The True Confessions of an Election Official
Inside the machinery of the 2008 vote
USA '08 I am a PEO, a Precinct Election Official in Iowa, working on the 2008 General Election. Iowa is the first Caucus in the US Presidential Election. It's considered a bellwether state and provided the first upset victory for Barack Obama.
Although I've been working with Information Technology for 25 years, the IT mechanics of our electoral system are unlike anything I've ever imagined. It is a monumental undertaking, involving two parallel IT systems - one on paper, and one in the computer. Some of the paperwork systems are positively antiquated, while the computer systems are cutting edge. Everything is done in duplicate, on the computer and on paper, taking at least twice as much effort as necessary.
Most of the people working within the system are dedicated, overworked people working more for the principles of Democracy than the money, but a few are positively incompetent. Fortunately, the audit trails find their mistakes.
The system is brilliant in its inefficiency.
The elections office is a virtual corporation. During the months and years between major elections, it hibernates, with only a skeleton staff of a few professionals, working under the County Auditor. They consult with lawyers and lawmakers to prepare procedures and test systems that will be deployed for a few short weeks during election season.
Then as elections near, dozens of temporary workers (like me) are hired to work in the office and Early Voting "satellite sites," and hundreds of PEOs are hired to work on Election Day. The dormant system roars into life, populated by new workers and new equipment, works at a furious pace handling tens of thousands of voters, accelerating towards Election Day, then suddenly it is all over. The equipment is packed away and the workers disperse until the next election.
When I started the job, I took an oath to uphold the laws of the State. But because we work like robots at repetitive tasks, I use Robocop's Prime Directives instead: Serve the public trust, Protect the innocent and Uphold the law. This actually seems to fit all circumstances I encounter.
My job is to serve the public by assisting them in expressing their political will at the polls. I uphold the law by observing dozens of tiny bureaucratic obscurities that might invalidate their vote. But mostly, I protect the innocent voters. I primarily defend them from the other poll workers.
We argue endlessly about procedural issues, and of course people will argue the hardest for issues that matter the least. We argue about whether we initial forms in the upper left corner, or the right. I argue a little, then concede these trivial fights. But I don't concede when the issues are important and the consequences determine whether a voter can cast their ballot or not. Sometimes I defend the voters from themselves, they can be a menace to themselves and other voters, usually through misunderstandings of voting procedures.
To learn about the electoral system, voters ask me the strangest questions, thinking I know all the answers. I'm just a low-ranking temp, I wear a cheap plastic badge, but I don't speak on behalf of the County Auditor (especially in this article, which is my own opinion and definitely not authorized by anyone, especially the County Auditor).
For example, one person asked me if they cast an early vote, and then they died before Election Day, would their vote still count? I said I didn't know how the office could possibly know they died. Later, back in the office, I asked a Deputy about the question, she said, "well of course their vote wouldn't count. We get Death Certificates every day, we cancel their voter registration immediately, and pull any absentee ballots."
Voters often ask why they can't get a receipt to show how they voted. They can't because it is illegal. I call this the "Boss Tweed provision," you could take the receipt to a political boss for a payoff if you voted for his candidate.
One day, a voter came in with a sealed ballot envelope printed with a sticker from another site. I was shocked. This is called a "walk-out," he left the site with the ballot, and returned it the next day at a different site. You are not supposed to leave the site with the ballot, you must take it to a booth, fill it in, and immediately deposit it in the ballot box. I explained to the voter that he mustn't do this again because of the Boss Tweed provisions, and it was likely that his ballot would be invalidated.
But the polls were closed and it was too late to fix it. I left his ballot envelope with a higher-ranking official to decide how to save his vote. Another worker heard of this problem, I explained about Boss Tweed, he asked how the walk-out differed from a regular mail-in absentee ballot; after all, they could take their absentee ballot to Boss Tweed, mark it in his presence and seal the envelope in front of him, then he could give the payoff and drop it in the mail for the voter. I was caught flat-footed, I conceded this was a fair point. But it's not my job to interpret the law, merely to uphold it.
It is illegal to offer anything in reward for voting or registering to vote. We discovered one student campaign offering candy in exchange for registration. We had to ask them to make it clear they would give candy to anyone who wanted it, regardless of whether they registered or not.
But more amazingly, in one polling site inside the university's Political Science building, we had students ask us for proof they had voted, their PoliSci professors offered them extra credit for voting. We instructed them to inform their teachers that this is illegal. I asked one official if the law distinguished between tangible and intangible rewards. We debated it, but eventually avoided the issue by informally concluding that a higher grade was a tangible reward.
I love the voters. I fight for their right to vote. Iowa, unlike many states, believes all residents have the right to vote, unless proven otherwise. I've worked at voting sites of all socio-economic groups: ghetto areas (I didn't know we had ghettos in Iowa), university buildings, shopping malls, hospitals, grocery stores, and libraries. I love all voters. But some of them I love more than others.
One of my vicarious pleasures as a writer is observing people. Another of my vicarious pleasure as a bachelor is observing women. I remember one day I was working at the local hospital, I had worked for nine hours straight and was losing my voice. I called hoarsely for the next voter in line, and a stunningly beautiful woman in a white lab coat appeared before me. I asked for her voter information, and no words came out, just a hoarse rasp. I cleared my throat and turned red in embarrassment, and asked her if perhaps she worked in otolaryngology and had advice for laryngitis. She responded, "why yes, I am an oto surgeon! Is the problem that you're talking too much? Drink lots of water and stop talking so much!"
Alas, I cannot chat up the voters while wearing the cheap plastic badge bearing the Seal of State - it would be a violation of my Prime Directives. Sometimes I must protect the innocent voters from ME. I fell into routine and processed her records, and she vanished into a voting booth, never to be seen again.
At another hospital, I met another beautiful woman. She appeared to be over 80 years old, pushed before me in a wheelchair, hooked up to IV drips and monitoring machines. She said, "Oh, I'm so glad you're here! I was going to vote yesterday at the grocery store, but I fell and broke my hip and couldn't go. Now I'm in the hospital and you came to me so I can still vote!" She beamed at me with the energy of a young girl, and I thanked her for allowing me to serve her. I felt young again.
When I am tired and at the end of my shift, sometimes I will get a reminder of why I do this job. I was working at an overloaded site at a grocery story, the workers were falling behind and the lines were growing, it was taking too long to process voters and they were frustrated by the time they got to vote. When the shift was over, I was exhausted. I went outside the door for a quick smoke. A young African-American man with a missing front tooth, dressed shabbily in mud-smeared work clothes came up to me and started asking me questions about voting a straight Democratic party line and if he had to fill in the spot for Obama too, in order to make his Presidential selection count.
"Whoa," I said. "I am prohibited from talking about specific political parties, but let's say you vote a straight party ticket for Party X (I winked and gave a knowing smile). That vote counts for President too, since he belongs to Party X." He smiled broadly when I winked, like we were silent conspirators to make his vote count. His enthusiasm for the election rejuvenated me instantly.
I had lots of very young, poor black kids at our ghetto site, they'd march in and declare this was their first time voting and they were here to vote for Obama and nobody else. I'd raise a finger to my lips and go "Shh..." and say "we can't talk politics in here, we're just here for the election," and then I'd look them in the eye and wink. They'd burst into a broad smile, they couldn't believe this old white guy, The Man, was on their side, helping them vote. I'd take extra time to explain how the ballot worked. I hope they become lifetime voters, whatever party they choose.
And then the site chairwoman would come over and chastise me for being too helpful. She asserted that I was supposed to just hand out ballots and let the kids screw them up if they didn't know any better. I disagreed, but I kept silent, I never dispute the chairwoman. I just follow my Prime Directives as I understand them. I serve the voters, more than the voting officials (even if they sign my paycheck).
There are many dedicated workers in the office and at the voting sites and many of us have become fast friends. The office is a strange place where an open process of government is open to public inspection, but privacy of voter information is paramount, and everyone is anonymous to me. I know their faces, but I rarely know what they do, or what I am supposed to do for them. Everyone is overworked and running on pure adrenaline and caffeine. We are often unintentionally testy with each other, but I try to be courteous to everyone. But I inevitably run into problems, especially when I'm out working at voting sites.
The Auditor's office is decorated with dozens of art prints by Grant Wood, the most famous Iowan Artist. But there is one of his most famous paintings that is conspicuously absent: Daughters of Revolution.
It is a satire of a bunch of blue-haired old ladies, sipping tea in front of a painting of Washington crossing the Delaware. Grant was clearly satirizing these self-appointed protectors of the morals - he thought they were an obstacle to social progress. And I run across such old biddies every once in a while; it's difficult to find workers who will accept such low wages for a few weeks' work every couple of years.
Like the chairwoman at the ghetto site, for example. I saw her turn away a black girl who clearly could have voted, if she had wanted to go to the effort of doing some extra paperwork. I suspected her motivation was racism, but she outranks me (everyone outranks me, here) so I could not intervene. The Deputies tell me the worst thing I could possibly do is disenfranchise a voter, to turn them away from the polls when they had the right to vote. But that is exactly what she did.
But I got even with her. I was working at a site that was getting overloaded. The workers were mostly elderly and inexperienced and couldn't keep up with the workload. I came in and saw an old biddie turn away a young black girl from a nearby low-income housing project, she was not registered. I overheard the conversation and I knew how to register her with a new procedure we'd been testing in the office for a week. I stood up, and stopped the girl from leaving.
"Miss, I know how you can register and vote," I told her. "Stay right here and I'll explain when I finish with this voter." She looked at me wide-eyed, and stayed riveted to the spot. I returned in a minute, explained the procedure, I gave her forms to fill out, told her to go home and get some documents, and then she ran out the door. She returned with the proper papers, and I got her to vote.
And this is my problem with some of the old biddies. Many of them have worked these elections for so many years, they feel they are entitled to be gatekeepers, that they alone determine who can and cannot vote. They think are above the law. I think they're a menace.
I believe officials like this violate my most secret Prime Directive: make the voters trust our system, give them faith that we have everything under control (even when we don't), and never give them any reason to believe their vote will not count. But I find old biddies (both male and female) that constantly undermine our efforts.
They bitch about how badly the computers don't work. They tell voters too much information about voting systems, freaking them out. I've heard voters react to their antics by saying "Now I'm scared!" and I am crestfallen. I feel like I have to work four times as fast, so that four times as many voters come to my station instead of getting into their clutches.
Unfortunately, this means I also have a tendency to be an old blue-haired biddy myself. I've become the self-appointed gatekeeper, except I hold the gate open for people to crash the party. And that's the law: all residents have the right to vote and crash the party. I have a little speech I give sometimes when people ask why we don't ask voters for identification. I tell them that historically, stringent ID checks and literacy tests have been used to disenfranchise the poor and minorities, we don't do that in Iowa, that's the law. This speech gets a great reaction from minorities and the poor. One day I told this story to a soccer mom - her reaction stunned me. she said: "yeah, whatever."
Master of the Machines
Every morning I start work by feeding the previous day's documents into the AcroPrint machine. I love the Acroprint. Every paper document must be AcroPrinted within 24 hours of receipt. I love the AcroPrint because it's the oldest, dumbest machine in the office.
All it does is stamp a date and a unique, sequential number on paper. This machine is so dumb that it doesn't even have a clock, you have to change the date each morning by opening it up and pushing a gear. The AcroPrint is the paper equivalent of a digital file's creation date. Every sheet must be manually fed into the machine, and the mechanical metal stamp hits the paper with an incredibly loud BANG.
Due to the noise, the AcroPrint has been banished into the farthest room in the office, which unfortunately is now populated with laptops that are constantly used by the lowest ranking temp workers (like me). Everyone hates the AcroPrint.
But I am the AcroPrint Master. Most people can stamp a document every couple of seconds, I can feed at two or three documents per second, sometimes when I get on a roll I can do bursts of 4 or 5 documents per second. I get in early and stamp every document in the queue before everyone arrives, so nobody gets annoyed at the noise. I usually stamp several thousand documents each morning. It's the first step in document processing. I tell everyone I'm the drummer in the band, I set the beat for everyone else. Nothing gets done without a document signed by a voter, and every document must be AcroPrinted first. Everything moves at the speed of paper. I set the speed at which paper can be handled.
Every document, even of digital origin, must hit paper. If you send an email to the office, it will be laser-printed on paper, AcroPrinted, and rescanned. This seems redundant since most of the emails have dates printed on them. But the analog stamp carries some sort of authority that laser printing does not, it is a seal of authentication physically embossed into paper.
After AcroPrinting, every document is scanned, and each scan must be visually inspected to verify that the signature can be clearly read. That's the easy part. Then the documents must be "attached." The computer can't read handwriting, so a human operator must read the document, locate the voter's digital record, and connect it to the scanned image. This is where the digital and paper systems meet and become mirror images of each other.
Once the images of paper records are attached to the digital records, the papers are sorted and stored, in case an original signature needs to be visually verified. I watched over the course of a week as a single woman sorted 40,000 paper records in sequential order, bundled them in rubber bands, and filed them in Banker's Boxes. I was astonished.
After the paper records are archived, regular bureaucratic functions of the office can proceed on the digital side, using the custom "iVoter" software. Voters identities can be digitally verified, checked for mistakes or duplicate records, or used on our laptops at voting sites to check registrations.
When a voter wants to get a ballot, we print his digital record on a label printer, stick it to a paper form labeled "Absentee Ballot Request Form", he signs it, and then it is put in a basket. The next morning those documents are AcroPrinted, scanned, attached, filed and the cycle begins again. Our paperwork system is like a Mobius Strip, rolling in tighter and tighter loops. I have no idea what happens to the paper records after the election is over and results certified, I suspect its sheer weight causes it to collapse into a Black Hole and it vanishes.
But none of this is apparent on the front lines. We have portable voter units, it fits in a van. We have fold-up voting booths and tables, laptops with label printers, and we can set up anywhere in half an hour. We run anywhere there is a power outlet and Wi-Fi networking, or even through cellular modems. We have a VPN to run encrypted connections to secure our data transmissions. We have our custom iVoter software to connect to the massive statewide Oracle database, we can transfer voter registrations from any county. The voting laws of the state have been crafted into code, if it can be done legally, it can be done in iVoter. If it is illegal, iVoter will prevent it.
The Final Rush
I've been working for three weeks, an average of 12 hours a day. I've worked on the front lines handing out ballots, and in the back rooms recording and fixing their registration and voting records. I'm the only newbie PEO who has such an extensive view of the inside and outside work, or at least, the only person willing to do it for 12 hours a day, every day. I joke with the workers that I noticed all our voting sites have emergency defibrillators, which is good since I'm likely to drop dead of a heart attack from overwork. One of the deputies said, "oh, didn't you know, we require all our sites to have defibrillators available!"
Despite the overwork, our efforts have succeeded beyond our wildest expectations. Over 45 per cent of all registered voters have already cast an early ballot. This should alleviate the long lines on election day. But our last day was the wildest day ever. We were warned that many voters would vote early on November 3, the day before Election Day. They would procrastinate and vote early, but as late as possible. And I have procrastinated too. For the last week, I have repeatedly tried to vote early, at my own site. Today was my last chance to vote early. Every time I prepared to pull up my own voter registration, a voter arrived at my desk and I had to help them. I could not find time to vote.
Now, as I write this, I have stayed up all night, it is the morning of Election Day. In a few hours, with no sleep, I will go open the polls at the precinct I have been assigned. I will work from 5:30AM until 9PM. The polls are expected to be busy continuously from the moment they open until the time they close. Perhaps I will not find time to ever vote, in the election I have worked so hard to help others to vote. ®