Politics: Poll Worker 2018

In Autumn 2018, I volunteered as a poll worker in San Francisco. Thus, I learned a bit about election logistics.

Why Do This Thing?

photo: pin
Also, you get a pin. It's a big step up from an "I Voted!" sticker

Why would an introvert volunteer for a task that forces them to talk to strangers all day?

I'm interested in voting machine security. It's a neat problem. Along with some fraction of the nation's tech nerds, I'd Monday-morning-quarterbacked some voting machine debacles. I'd breathed a sigh of relief when my home state of California had set some reasonable auditability standards for machines. I'd winced when we didn't do many audits. I'd read articles and news and blog posts and such. Security expert Matt Blaze, frustrated with some Monday-morning-quarterbacking tech nerds, would occasionally point out:

Periodic plug: have great ideas for improving voting tech and election security but aren't being taken seriously by arrogant jerks like me? Start by learning how elections actually work. A great way to do that is to volunteer as a poll worker. (Still time in some places).

An engineer is always tempted to over-engineer things to solve some obscure problem… and overlook the real problem that has a mundane solution. As far as I knew, I wasn't suggesting overengineered whiz-bang unhelpful solutions-to-non-problems… Then again, the nerds who'd prompted Blaze's outburst probably felt the same way.


Since I was interested in election security, I already followed the San Francisco Department of Elections on social media. At one point I saw a tweet encouraging folks to volunteer as a poll worker. This pointed me at the SF Department of Elections website. This had signup instructions: come in to City Hall for a little interview; or to expedite the process, fill in a web form.

I filled in the web form. It said that someone would get in touch with me soon. Over the next few weeks, I forgot about it… Then I got an email saying that if I was interested in helping out with the November election, I should come in to City Hall to talk. In hindsight I guess that web form didn't expedite anything; I guess I should have headed in to City Hall first thing.

I walked into an office at City Hall. Someone sat me down at a computer to to take a reading comprehension test. The test showed me some excerpts from the poll worker instruction manual along with questions about those excerpts. You could look over the instructions while answering the questions—you didn't need to memorize anything, just understand what you were reading. (Later on, I'd find out that poll workers can have their instruction manual handy and read from it as needed; there's too much to memorize, so you might have to look some things up and read them on the spot. So the test made sense.)

After the quiz, I talked with a couple of Department of Elections folks. I didn't realize it until partway through, but this was a low-key job interview. They asked why I was interested. They asked if I could handle a looong workday. They asked me my plan for getting to a polling place at 6am in the morning, when SF public transit is sparse.

One of them, hearing that I was interested in voting machine security, asked if I wanted to be a poll inspector instead of just a poll clerk. This would give me more chance to work with equipment instead of just talking to folks. I demurred—it seemed like a lot to learn. For my first time trying this, clerking seemed more reasonable.


Prep: I perused some online study materials. There were some videos; there was a written manual. There was the age-old training material trade-off: the videos were more fun, but fell out of date since they were troublesome to make. The written material was up-to-date. (You might be surprised that a voting clerk's duties change from year to year; but after those videos had been made, SF voters had changed the rules so that non-USA-citizen residents with kids could vote in SF school board elections—and only school board elections. So there was this new category of voters.)

I watched videos, I read skimmed the manual. The manual was long; a few pages in, I realized we weren't expected to remember but rather to read along in the manual as we worked.

Part of the setup process was breaking some security seals. The inspector was supposed to make sure that the seals were intact (not tampered with )before breaking them. There weren't instructions on how to spot tamperingl. Maybe inspectors learned that in their training class? I hoped so; I didn't know what sorts of things to look for.

Class: On training day, I headed down to City Hall. A Dept of Elections official named Angelica taught a roomful of us clerks.

We got a paper copy of the Poll Worker's Instruction book. We re-watched videos I'd watched online. But class wasn't all repeats of things I'd already studied: we also got to set up some election equipment… sort of. Whenever we ran into snag, a Department of Elections official would just reach over, fix the problem too quickly for us to see, and tell us to keep going. Thus, I learned that things could go wrong and were fixable, but didn't learn what the fixes were.

Lab: On a couple of weekend-days close to Election Day, the Department of Elections ran "labs" during the day so that election workers could practice talking to voters and setting up machines. I attended one of these for about an hour. This time, I felt free to ask questions about how to spot tampering.

E.g. there's a sticker stuck to the doors of the Insight Machine when it first arrives, but it seems pretty easy to peel off and re-attach that sticker. When I asked about it, the Department of Elections teacher pointed out that the Insight Machine bin doesn't contain any sensitive stuff when it's "sealed" with that sticker. (It holds the Edge Machine's printer, but I guess that printer is too "dumb" for a hacker to find something to tamper with?)

photo: I set up a booth. photo: I helped set up a ballot scanner. photo: a seal (hard to undo ziptie with a serial number).

Election Day

Offically, the Starbucks on my block opened at 5:00 AM, but when I walked up out of the night with cup in hand at 5:01, they had to unlock the door to let me in. Still, they quickly poured me some coffee and soon I walked back out into the night. I climbed a ways up Mount Sutro. Normally when you think of San Francisco, you think about dense neighborhoods of closely-packed homes. But I was heading up into a different neighborhood, up twisty roads, far from amenities like coffee shops.

I turned off the main road onto the unlit Mountain Spring Ave, walked through darkness to St Germain Ave, looking up at Sutro Tower and Orion's Belt. I arrived at the house garage where I was to clerk that day. Motion-sensitive lights turned on at my approach; as I stood to wait for the rest of the crew, the lights turned off and I looked out over the city and the Golden Gate. You might think San Francisco is busy, but this cluster of houses up in the hills was darned still before dawn.

The rest of the crew arrived:

Setting Up

Five minutes before the polls opened.

We had an hour to deploy some stacks of voting supplies in this garage. (The year before, Kim the then-new-Inspector had led her crew to set things up… in an hour and five minutes, thus opening up to the public a few minutes late. Voters had been snippy. She wasn't going to let that happen again.) Soon we all had tasks to carry out.

Experience helps. I set up the voting booths. The booths had lights. I had the booths mostly set up with plenty of time to spare…but couldn't figure out how to wire their power supplies together. This was a simple manner of putting plugs into sockets, but I couldn't see the sockets, and couldn't figure them out by feel. I struggled for several minutes to figure out some combination of light and phone-camera-view that would let me see the plug… And then Daniel the Field Election Deputy (an election official who wandered between polling places over the course of the day making sure we weren't messing up too badly) knew exactly what to do and got me back on track.

One preparation I was glad I took: under my dress-up-for-voting-day nice shirt, I wore an OK-to-get-messy t-shirt. I took off the nice shirt while setting up. After I sprawled out on the garage floor to help Yvonne set up the over-engineered self-unfolding voting information kiosk so that it wouldn't self-fold and fall over, I was glad to have a tidy shirt to wear.



We helped over 100 people vote!

I stood by the ballot scanner. The ballot scanner mostly beeped happily and gulped down ballots, but often it beeped out warnings. I was there to help interpret these warnings. E.g., "It says you didn't mark anything on this page. Was that on purpose, or did you overlook it?" It was always on purpose; I pushed the button that told the machine thanks for the warning, please accept this ballot anyhow.

I handed out "I Voted!" stickers. I was not stingy.

Several dozen folks dropped off vote-by-mail envelopes with us. Thus they had the convenience of filling out their ballot at home, but they still got "I Voted!" stickers.

Some folks brought their dogs. The dogs were cute. Some folks brought their kids. Their kids were cute. We had a special wheelchair-accessible voting booth. We had no voters in wheelchairs. (When I remember how hilly that neighborhood was… I'm guessing most folks in wheelchairs would choose to live in OMG please any other neighborhood ugh.) But but that booth still saw plenty of use: it was lower than the other booths, so a kid could see what was going on. Kids also got "I Voted!" stickers and leftover Hallowe'en candy.

Sorry, I didn't snap pictures of any of the cute dogs or cute kids. Would that have been voter intimidation? I don't know. It would have felt like crossing some line, though. Here's a picture of a bird that came to visit us during a point in the early afternoon when nobody(!) was voting and I could take pictures without being creepy:

photo: bird

I worried about things like voter intimidation and ballot security, but most folks didn't. Out of 100+ voters, two knew how to handle their ballot-privacy folder to ensure I couldn't peek at their ballots. Most folks just thought of the folder as an awkward thing to carry; plenty of folks scanning their ballots asked me to hold their folders.

When the scanner beeped out warnings, in theory I was supposed to help out without peeking at the ballot. In practice, folks didn't know this and didn't worry about me peeking, and would just point at the ballot and ask me what was going on. By mid-day, I'd worked out a pretty good patter which could get folks un-stuck without me peeking at their ballot… but while I might have found this respect for privacy satisfying, I don't think the voters cared. They weren't scared of me; they just wanted to get their vote counted and keep democracy rolling.

Our most high-tech piece of equipment was an Edge DRE Voting machine. This computer let folks fill out ballots even if their disabilities hampered using a paper ballot. It could display a large font for folks who couldn't see fine print; it had an audio interface for folks who couldn't see the large font; it had other interfaces, pretty impressive… and at this polling place, nobody used it that day. When luddites call for burning all the voting machines and using only paper, these Edge machines are a counter-argument: without them, many folks could be disenfranchised.

I wanted to see an Edge voting machine in action so that my nerdly heart could be warmed by seeing modern technology give someone a voice in government… but

But this polling place was in a neighborhood far from everything. If you wanted to carry out some errand at the nearest bodega/cafe/drugstore/whatever, it was at least a 20-minute walk away. If you chose to live in this neighborhood, you chose to drive often; if you chose to live in this neighborhood, you could see well enough to pass a driving test. So… it wasn't surprising that nobody used our Edge machine. Oh well.

Kim the Poll Inspector asked us why we'd volunteered as clerks. I told her I was interested in security. I asked her if her Inspector training had taught her how to spot seals that had been tampered with. It hadn't.

The part of my brain that worries about security things flashed lights and sounded a klaxon. Looking at seals earlier, I'd thought about ways to mess with them. I'd pushed those thoughts aside, thinking that probably wouldn't stand up to scrutiny. Now I wondered: How much scrutiny is there, really?

I went back to helping folks vote. Everything was probably just fine. Probably.

As a software guy, I don't get to do much real-world engineering. But in the evening, a breeze kicked up… And it blew over that over-engineered self-unfolding voter information kiosk that had so vexed us in the morning. Nora righted the kiosk which immediately blew over again… until I rigged up an extension cord to hold it in place. I was so proud of this fix that I immediately snapped a picture. I doesn't look like much, but, y'know, saving democracy:

photo: I rigged an extension cord to keep the voter information kiosk from blowing over

More than one nice voter lady absent-mindedly left her purse behind. One didn't come back for hers. A cool thing about forgetting your purse at a polling place: poll workers have a list of voters with addresses. Thus Kim the Inspector was able to bring that lady's purse to her house (though the task was tougher than you'd think since it was after dark by this point and did I mention this neighborhood doesn't have street lights and most houses didn't have lit-up numbers).

Packing Up

The last few voters finished up. We poll workers had a few minutes of calm… and then 8pm rolled around. Kim the Inspector declared us closed. We started packing up. I was dreading this step. We were supposed to count many things: used ballots, unused ballots, signatures, … many things. Good news: if the folks bringing our site's ballots to City Hall discarded some in a ditch, the count would catch it. Bad news: we would have to count things while tired from 14 hours of poll-working.

At 8:05pm, a confused citizen showed up hoping to vote. He'd heard the polls stayed open until 9pm. (I guess he saw something on social media from someone in another state?) We sadly turned him away.

We counted things, noted numbers down on forms. We put things into bags. We sealed the bags (to prevent a transporter from ditching, I suppose). Sealing was really hard!

To seal up our bags of ballots, we used blue plastic seals. These "seals" were like zipties, but difficult to open without some visible tampering marks. We'd used seals on the voting machines and other equipment; but the blue seals used on ballot-bags were lower quality. They were darned near impossible to close: you had to push the ziptie "tail" through its loop very hard to get it through… but if you accidentally put too much pressure onto one of the wrong parts, you broke it. So I sat on the floor of the garage, trying to carefully apply a lot of thumb-strength… it didn't go well. Yvonne, noticing how long it was taking me, tried to help out… and it didn't go well for her either. Yvonne didn't cuss, but I bet she was thinking about it.

I'd gone into this day thinking computer-y high-falutin' thoughts. But at the end of the day, I thought "We don't need fancy computers, but we need to improve these $&#*ing zipties" so yeah I guess I learned something. My thumbs hurt for a day afterwards to make sure I remembered.

We counted up various things and bundled them up and handed them over to law enforcement folks for transport. We took down equipment and stacked it up so that the Department of Elections folks could take it away and this nice family could get their garage back.


comment? | | home |