Experience Judging an Election
I volunteered to be an election judge in the
city of Baltimore because I'd been following the presidential race so
closely all year, and I wanted to make some kind of contribution to the
process. As one of Avi Rubin's
students, I also had an ulterior motive: I wanted to see firsthand how
people felt about
voting. Perhaps there were a lot of people
who felt as I did, or maybe it was the promise of the $125 paycheck,
but workers at the election board told me they'd never seen as many
volunteers as they did this year. In fact, the board was so
they were unable to find assignments for many judges.
I received a posting due to a
fluke, when a precinct in the
In my precinct, three out of five judges (including myself) were young people new to the process, which was gratifying, but also resulted in a certain amount of on-the-job learning. Because so many judges had failed to appear, the polls opened late and we were faced with a line of people who had been waiting for a half an hour. Our two Sequoia voting machines had been delivered the evening before the election, and spent the night unguarded in the polling place (an elementary school) before we got there. To activate them, a police officer ceremoniously handed over two sets of keys of the sort used to unlock file cabinets, one of which opened the machine case, and another began polling.
The Sequoia AVC Advantage machines we used
were not touch-screen
systems. Voters selected their candidates
by pressing buttons on a large printed ballot board equipped with
indicate voter choices. To handle
write-ins, the machine provided a row of alphabetical keys and a small
display. Unlike Diebold systems, our
voting system did not require us to program smartcards for individual
Aside from these differences, the Sequoia is much like other electronic voting machines. It’s a “black box” running proprietary software, with no voter receipt, and no real paper trail. Although each machine is equipped with a thermal printer, printouts are only generated at the beginning and end of each voting session. For the remainder of the day, the printer is inactive, locked inside the machine’s case.
My overall impression was that voters reacted
the machine. Only two people expressed
concerns about the electronic system—one who was genuinely upset and
felt that the machine would eat her
another who joked that she was “being set up” after a button became
she was unable to select a candidate.
Unfortunately, city regulations expressly prohibit us from
provisional paper ballots to “protesters” who don’t trust the voting
so we had to talk the first objector into using the machine, which she
some reluctance. We never did find a
solution to the sticky button other than advising voters to “push
was a recurring problem throughout the day, and we hope it didn’t
anyone from casting their vote.
Fortunately, we only fielded only one accusation of fraud, and
completely unrelated to voting machines: in the afternoon, a voter came
to us with a concern
deceased neighbor might be attempting to vote in the election. On closer examination, this turned out to be
nothing more than an old registration that hadn't been purged from
records-- the dead did not rise from the grave, at least not in my
One thing that did confuse us
slightly was the initial configuration of the voting machine when a
voter entered the booth. When a poll worker pressed the
"Activate" button to enable voting, we expected that the selection
lights would all go out, allowing the voter to begin with a clean
slate. Instead, a number of lights appeared in places that did
not correspond to actual voting options, usually above the list of
candidate names. From what we could tell, these lights were a
normal feature of the machine, and simply indicated that the voter had
not yet made a selection in that particular race. This was not something we had been told about during our
training the day before, but after examining the configuration, we came
to the conclusion that this was a normal default configuration, that
the lights were never located at actual voting positions, and that they
went out as soon as a voter made a choice in a particular race.
Although voting in our precinct was smooth
day, relations between the poll workers weren’t. It
took us a while to notice, but the two more
experienced Republican judges were not on good terms.
animosity was buried in the beginning
of the day as we were all rushing to get voting started.
Things started to get ugly later in the afternoon, when the
chief judge began arguing about minor procedural issues, such as
whether the maximum age for children allowed in the polling booth was
10 years or 12 years. When the other judge made it clear that he
didn't think it was a big deal, some strong words were exchanged.
Eventually, the chief judge called the attorney general in an attempt
to have his counterpart removed. A harried
representative of the election
board was dispatched, and very nearly fired both judges on the spot,
despite the fact
this would have shut down our polling place.
During the hour or so that this went on, we ran
the polls without their assistance, and finally appreciated why so many
judges had skipped work that morning.
Besides the rigmarole with machine keys, the main anti-tampering procedure we undertook on the machines was the “zero count”, a printout that shows the total number of votes, and the votes for each candidate—all of which should read zero at the start of polling. Obviously this does not protect against a very sophisticated tampering job, which could easily modify the way the machine works without upsetting the initial count. A less sophisticated job—for instance, a criminal picking the locks during the night and simply voting ballots—would have no affect on the vote totals, as the results cartridges are not inserted until voting begins on election machine. So while these mechanisms offer a sense of security, on closer examination they are of limited value.
Each machine also has a “protective counter”
total number of votes cast on that machine over the course of its
lifetime. According to news reports,
some election watchers in
Having spent a day observing the public’s reaction to electronic voting, my conclusion is that it’s going to be very difficult to educate people on the security weaknesses of these systems. The machines are generally easy for voters to use, and they greatly simplify the work of tallying and returning the results. Most people are accustomed to simply trusting technology, and it’s hard to explain why they need a voter-verified paper trail. Worse yet will be convincing election boards, who will almost certainly put up a huge fight to avoid the comparative hassle of using paper ballots.
Nonetheless, despite all of our procedures
precautions we took, we were all aware that there was little we could
there been a problem with the voting machine itself.
a ballot is cast, the only record of the
ballot is a digital image inside of the results cartridge, and the
of that image is entirely up to the manufacturer (or anyone with
to the machine, and the ability to reprogram it.) A
machine failure, a mistake, fraud—these are
things that are outside of our control. This
worries me, and unfortunately we may
never know whether or not such concerns are misplaced.
As I write this, the outcome of Ohio's
electors is still up in the air. With thousands of precincts, and
many provisional ballots uncounted, this election could be decided by a
small handful of votes on each voting machine throughout the
state. While I believe that it's unlikely that fraud will
determine this presidential election, we simply have no way to recount
these ballots should one side make the accusation. The end result
may be a general lessening in voter's confidence in the integrity of
elections, and that would be a great loss for our democracy.