Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Voting in Northampton County, 2006

This morning the three registered voters in our household got up bright and early to vote. We would follow a long-standing family tradition, we would vote and then go to breakfast afterwards and then off to work. This years experience was notable for a number of reasons.

We vote in the Palmer Upper East precinct in Northampton County, PA, which is located in the lobby of the Tracy Elementary School. A pretty typical arrangment except that this year there are changes.

The most obvious change is the equipment. Gone are the big curtained voting machines with the big red lever and lots of little switches. I loved the tactile feel of those machines. How each candidate had their own mechanical switch that made a distinctive "snick" sound when the ballot was cast. It seemed to me that, whatever the actual outcome, ones vote really seemed to count when you pulled that big red lever.

Now we have these touch screen machines. They don't seem to be the much maligned Diebold machines, but they are lightweight and portable, somewhat flimsey feeling. The interface seems to me to be pretty straightforward. A gentleman with a card wakes up the machine and the voter reads and instruction page and then activates the machine. The first screen to negotiate is the straight ticket screen, then the candidate screen, followed by the ballot question page, followed by a summary page. Each has a little radio button for next or back. When you pass the summary page, you get a big red radio button that says "vote." You press then and your done.

There were some predictable glitches. First of all, the poll workers are all retirees who have been doing this since forever. These were people who themselves were not conversant with the machines and their tentativeness with the equipment telegraphed to the users (ie the voters).

Second, some people seemed to over look that last screen, the one with the big red button that said "vote." I noticed the poll workers would have to stop from leaving the booth before pusing that button. They'd verify the votes on the summary screen and assume they were done. Seems to me that even people conditioned to ATMs and bank card purchases were not used to the two-step verification on our machines instead of the typical grocery check out one-step verification.

Some people are unhappy that the new machines don't spit out a voting reciept nor tallies the votes on a back-up roll of adding machine paper. The old style voting machines never did that but ATMs can do that. (I am told that it depends on the bank if they use that feature for their own bookkeeping.) My worry is that trusting whether what I input on the screen is the same as what will actually be tallied.

For some strange reason, we had to fill out a form going in that required no signature but simply required us to block print our first and last names and middle initial into little boxes. This was supposed to speed things up. There was a little "for office use" box that indicated that someone was going to fill in some other data. The armed courthouse guard (also a new addition) said that it was to speed things up. Except that I still had to sign the little book with the facsimile of my signature. I don't think it helped one little bit, but was probably for some other purpose.

Another thing that was different was that there was a single poll watcher. He sat at the end of the table next to the poll workers. They would pass along the name of a person who voted to him, and he would check off a name from his registered voter list.

I asked him some questions while I waited for the people ahead of me to be signed in and vote. I asked him if he was county poll watcher or a party poll watcher and if a party poll watcher for which party. He told me that he was not allowed to say. I said, okay, but since none of the poll workers were wearing identification and neither was he, how was I to know if he was election official or a poll watcher. He said that he was a volunteer just like these people, gesturing to the other people. I said that I appreciated that, but that it seemed to me that we, the voters, should be able to identify who it was who could answer a question versus those who were working for parties or campaigns checking off voter lists. He said to me, "let's put it this way, I am here to see that everything is fair and balanced."

I laughed at this, and said that this phrase what not good news to me because the network that advertises itself as "fair and balanced" is frequently the "spun and slanted" news source. He said he was sorry to hear me say that but that he was here to see that things were fair and balanced. I said that I would feel better if poll workers were identified as such and that poll observers should wear clear and obvious identification and sit at separte tables from the people who are processing voters.

His "fair and balanced" remark makes me think that this is a Republican poll watcher counting up who on the registered list has voted to help his candidates or party's get out the vote campaign. That's fine with me. Just be honest about it. If he is there to help his party gum up the work if it looks like they are losing, then they should above board about that, too.

As a long time political junkie, who has worked more than my fair share of campaigns, I am fine with accountability and oversight, but in a transparent and above board manner. Voters should know who is watching the watchers, and they should know if their vote will later be challenged by a partisan poll watcher. And poll watchers need to sit away from the poll workers so as not to influence how these good people do their valuable, and presumably non-partisan, work.

And there were no little stickers for voters to take home proclaiming "I voted!" I guess that's a secret, too.

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