The System in Action

Yesterday I spent the day Enabling Democracy. I acted as a check in judge for the Maryland primary elections.

For the most part it was a very positive experience. From 7 AM to 8 PM the experience was overwhelmingly positive, marred by my own ill health… after about 6 hours my ‘recovery’ from this killer cold was seriously in question. I make due by chugging down my robi-plus-codeine and constantly washing my hands with the purell our school gym location provided. (There was another precinct running their elections out of the Cafeteria).

My fellow judges were very pleasant this time around. We had two high school students acting as check in judges. One of our chief judges owns a Bed and Breakfast in Paris. Everyone was happy to be there and fun to be around (with the possible exception of myself and my scary cough). There were some minor glitches and hitches. No personality issues this time around, but one of my co-workers was in the midst of a professional and personal crisis, the school heating system wasn’t equipped to handle the constant opening and closing of outside doors, and many of the unaffiliated voters would have liked to vote in the Democratic primary. One went so far as to complain that he ‘should be able to vote for president’ even though he wasn’t in the party, and was unhappy when informed that he’d have his chance in November like everyone else. It was the judges, rather than the voters, who seemed most concerned about the lack of paper trail, but we all agreed that the system was running smoothly. We had a League of Women Voters observer tell us it was the best run polling place she had ever seen.

Because it was a primary election we were tracking how many voters from each party we got. I live in an overwhelmingly Democratic district. After the first hour we had about 150 Democratic party voters, and less than a dozen (each) Republican and Unaffiliated/Other voters. (There are four recognized parties in Maryland, but neither Greens nor Libertarians are given state funded primaries). The only non-partisan race was for Board of Education. By the end of the day there were 550+ Democratic voters, 150+ Republican voters, and 30 something Other voters counted. I’m sure we would have had a much larger turnout if the weather hadn’t gotten grim. Even so, we had a final turnout of about 35%.

There were all sorts of interesting things going on. Most of the gain in Republican voters came after 5 PM. All the white women wearing furs or diamonds were registered Republican, and they came in in the morning. The most expensive suits were worn by white male Republicans or gentlemen of color Democrats. There were very few women of color wearing fur, but they voted in the Democratic primary. The afternoon/evening voters were working class, regardless of color or party affiliation. We didn’t have the after work rush we’d expected, and we understood that the roads were terrible.

There were lots of people who expressed dissappointment in not voting in the Democratic primaries but most of them understood why (three weeks before the primary was the cut off for party changing). We had a number of individuals change party affiliation to Democrat and choose not to vote. We had one Democrat to Republican party switch, and I would have loved to learn the story behind that but, naturally, didn’t ask.

Things started to go wonky at about 7:40.

That’s when Scooterbird told us he’d gotten the call from his sister. Apparently there was a scrawl across the NBC news broadcast stating that a judge had declared an extra hour and a half of poll time. The chief judge was glad to know, but said that until we got it through official channels (the dedicated and tested phone line going directly to BoE HQ) we had to proceed according to plan. There was a lot of joking about unplugging that phone.

It didn’t ring, so at 8 we closed the polls and started dismantling the place. Some disgruntled voters were turned away. There was some yelling and screaming, and the head of the other precinct was threatened by a voter who ‘took down his name’. It put a nasty tinge on an, up to then, good day.

At ten minutes past eight the phone rang. The Board employee on the other end of the phone apparently opened the conversation with ‘Didn’t you hear…’.

That’s when I, personally, felt, the day ceased to be a positive thing. Were we honestly being chided for NOT taking our directions from the evening news?

We re-opened. We had two poll books up and running, out of three, and never managed to properly re-synch them with each other (because one of the 17 year olds started taking people beofore mine was up and running). Our greeter (in her scooter) chased down the voter we’d just turned away, a recently naturalized citizen about to vote for his first time EVER. We were glad to be able to help him.

On the up-side, those voters who came late were all directed to vote on our paper (provisional) ballots with a code which meant their ballots would not be scrutinezed as provisional ballots usually are. (One of them should have been provisional anyway, but we gave him the extended hours code).

There was a mini rush, we handled perhaps a dozen voters, then stayed open for another hour during which only one more person walked through the doors. The seventeen year old was instructed to close his poll book early on, so I was just sitting there, doing my knitting and looking down the empty hallway for much of the time.

We closed the polls at 9:30. We got the numbers, which no longer matched, from each of the three poll-books separately. They matched with the totals from the paper receipts (count only, no voter verifiable results). I whined at the chief judge to ask if I could go home now, and was told no, so I went into the hall to talk to another check in judge while waiting for the go-home.

A littlebit after 10 Scooterbird told me that the other check in judges brow beat the chief judge to let me go home, because of the cough. So we packed up and got out.

I was ready to really rant about this, but the lead up to the event had been well done, and things were otherwise really well run. I called the county BoE and told them what happened. The woman I spoke to was very understanding and sympathetic, and explained that they hadn’t gotten the call until 10 minutes of 8…. so, they didn’t have time to call everyone, and were trying to call the 100+ districts while they handled irated voters at the same time.

Fair enough, this explained the pissy call we didn’t get until 10 minutes after the polls closed.

I called the Maryland BoE next. I spoke to Mr. Ross Goldstein, whose title is ‘Deputy Administrator’. He appreciated that I wanted to find out what happened, and went through the whole timeline with me.

They’d been tracking the weather reports the whole time. The road conditions were fine for most of the day, but by 6:00 it was clear that there were problems. That’s when they started the process of checking to see if they ought to extend voting hours. The decision was passed through to the Governor’s office, and to a Judge, but the BoE wasn’t given the official order to extend voting hours until 7:30.

Scooterbird had gotten the call about the news story at 7:40.

Let’s look at the human element. The State board is notified at 7:30. They have, at best, a dozen people around at that time to call 32 counties. I don’t know about all the counties, but mine received the call at 7:50, and had 10 people to call over 100 districts. At the same time as they were calling out, they were getting calls in (one from our sister district, asking if there was a court order), which they couldn’t field because they were trying to contact all the polling places.

I can’t fault the Board of Elections here, or at the State level. I can’t even fault NBC news. It doesn’t seem reasonable that a judge took over an hour to review the situation and order the extra time, but that’s where I’m left at the moment. Actually, I have a call in to Judge Silkworth’s office to see if I can get that last piece of the puzzle worked out. I’ll update when and if I get a response from those good folks.

Overall, I’d say the system worked acceptably, but it could have been better….

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4 Responses

  1. I hate getting pissed off with nobody to blame.

    Will you be a judge in November? And remember… there are rarely ice storms in November…

  2. Well, this is one of those times where figuring out what actually happened is helping me be less pissed off.

    Yes, I’m doing it again in November, especially since the system itself seems to be fine. I might suggest to someone a texting system of emergency notifications (at least as a back up plan)

  3. I was also a Chief Judge, but had an experience that was a lot smoother. I’d say that if anyone is to blame for the mess at your polling place, it would be the Chief Judge. That doesn’t mean that he did something wrong–just that there were things ours did that considerably improved things.

    At our polling place, we learned of the extended hours when a voter came in and said she had heard it on NPR. At that point, our Chief Judge called in to verify the rumor, rather than waiting for a call. Thus, we knew before 8:00 that the polls had to stay open.

    Second, the way the provisional ballots work, the Chief Judge should probably keep the polls open if there is any doubt. The reason those ballots are marked as extended hours is so that they can be discarded if someone successfully challenges keeping the polls open. Thus, if you accept provisional ballots and shouldn’t have, there is no harm. If you turn away a voter and shouldn’t have, there is no way to correct the problem.

    It sounds as though everything worked out correctly in the end (assuming that one otherwise provisional voter who voted after 8:00 got the provisional ballot envelope marked with an E rather than the regular extended hours envelope). However, just in case (heaven forbid!) this happens again, I thought I’d pass on some ideas.

  4. Sorry, last post should have started, “I was also a judge,” not a Chief Judge.

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