Monday, November 5, 2012

Election Observing

In yesterday's post I mentioned I'm the Benton County Coordinator for the Democratic Party of Oregon's Protect the Vote program. My day today started when I was awoken by the phone at 7:15am. The volunteer who was scheduled for 8am to noon today had just arrived at the courthouse where our election office is located and realized he'd forgotten the letter he was supposed to have with him saying he was the designated Democratic observer. He lives in Philomath, one town over from Corvallis, and wouldn't have time to drive home to get his letter. Luckily I had an extra at home. So I threw on yesterday's clothes and drove the 10 minutes to the courthouse to give him the copy. In heavy fog with no coffee in my system. Not an ideal start to the day. But I got there, handed the letter to him, and headed back home to start up my coffee maker.

Benton County Courthouse, built in 1868

I was the scheduled observing volunteer for this afternoon, so around 11:30 I headed back down to the courthouse and signed in for my shift. It's interesting to see how they process the ballots in a vote-by-mail election.

The first step is sorting. The ballots, still in their sealed envelopes, are sorted into mail trays by precinct. Each precinct can have different candidates and thus a different ballot style.

The next step is signature verification. The election worker sits at a computer and scans the bar code on the ballot. The corresponding signature from the voter's registration card pops up on the screen. The worker compares the two signatures. If there's any doubt, they can click on "full image" and get a display that shows all the registration signatures on file for that voter, so if you've reregistered because you've moved or changed party affiliation, they can see how your signature has evolved over time. They also see the signatures of any other voters in the household. This helps them detect cases where a husband and wife sign each other's ballots, maybe by mistake. If the worker judges the signature to be valid, the ballot is marked accepted and moves on. If not, the voter is contacted to come in and resolve the problem.

Then ballots move on to the processing station. Ballots are processed by teams of three workers. The first worker removes the secrecy envelope from the outer signed envelope. After this point there is nothing to identify the ballot as belonging to a particular voter, maintaining the secrecy of the ballot. The second worker removes the ballot from the secrecy envelope. The third worker unfolds the ballot and inspects it for stray marks that might confuse the counting machine or votes that aren't complete enough for the counting machine to see. If there are marks to be removed or more completely filled in, the third worker consults with the second worker and only if they agree are alterations made to the ballot. These workers must have different political party affiliations to prevent collusion in favor of any candidate or measure.

Then the stacks of ballots go on to the counting room. Today was the first day ballots were counted. The ballots are fed through the optical scanners and counted. This is done by teams of two workers, again with differing political affiliation. They had some problems with the feeder mechanisms early today and had a rep from the machine company out to fine tune the feeders. Things seemed to go more smoothly after that.

If the machine detects two votes for the same office (an overvote), it rejects the ballot.  The two workers then inspect the ballot. If they agree the voter's intent to vote for a particular candidate is clear, they use white tape or a stamp to amend the ballot so the machine can read it. If the voter deliberately voted for two candidates, or their intent can't be determined, the ballot is set aside to be counted later with the overvote rejection mode turned off. Thus all the votes for other races on that ballot will still be counted.

The machines are set in "no report" mode, so no one knows what the counts are. Only after the 8pm deadline tomorrow will the report button be pushed, generating the election results. This "precounting" allows Benton County to release results ten or fifteen minutes after the 8pm deadline that will include most of the ballots. Only ballots that come in late tomorrow will remain to be counted later in the evening. Unless it's a really close race, by 8:15pm, we know who won in Benton County.

Of course, if it's close it can be days before we know for sure. In Oregon a ballot is valid if it's placed in any ballot box anywhere in the state by 8pm Tuesday. Someone who lives in Corvallis but is up in Portland this week might put their ballot in a box there tomorrow evening. It can take a few days for all the ballots to find their way from the county they were deposited to the county that needs to count them. It happened a few years ago that the Corvallis mayoral race was so close that we had to wait for all those ballots to arrive before we knew who our next mayor was to be.

It was interesting to observe all this going on this afternoon, but it was a little dull too. Benton County Elections has a camera system with a video camera in each room. I sat at a desk in the hallway watching a computer monitor with the camera feeds displayed. I could display the screen divided into 9 sections (6 cameras were in operation), or expand one to see more detail. By 2pm or so they had processed all the ballots from the weekend and sent the processing table workers home. They continued with signature verification of ballots that came in this afternoon and with the counting, since that only started today and was a bit behind because of the feeder problems. Most of the afternoon I had the counting room on full screen. I sat and knit and watched them feed ballots into the machines.

Hey, we got to actual knitting content on my knitting blog. What was I knitting? I'm starting a new version of the fingerless mitts I showed on FO Friday. I thought a nice variation to include in the pattern would be for longer cuffs. I started another set, this time from Knitted Wit Feather Weight 100% Rambouillet in the Thistle colorway. It's a gorgeous bright purple. I'll post pictures soon.

And there's day 5 of NaBloPoMo. Come back tomorrow to see if I make it through day 6. And if you're a US citizen, make sure you vote (if you haven't already).

NaBloPoMo November 2012

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