particular voting location, and if the voter’s name is not on that list the voter cannot cast a vote at that location.

About 20% of those who showed up to vote at the courthouse had to be redirected elsewhere. And while there was a legitimate reason for some confusion, many voters had no idea why they couldn’t just vote anywhere.

Let me explain with a couple of stories.

Because elections are run on the county-level with each guided by their own rules, a vote cannot be counted outside of the precinct where the voter is registered and lives, even for president. This fact led one angry Minnesotan to scream at me for suppressing his vote because he was a white, Republican male. I am a white, Republican male. This fact didn’t calm him down and the security guards that work at the courthouse came to pay a visit.

In another case, a young woman came in to vote. We checked the voter book and couldn’t find her. We asked if she had a voter registration card, and she didn’t. As it turns out, she not only was from San Antonio but didn’t register to vote within 30 days of the election (so her name could be included in the voter book in her specific precinct). In fact, she admitted she wasn’t registered to vote at all.

When she was told that she wouldn’t be able to vote, and that in any case she would have to vote in the area where she could have actually registered to vote, she proudly, loudly and defiantly declared that she could not be refused the right to vote. To some extent, this is true: it is not our role to officially decide whether she can cast a ballot.

So, she was able to fill out the ballot. But, to do so, she had to follow these steps:

  • She was allowed to choose between no fewer than three identical ballots that had to be spread out on the table because she had to be able to hand select her ballot to ensure election workers weren’t giving her an altered or marked ballot.
  • She had to be offered information on how provisional ballots are counted, given a voter registry to sign, and paperwork to fill out, stating why she has no choice but to vote provisionally.
  • Once her ballot was filled out, she had to stuff it into a secrecy envelope, which she then had to stuff into a mailing envelope to send it to her local precinct, which she then had to stuff in the provisional ballot box herself. By rule, she must do ALL of those actions herself to ensure election workers don’t tamper with her ballot.
  • Then her ballot would be sent to her home precinct where six judges ― three from each major party ― would rule on the ballot within two weeks. If approved, only the votes for candidates on her local ballot would be counted. In this case, the rule is pretty clear: if you aren’t registered to vote, your vote doesn’t count. Her ballot will be thrown out, without question.

Out of 835 voters at our location on Election Day, we had 20 similar provisional ballots, although most with more merit, and we had to go through a similar process for each of these ballots.  If you read your way through these steps, congratulations, it is even more exciting in person.

In the end, I was impressed by the logic inherent in every rule for voting.  Yet, I am certain that in the future there will be better, more efficient and cheaper ways to run our election system. However, with all of the cybersecurity vulnerabilities in the world, this might be the way it is for some time.

No matter what, I will still want my “I voted” sticker.