I do not mean to single out Boston. Similar problems occurred at the September 7, 2004 election in Reno/Sparks Nevada, which I attended for the rollout of the Sequoia direct record electronic voting system with verifiable paper-trail printers. Voters adapted to the new technology better than I had expected they would. However, inadequate training and guidelines caused problems in nearly all of the eleven polling places that I visited. At one location, workers daisy-chained 20 different machines into a single electrical circuit. No one noticed that they were running on battery power and at 8:30 a.m. all of the machines began shutting down.
Instances of poll workers improperly tackling sensitive election tasks without a corroborating witness occurred from the beginning of the day, when I saw a manager write down odometer readings by herself, to the end of the day, when the sole official in charge of the counting room told me that he was going to drive the results to headquarters in his car by himself. At several locations I witnessed voters wrongly issued with provisional ballots, which excluded local races, because poll workers accidentally typed in the provisional ballot code rather than that of the correct precinct. A second person to check smart card programming might have caught these simple transcription mistakes.
The most alarming incident I witnessed was an unsupervised poll worker struggling with a jammed paper trail printer. In the process of trying to rethread the paper she actually took a pair of scissors and cut off a section of the printed paper trail receipts and, when that didn’t work, tore some more off. One hopes that she remembered to somehow put them back inside the paper trail box when she finished, and that someone managed to find them. These scraps of paper were part of the official audit trail whose purpose was to verify the electronic count. As happened in Boston, the utility of the expensive, new technology designed to provide the back-up records became almost moot because it was improperly handled.
This individual, like the majority of the poll workers I have encountered in my travels, was trying her best. No one had given her instructions about rethreading paper; nor had she had a chance to practice the procedure. Most importantly, she had never had the opportunity to make a habit of the special behavior necessary in an election settingsuch as finding a second person to watch her. The majority of poll workers I interviewed that day had had only one hour of training.
The mistakes in Boston and in Nevada resemble those I have witnessed at polling places in every part of the country and with every possible voting system in use. What sets these two cities apart is that both spent huge amounts of money on sophisticated voting technology and both chose systems that produce an audit trail. These localities spent time, energy, and money to give their constituents fair and reliable voting conditions. However, because neither city matched its investment in technology with similar commitments to training and operations, the sad result was that the problems that occurred were depressingly similar to those seen elsewhere.
As the dust settles on this last election, the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project will methodically analyze what occurred and strive to make voting easier and more reliable. User-friendly ballot designs, efficient registration systems, and alternative verifiable audit trail systems are already in progress. However, we are just as carefully examining ways to simplify polling place operations and improve poll worker training. Addressing the troubled American voting process with isolated technological solutions would be like putting a band-aid on a large, disease-riddled beast. Curing the election system will require a holistic approach. We implore local election officials and the public alike to provide much-needed support for this multi-faceted effort so that every vote in America can count.