Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Elegance of Ballot Control

While recapping my battlefield promotion from clerk to warden at a Boston polling place yesterday, I thought repeatedly of the arcane and essential ballot control in the process. At least to a tech geek such as me, it has a true beauty.

A lot of planning and training and procedure development goes into ensuring one-voter/one-ballot here. Clerical controls are in the middle of it. The city accounts for every damned ballot many times with abounding crosschecks. While not impossible to scam the system to get two or more ballots, it would be damned hard and almost certainly not worth the trouble or risk.

Follow an unused ballot from the time it arrives at a polling location.

  1. Polls perk an hour before the 7 a.m. opening time. Elections workers have already brought the signs and other supplies and a police officer has brought a scanner and the blank ballots in a locked case.
  2. Workers (inspectors, interpreters, clerk and warden) arrive to tape up the many necessary signs, prepare check-in and check-out table, turn on and validate the scanner and assistive ballot preparing machine, and count the ballots.
  3. Depending on the expected turnout, blanks come bundled in nominal rubber-banded packs of 50 or 200. Poll workers first count bundles assuming the right number in each. These can vary by 6% (3 more or less in a 50 pack) because Elections prepares them by weight for efficiency.
  4. The clerk records the supposed number of blanks in the book.
  5. Before opening, inspectors hand count a group of bundles and put a Post-It on each with the actual number. The clerk keeps a running tally of each as it is brought into play to fine-tune the count of blanks.
  6. The scanner tracks each ballot it accepts, incrementing its count, which starts at zero. Throughout the day, Elections calls every few hours for the number and in busy elections, particularly primaries, observers from candidates and parties may look at the total, which does not differentiate by candidate.
  7. Spoiled ballots go back to Elections in their own envelope. If a voter mismarks a ballot, changes the decision before putting it in the scanner or marks too many candidates, the clerk or warden writes SPOILED on it, places it in the envelope and gives the voter up to a total of three ballots to get it right. The clerk tends to keep a tally of spoiled ballots and records them in the book at closing time.
  8. Absentee ballots arrive with the officer at opening and sometimes throughout the day as Elections sorts them. The clerk or warden opens the larger envelope and each absentee's cover envelope to find the sealed envelope with the ballot. Then each ballot is treated like a voter, checked in at one table off the voter list and out at the other table. Then the ballot is removed from the sealed envelope and fed into the scanner. The clerk records the number of absentee ballots in the book.
  9. Provisional ballots for voters Elections cannot clear to for scanned ballots go into unique envelopes, one per ballot. That's an elaborate process touched on in the battlefield promotion post. The warden provides each provisional voter with a ballot, which goes to Elections separately and is not scanned. The clerk records the number of provisional ballots as well as the voter's name and address.
  10. At poll closing the ballot procedures align. First, the officer at the check-out table and the clerk or inspector with the check-in book compare notes. They verify that they have the same number of voters checked off per page of their respective voter list. Any discrepancies give them the chance to identify anyone missed or mismarked. They end up with a total count of voters.
  11. Meanwhile, the warden has generated totals from the scanner. If there is a difference between the voting books and scanner's total, the three identify and correct it.
  12. The clerk then totals ballots the book. The total ballots received needs to equal ballots cast, accounting for the spoiled ones, provisionals, absentee ones delivered, and unused ballots remaining. Again, all stops until the numbers are accurate.
  13. The warden removed ballots from the scanner. Any that fail to scan are in one compartment; the get a re-feed and if necessary a hand count and recording in a log and the book. Write-ins are in another; they are hand recorded and placed in one envelope. The other ballots get a look for write-ins not ID'ed as such but clearly intended even without the write-in oval smeared. All scanned ballots go into envelopes that the officer delivers under lock to Elections.
If you were able to divert one or more ballots, then what? Without collusion of a worker and the officer, it would not qualify for the scanner. Even if you were able to sneak one in the scanner, it would mess up the total. Those and similar ploys would be possible, but elaborate, involving several people and surely not worth the exposure and punishments.

From my years of documenting computer software, I am impressed by the flow here. Elections has had a lot of time...with many eyes watching...to get this working well. It shows.

Cross-post: This likely belongs on Harrumph! with the related post.

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