Escondido, CA

Notes from an Election Worker: joining the largest local election ever

The San Diego County Registrar of Voters needed temporary/seasonal workers for the 2016 Presidential Election. I was contacted by a recruiting agency, under license to the Registrar, and, having passed the background check and drug test, was hired.

The job was quite routine, and a robot could surely be developed to do most of it. Over the two weeks prior to the election, and the two weeks following the election, the Canvassing Board opened over one million mail-in ballots. My assignment was to open them and give them an initial screening for problems.

There were lots of problems. Some people wrote their names and addresses on their ballots, which is not permitted. A special quality-control group used markers to blank out this information. Quite a few people wrote in joke candidates. Mickey Mouse got several votes, narrowly edging out Daffy Duck.

Some people mistakenly voted both “yes” and “no” on ballot measures, with no possible way for us to know their actual intent. Some people voted “yes,” then scratched it out and voted “no,” in such a way that their real intent was clearly evident. The quality-control group used white-out and marking pens to alter the ballot in order to make that intent visible to the vote-tallying machines.

To vote properly, people were supposed to use black ink or pencil, and fill in the little ovals on the ballot. Many people, instead, made little check-marks or “x” marks. The optical tallying machines could not recognize these marks, and so we enhanced them with special marking pens. These markers used transparent ink, so that the original mark could still be seen, to guarantee the voter’s intent could always be visible.

Some voters made a mark that was near the little oval, but not actually inside it. It was not always possible to figure out how they intended to vote. Some people made huge messy marks all over their ballots, so that no meaning at all could be guessed.

A lot of people were eating while preparing their vote-by-mail ballots, so we scraped off a lot of food stains. Many people mailed us letters and notes, or included campaign advertisements. One voter, perhaps entertained by the ballot measure regarding condoms, enclosed a condom in the vote-by-mail envelope (fortunately the item was still sealed in its wrapper.) One voter voted, and then put his pen in the envelope: this caused one of the sorting machines to jam. The machine was fixed, but the pen was bent in half by the mishap.

Some people, registered in one city, voted, via “provisional ballot,” in other cities. A registered voter living in, say, Chula Vista might be in Carlsbad, and realize he had only twenty minutes left to vote. He could go to a polling station in Carlsbad, and file a provisional ballot. The problem is that this voter would be able to cast a vote for Carlsbad’s mayor, something he, as a Chula Vista resident, is not entitled to do. A special team was put together to use white-out to redact — erase! — these ineligible votes.

You might think this is a dangerous power for low-paid temporary workers to have. It very definitely is! However, you may take reassurance from the very large number of safeguards in place. Everything was observed by security cameras at all times, and all functions were performed by teams, so that someone was always working by each employee’s side.

There were many audits, and many cross-counts and other checks. There were also many outside observers, some appointed by candidates or parties, and some from independent “watchdog” groups, such as the League of Women Voters.

Everything was highly transparent; all operations were in rooms with ceiling height windows, so every step could be seen, and, indeed, the observers were permitted inside the rooms, to look right over the shoulders of the workers.

This was San Diego County’s largest election ever. It was the first election where the ballots had to be printed on two separate sheets. This led to situations where voters might send in only one of the two sheets. It led to situations where a husband and wife, filling out their ballots at the same dining room table, might accidentally put two copies of the first sheet in one mailing envelope, and two copies of the second sheet in another mailing envelope. We got a lot of envelopes with two “A” sheets, or two “B” sheets. These had to be sent to auditors, who sought to match them “A” and “B” sheets properly. It is sad for me to have to report, but in some cases double-voting of this kind could not be reconciled, and such improper votes needed to be discarded.

It is important for voters to follow the instructions. There are too many ways for us to ruin our ballots, and thus have our votes be uncountable.

Fortunately, such ruined ballots are very rare. Out of the twenty thousand ballots I, personally, opened and examined, fewer than five had to be rejected and discarded. But even that is too high a ratio; it means that those five people, who intended to vote and who tried to vote, never had their choices tallied. There are times, just as when a voter votes both “yes” and “no” on a ballot measure, that the Registrar of Voters is completely helpless to fulfill the wishes of the voter.

The assignment was hugely educational, and also fun. The workers and the managers were some of the nicest people in the world, and the work, while strictly regimented and closely observed, was usually routine. In the vast majority of cases, well over 99.9%, everything went exactly as it was supposed to, and the votes were counted properly.

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