Tuesday, November 8, 2005

A disconcerting voting experience

[Note: I'm apparently not the only one who had a hard time voting. See the comments section where G Zombie has left a link to an LA Times article detailing the Governator's bad day trying to vote. Heh heh.]

So I just got back from voting on our local races (mayor and city council) and on our state initiatives and it was an interesting experience. Without giving too much away and leading too many googlers here, I live in a swing state that is just barely more red than blue (a division that aligns neatly with city and country, with the exception of one city in the southern part of the state) and whose election officials were also partisan campaigners for their party (guess which one) in the last national election. But I also live in a city that's largely blue, and in a voting district that's predominantly African-American. My city is so blue, in fact, that both mayoral candidates were Dems, though one used to be GOP. But the state is controlled by the GOP and on the ballot were four voting and districting and campaing initiatives that would wrest much of their control away from them, or at least stymie the ways in which they're used to gaining and holding onto that control. I'm sure in my blue district in my blue city those initiatives stood a good chance of getting a lot of votes.

My district is one of the ones that poll watchers were worried about in the national election, though things seemed to go smoothly then. The lines were long, but the instructions numerous. In fact, from the very moment you approach the polling place, there were people helping you figure out which precinct you lived in and what line to get in. Then there were more people giving you instructions about the mechanics of voting.

Since the last election my polling place has changed. I got a postcard in the mail informing me of this and at the polls I noticed other people had their cards, as well, so I guess the word got out. But there was other confusion. There are five or six precincts within my district and therefore five or six separate registration tables. These were in *separate* buildings, and in one building they were spread out in different rooms. When I first walked onto the grounds of the polling place, I was completely distracted by the cars pulling out of the parking lot (which I had to walk through) and the campaigners handing out info on their candidates (much closer than 100 feet, btw), so I really couldn't tell you if there were people there to mention that there were separate buildings. But I know there were no signs inside the first, larger building I entered. I wandered around until I found a room with voting going on in it. Luckily this particular precinct wasn't very busy and the helpful young man behind the sign-in table walked me back out and pointed out the building where my precinct was.

Once there, I got in the right line, which is always the longest. (I don't know if my precinct is more civic-minded or just more populous.) Anyway, it wasn't nearly as long as in the national elections, but while waiting in it a woman realized she was in the wrong line -- in the wrong building -- and had just wasted about 15 minutes there. Lucky for me I'd just been where her precinct was and so I was able to point her in the right direction.

Once I signed the register, I had to sit and wait for a machine to use. The voters and the volunteers were all pretty spontaneously organized for letting people know who was next and when a machine was free, but after that you were completely on your own. This wasn't a big deal to me, but the machines are totally new and I'm sure they threw some people off. In the national election, my polling place used scantron bubble sheets (number 2 pencils were provided) but now my district has been changed to the controversial touch-screen machines made by Diebold, a company with strong GOP ties.

The print of the directions for how to operate the machine was *tiny*. This tiny. And while that didn't bother my 20/20 vision, I can only imagine what it did for the older people. There was a button for larger print, but the glaring colors might have confused just about anyone not used to a computer or touch screen. I can only imagine one of my parents having to deal with it. I know where to look for "next" buttons, but does everyone?

Aside from the general questions of "user-friendliness," my biggest worry came at the end, after I'd picked all my candidates and positions on initiatives and got to the printing stage. Now, the machine doesn't make a print copy for the voter to take home. It only *supposedly* makes one for backup, somewhere inside it. It certainly did make printing sounds, but I really have to take it on faith that that's what the machine was actually doing. And how much faith do I have in Diebold? Not much. I realize, of course, that I also always had to take the punch cards on faith, too, and though I know I filled out the scantron sheets correctly, who knew for sure how the machine read it. But still. At least hanging chads and scantron sheets physcially exist to be examined and I had empirical evidence of that. Again, how do I know for sure anything tangible was printed from the touch screen machine?

[UPDATE: OK, I'm an idjit. Apparently there was a little box with a lid which you could lift up to see each page of the printed record. The Boyfriend told me this after the fact. But no one told me that. No one told the Boyfriend in his district, either -- he just happens to be one of those guys who checks machines and things out to see how they work. So the point remains: there was precious little clear information in this voting experience.]

But most worrying of all was the message that came up after I "cast" my ballot, at the very end. That message said that the machine was low on paper and that an election official should be notified. So I notified an official. He had no idea what to do. I'm not sure he even understood the issue. He just kept telling me that no one got a paper receipt. I understood that, but it seems the machine was saying paper versions of the votes weren't being printed for possible future auditing, either. I don't think he knew they were even supposed to do that. Instead, he just hurried me on my way. Who knows for sure if my votes were even properly registered. The GOP keeps touting "faith-based initiatives" -- I guess this is one of them!

And that's the story of the most diconcerting voting experience I've ever had.

1 comment:

George H. Williams said...

"Schwarzenegger Hits Snag at Polling Place" By Robert Salladay, LA Times (Nov 9, 2005).