As co-director of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project (VTP), I have been involved in inventing new secure voting machines, designing better ballots, and analyzing problems in the overall voting experience. Concerns about opportunities for voting equipment fraud have always been central to debates about elections. The VTPs analysis of elections has shown that registration problems, poor ballot design, and careless polling place procedures dominate the way votes are lost. Now, people are concerned about the 2004 election; to help, we released a report showing that exit polls did not in fact predict that John Kerry would fare better than he actually did in Ohio polling stations that used electronic voting machines. I have enjoyed the opportunity to carefully watch elections at hundreds of polling places nationwide for the past three-and-a-half years. What I have observed is that grave errors of judgment and protocol are apparent almost everywhere, regardless of the voting method used. Even in a well-run election, a poll-watcher witnesses an array of problems.
Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than what I saw on November 2 while watching voting at 28 precincts in the Boston area. Boston has one of the best election set-ups in the country. The city used optical scan ballots; in our evaluation of the 2000 election, we at VTP recommended this as the method which had shown the fewest errors of currently available voting methods. Moreover, through their hard work, local election officials showed an earnest desire to deliver an election free from tampering or fraud. Still, even in Boston , sloppy polling place practices and ill-conceived procedures abounded. These seemingly innocuous mistakes can result in lost or uncounted votes and can compromise the integrity of the final vote count.
Minor problems I observed in Boston included inadequate and poorly placed signage, making it confusing for people to know where to go. Disorganized check-in registration systems at numerous locations not only led to long lines, which deter people from voting, but also, in some instances, messed up the lists that allow officials to compare the number of people issued with ballots to the total number of votes. Some polling places casually permitted persons other than the voter (such as a poll worker or family member) to interfere in the process of completing and scanning ballots.
More dangerous irregularities also occurred. A poll worker removed ballots from a balloting box without monitoring. The person meant to observe him simply wandered away. At another location, the poll warden, also unsupervised, took bunches of ballots from the scan reader from time to time so that it wouldn’t jam. Those he removed lay to the side in a pile of manila envelopes next to the voting machine. He had been instructed to remove the ballots only when the scanner reached its 1,200-ballot capacity. However, he proudly explained his invented system to avoid this. No one should everprior to, during, or after an electiontouch voting materials without a witness to vouch for their actions.
As usual, the most frightening things that I saw on Election Day occurred after the polls had closed. At 8:00 p.m., I watched one of two precincts at a polling place stumble through the inefficient shutdown procedure, which had many steps and required intricate handling of small bits of paper. The longer workers struggled at it, the more dubious were the results they calculated. In the meantime, the other precinct at that polling place had kept its lists of who checked-in and who deposited ballots together, and accidentally muddled them up. Poll workers still toiled to sort out the mess, which was done by scribbling notes and erasing other markscertainly, not a vouchsafe election technique. Erasers have no place in the preparation of election records. All marks should be made in pen.
After finishing its closing paperwork, the first precinct packed manila envelopes stuffed with ballots into a suitcase. Workers then strapped the computer, containing its own internal set of vote records and the separate balloting module, to the suitcase and handed the whole lot to a single, unescorted police officer who wheeled it off to his car to drive it to election headquarters. In 2003, lids to balloting boxes were found floating in San Francisco Bay! I was informed that every precinct in the Boston area had been instructed to transfer election materials in this way.
In a nation screaming for verifiable audit trails on electronic voting machines, Boston (and probably many other places) election officials, by this policy, threw away the optical scan system’s advantage of creating multiple records. If the balloting module had been removed from the computer, as it should have been, and these two items had traveled separately, with a third team carrying the actual ballots, the loss of any one of these things would have been compensated by the vote count provided by the other two.