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MoCo Vote Mess: Tales from the Front

Firsthand accounts of Tuesday's voting fiasco in Montgomery County are pouring in, and what's impressive about them is what is so stirring and good about our voting system--its reliance on volunteers who do this because they are truly moved by the majesty of democracy. Obviously, there are poll workers who shouldn't be there, who are ill trained or too far past their prime. But most poll workers are giving up a day on the job or a day of rest so that they can help all of us get our voices heard.

Here are a couple of accounts of what went wrong:

From Gary Gordon, an election judge at South Lake Elementary School in Gaithersburg:

This was the first time we used electronic pollbooks. Formerly, list of registered voters were on punch cards. Finding the name of an individual voter was fast, easy, and flexible. We were scheduled to have two check-in tables, with four election judges, two electronic pollbooks, and two printers. But we only received one printer, so could only operate one check-in table. Nevertheless, it only took about 45 seconds to process the usual voter, so with one table we could handle up to 80 per hour, and the longest line we ever had was maybe 20 voters.

During the setup time, from 6 to 7 am, we found we had no access cards. This card is encoded by the electronic pollbook, and used by the voter to activate the voting unit. We called the Board of Elections, but it was an hour and a half before we received a supply of 60 access cards. And when they arrived, half of them were not set up properly, and didn't work! The good news was that half of them did work, and were sufficient for our needs. With these, we started normal operation.

When we realized the access cards were missing, I suggested we use paper ballots (called provisional voting). This idea was first pooh-poohed as taking too long. We soon realized it was the only way to handle the voters in line. We were equipped to handle a small number of voters with paper ballots, but had to adapt to the larger number. We didn't have enough paper ballots, but one of our experienced election judges knew the school location of a copying machine, and we received authorization to use copies. We didn't have enough #2 pencils, but we were located in an elementary school, and our helpful custodian easily found plenty of pencils. We didn't have enough tables for the voters to use, but we quickly cleared the voting unit table and the voter information table. And being in a room used as a cafeteria, we also pulled down additional tables with seats.

A court order required all precincts to remain open an hour longer. However, the Board of Elections was aware that another court order might invalidate all these extra votes. So, during this extra hour all votes again had to be provisional, even though the access cards and voting units were operational.

Initially, we were disappointed in the delays of the Board of Elections in answering the phone and in delivering supplies. We assumed we were the only ones with problems. Then, voters told us they heard on the news that problems were widespread. That changed our perspective. Considering all the 238 polling places with similar problems, on Tuesday, the Board of Elections did an excellent job in delivering supplies, and authorizing unusual procedures.

In conclusion, our team of election judges served the voters well. Everyone willing to wait a few extra minutes was able to vote. Most voters were patient, understanding, and cooperative.

And this from an election judge in Silver Spring (excerpted here, full text at the link):

In 2004, I answered a call sent out on a public radio PSA asking for bilingual-Spanish people to work as election judges. I was assigned to Pine Crest Elementary School in the Four Corners area of Silver Spring. During that presidential election, I assisted only about three votes out of nearly a thousand with Spanish, but did pretty well with helping voters use new touch-screens. The Republican Chief Judge (a really nice guy) suggested that I apply to be Chief myself for the next election. So earlier this year, when the Democrat recruiter begged me to be a Chief for the same school, I said yes. What could possibly go wrong?


On Monday night, I met with all my poll-workers to set up as much as we could before the morning rush. We set up the actual touch-machine polls on their legs, hung up some signs, coordinated what we would do with meals and when. The crew seemed apt and congenial and G (my Republican counterpart, a lovely retired woman) and I both were confident we would be OK. We all arrived at 6:00AM as scheduled. I opened the bag with all the secured equipment to get the keys and the plastic Voter Assistance Cards that would allow each voter to vote. (As a voter, you need to first have the card encoded with the proper primary election, then you are allowed to vote on the machines.)

No cards. My first thought was: We must have dropped them somewhere when we opened the bag.

We searched the bag again, the table that the bag had been placed on, other secured bags. We checked our handbooks for the excruciantingly inclusive checklist of items ("8 pencils"), trying to figure out where the bags were supposed to be.

I thought: There is no way they would have forgotten to pack all of the single item that people actually needed to vote.

We call the hotline. I get put on hold for a while, tell everyone else to do what they can do to get ready. Someone finally answers. I tell them we have no VAC cards. The man says that they are aware of the problem.

For a split second, I try not to faint.

They continue to tell us that they are on their way with the cards, but that if they don't arrive in time, we need to prepare to do provisional voting.

Mind you, once we go into the polling area, we are sealed off from the world. No one can call us, there is no news, no radio, nada. We had no idea that this was happening practically all over the county. Because, who would forget such an important item in EVERYONE'S PACKETS?

At around 6:50, we realize that the VACs probably aren't going to arrive. At some point during all of this, our student arrives. Montgomery County offers community service credit to students who work a four-hour shift at the polls doing unobtrusive stuff like handing out stickers or making sure people don't walk away with the expensive VACs. I sit Mary down and tell her that we have a different job for her. Her job will be to inform everyone outside what is going on: They could wait in line or, if they had to go to work or wanted to vote on the machines, to come back later; no matter what, their vote would be counted. (Bless your heart, Mary: she had potentially the most crucial job today and she performed it flawlessly.)

We open at 7:00AM. On time.
Around 8:30, we realize we are going to run out of Democrat ballots. (Montgomery County, not Bethesda: not a surprise.) We call and ask them to send some. They indicate that ballots are on their way. Realizing that that was what they said about the VACs two hours ago (and several phone calls later, and still not here), we ask what to do. They tell us to photocopy some ballots.

At around 8:45, we realize we will run out of the special provisional envelopes written in English. We photocopy the instructions off of one of them and start using the Spanish-language ones.

Soon after, we run out of those. When we called the BOE about this, we are told to "make do the best we can." Thankfully, I am a professor and I have to write lots of letters of recommendation. We ask the school for bunches of envelopes, which we direct people to write the pertinent information on, then sign across the back flap to ensure that no one has tampered with their vote.

Mind you, everyone is voting. We told no one that they could not vote. We never stopped the process, thinking ahead to prevent a pause at every step. The good people of Woodmoor, if they were upset, never took it out on us.

A new set of provisional ballots arrive around 9:00. We ask about the VAC cards, the provisional application envelopes, anything about other items we had previously begged for. The person has no clue, leaves.

The VAC cards arrive at 9:25. I attack the woman who brings them with a gigantic bear hug. Finally, we start doing things "normally." The watchers -- who have been frantically scribbling notes about what we're doing -- commend us for what we've done.

Sometime during more calls to the BOE, I ask about who will call us about staying open late, since we assume something will happen. They inform us that a decision has already been made to keep polls open an hour later. (I think: Why did I have to ask the question first? Shouldn't you be telling me this?)

We close at 9:00, with no one banging on the door at all. I give some last guava pastries I had brought for breakfast to the last voters, then to the electioneers outside, who cheer. It takes us forever to go back and reconcile all our machines and or numbers. We finish just after 11.

There is blame. I will assign it.

I will start by saying that the problems today at our polling place had nothing to do with the machines or Diebold.
The Board of Elections should take the brunt of the blame, naturally. The main cause of this was human error, plain and simple, and on a colossal scale. I am particularly disgusted that when we asked for specific help as to what to do, we were told on more than one occasion to "make do the best you can."

They do not get all the blame: I turn to the media. All outlets -- television, Internet, radio, news. You will not convince me otherwise and they are all to blame for one major thing: voters told us that the media -- specifically -- indicated in lead paragraphs that polls would remain open until 9:00PM without disclosing that votes between 8:00 and 9:00PM would, by law, be cast as provisional votes, not as regular votes until far into the story. Because many people read these reports but only really paid attention to the part that said "polls would be open," the folks that arrived at 8:05 were shocked, frustrated, hurt and upset that their votes would be provisional.

Here's the question: will I serve again as a Judge in November for the general election? Yes. I'm not even working in my home district, but I'm proud as hell of what my crew and I did today.

But here's a warning, directly squarely at all those politicians who were elected in these primary elections today: however problematic things were, you'd better not blame the poll-workers themselves as a whole for this. We were largely left out to dry and we did the best we could. And I will be listening to anything said against us and will almost surely vote against anyone who wants to blame the volunteers at the polls for anything that happened today. Just so you know.

By Marc Fisher |  September 13, 2006; 4:22 PM ET
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Let's not forget there were plenty of issues in Prince George's County, where several machines had no power cords on Tuesday morning, so we ran around exchanging cords to recharge the backup batteries.

Posted by: PGCo Judge | September 13, 2006 5:56 PM

Let's move on to the next issue. Where will William Donald be put out to pasture? Ocean City? Mexico City?

Posted by: far, far away | September 13, 2006 8:21 PM

I voted at Pinecrest Elementary early yesterday and can confirm the judge's account BUT it was quite unnerving to learn that your vote was provisional through no fault of your own. Seeing a top Democratic strategist who helps to run elections in 3rd world countries voting provisonally did make my morning. The eight knuckleheads that caused my vote not to be counted on Tuesday should have have been locked in a room at 9:01 pm and not let out until they counted the provisional ballots from all 236 precints and then fired.

Posted by: Woodmoor citizen | September 13, 2006 8:32 PM

I find this all inspring. I truly have never given thought to the poll workers. In my polling place they are all older women I cannot believe that they are there all day. I am really motivated to become an election volunteer. Thanks for giving the information.

Posted by: Inspired | September 13, 2006 8:41 PM

in the SS judge's story, they found there's no card shortly after 6am, but the cards didn't arrive unitl 9:25. i don't know where the BOE is and where his poll station is, but they can't be 3 hours apart.

i suspect the cards were NOT forgotten, but were never ready before the polls open.

Posted by: huh? | September 14, 2006 9:47 AM

Great - thanks for those firsthand accounts! Nice use of the blog.

Posted by: h3 | September 14, 2006 1:39 PM

I was a Chief Election Judge at my home precinct in Baltimore. I am a Block a way so I can walk. I arrived at 5:45 AM to find that our machines were set up on the wrong side of our voting place. After switching sides of the room, we waited for our assigned tech to arrive to open the machines.

The big news was the reduction of # of Poll workers. In 2004, we had six for each precinct, this year we had four each. Two longtime poll workers (husband and wife) did not want to deal with the machines.

I was trained for three hours in July to be a provisional Judge and heard nothing from the BOE until my Judge's book (4") thick) and my appointment card arrived the week of Sept.5.

Needless to say, I did not know how to work the e-Book; fortunately, one of the other Judges had been trained later so she had an opportunity to work them.

Other than a few blank screens the day, our efforts were bearable. The Precinct across the room opened at 7:45 AM since the computers would not activate.

Future thoughts would be to hire more judges, especially those who may be college age; this would be helpful in Baltimore since there are so few Republicans. But then again our day ended at 9:00 PM for the general Judges and 10:18 PM for the Chief Judges at my Polling station.

Pay of $175 for 16+ Day will attract only those true Civics, especially if there are entrusted with the gravity of adjudicating the peaceful change of power in the free world.

I know we will all be back in November 2006, but come our City Election Primary in September 2007...I wouldn't be surprised if there were fewer Judges than this time

Posted by: Michael | September 15, 2006 4:20 PM

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