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My experience as a poll worker in Pennsylvania

In 2019, I was on the election board as a machine inspector for the primary election, the first election when the new voting machines were in use. And it's a good thing that I was — the opportunity to learn how the machines work, and to refine the voting process during a less contentious election, was valuable.

Once 2020 rolled around, it became clear that this election was important, and was likely to be the subject of attempted subversion. I reached out to let the board of elections know that I was prepared to help out with this election as well, and reprised my role: machine inspector, division 18/19, PA. The machine inspector for 18/5 didn't show up, so I ended up doing their work as well until relief arrived partway through the day.

NOTE: I made some educated guesses about the responsibilities of other poll workers, which I am not too familiar with myself. A couple of errors have been pointed out to me in those respects. Descriptions of roles other than machine inspector should be taken with a grain of salt.

Officially, the only role of the machine inspector is to open the polls at the beginning of the day, keep the machines sanitized throughout, and close the polls at the end of the day. However, any qualified board member is also permitted to do most of the tasks required of the election board, so I helped out where I could throughout the remainder of my (15 and a half hour!) workday. We were issued basic surgical masks (I wore two) and face shields, and more than enough sanitizer to wipe the machines, pens, and working areas down with.

At 6 AM, we arrived to set up for the 7 AM opening. I gathered my materials from the official Box of Election Things (it has a name, but I forgot it), and got to work. Each division had two voting machines. I removed the covers (checking and writing down the seal numbers), plugged them in, and removed the seal protecting the bin on the back — where, among other things, the blank paper ballots are stored. These were handed off to the other officials, and I opened up the administrative controls box. In here is a flash drive which stores (one copy of) the election results for this machine, a power and mode switching button, and another numbered seal. This other seal is used as a tamper-evident seal for the admin box itself, once I'm done with the initial setup. This box, and the area where the filled-in paper ballots are collected, are also locked with a barrel key that came with the election materials.

Opening the poll machines involves turning on the machine, verifying some information matches our expectations (like the division number and the fact that no votes are already recorded), and entering the "election code". I won't repeat it here, but it's not a particularly secure password. It is made much more secure, however, by the fact that entering it is always accompanied with a physical measure in the admin box, which is kept locked and sealed. After these steps, the machines are ready to accept votes.

For those readers who do not live in PA, the typical voting experience is as follows: when the voter arrives at the polling place, they're asked which ward and division they're voting in. The voter is handed an index card to write their name and ward/division on while they wait. Socially distant lines are formed for each division, and two voters per division are allowed into the building at a time. There were a total of four divisions voting at my location, each with four election board workers; two poll watchers; a small number of city workers; and up to two voters per division, averaging about 25-35 people in the room at peak times.

The voter approaches their table, and gives their name and party affiliation. The party affiliation is used as a signal that something fishy might be going on if the ratio of R to D is very different from the votes recorded. There are three people at the table: one looking up registrations A-M, another for N-Z, and a third recording all of the voters in order. The voter is assigned a number (assigned ordinally from the first voter of the day), which is written on their card, in the third worker's book, and in the registration book. Voters who are voting in our division for the first time are required to show proof of address, and some voters have special circumstances which are specified in the registration book. If all is well, they'll be asked to sign the registration book, are issued a blank paper ballot, and are sent to the next open machine for that division.

The paper ballot has a notch on one side indicating the orientation it is to be placed into the voting machine in, via a slot on the right-hand side. The slot leads to a conveyor belt which pulls it into the machine underneath a transparent pane, and out of view. The touch screen asks the voter to select a language (English or Spanish), then presents them with their choices. There are choices for changing the font size or contrast, and voters who have a greater degree of visual impairment can use the "ADA device". I've never had to set this up so I'm not sure how it works.

Under specific circumstances, the voter may be accompanied into the booth. I am allowed to enter the voting booth if a voter asks, to help with any confusion with the machine. Additionally, one member of the public can be allowed to assist the voter ONLY if they and the voter fill out a form to consent to assistance, usually in the case of disability. I make an effort to avoid seeing the selections the voter makes, and I'm not allowed to offer any advice on what to vote for.

Once the voter makes their choices, they tap the "Vote" button, and their choices are printed onto their ballot. The ballot slides back out, under the transparent pane, for them to inspect for errors. They have an opportunity to reject it and ask to vote again. Otherwise, the vote is pulled back into the machine and stored in the hopper, under lock, key, and tamper-evident seal in the back. The printed ballot includes bar codes which can be quickly scanned to read the vote, and also has the selections printed out in plain English.

After this, the voter is done, they get their sticker and go home. Outside of the typical case, there are primarily two other kinds of voters: those surrendering their mail-in ballot, and those voting provisionally. Voters who surrender their mail-in ballot to the election officials are allowed to vote on the machine; we give them a sharpie to censor their ballot with (if they already filled it in), and a form to fill out with some basic information about the voter, then staple them together and store them for later. After this, they may vote normally.

The provisional ballots are used for anyone whose registration status is uncertain, for example voters who are required to provide proof of address, but who cannot do so. We are not allowed to refuse any voters for any reason, and provisional ballots are the last measure for anyone we don't know how to deal with. The voter is given a form to fill out with their registration and other details in the presence of the judge of elections for our division, and then the judge and another worker signs it. The voter is given a special paper ballot and a secrecy envelope, then brought to a private area to write in their votes and seal them in the secrecy envelope. When they're done, they return the envelope to the election board, we enclose it in the first envelope, and then add a sticker with a unique serial number on it. The same serial number is printed on a card which is given to the voter, which they can use to track the status of their provisional ballot on a website or via the phone, to make sure it's accepted and recorded.

During the day, I helped out with a little bit of everything, here and there. Mainly I took care of unusual voters, those surrendering mail-in ballots or voting provisionally, to (1) make sure the rest of the election board was free to keep the voters moving, and (2) to stave off the boredom which comes with my official responsibilities being separated by 13 hours of doing nothing. There was one voter who insisted that we were going to throw away her provisional ballot, while another board worker and I patiently explained how the serial numbers worked, how she could use them to make sure her vote was counted, and that none of us wanted to go to jail over her vote.

The other event came when a discrepancy developed between the number of votes recorded by the machine and the number of voters tallied in the books: one vote was recorded in the books that was not recorded by the machines. We ultimately concluded that someone had just walked out of the polling place after they were handed their ballot, never casting their vote on the machine. Other possibilities which we ultimately ruled out were election board error, or that the voter voted in the wrong division after receiving their ballot. The redundant records — the index card, the registration book, the list of voters — helped to narrow down the possible causes. In the end, there was nothing we could do about it.

The polls close at 8 PM. In 2019, we had almost all of the votes at the end of the day, and had to keep the polls open longer — anyone who is in line at 8 PM is entitled to vote. This year, unexpectedly, we received hardly any voters in the last few hours of the day. At exactly 8 PM, I started closing down the machines, and this is when things began to go wrong.

First: I will explicitly clarify that none of the problems I'm about to describe ever had the slightest risk of causing votes to be miscounted or lost.

At the end of the day, the machines print out eight receipts with tallies of the vote. Each copy is signed by the election board, then one is sent to city hall, one is kept by the judge of elections for at least a year, another two are given to representatives from each party, another is taped to the front door of the polling place for public inspection, and so on. However, my machines stopped before printing all of the receipts: one after 7, and one after just 5. The kicker: the only receipt which includes the full list of write-in votes is the last one, and that's the one which goes to city hall to provide (one of many) redundant sources for the vote.

The machine malfunction was unexpected and required improvisation, which is something I really did not want to do. I first called up the machine hotline (one of several numbers provided to the election board to deal with issues that arose on the day), and I was connected to an expert. They told me to reboot the machine and hit "print receipt" as many times as I needed to get the appropriate number of receipts. After I got off the phone with them, however, I discovered that this approach would not print off the write-in votes. When I tried to call back to enquire further, I got a busy tone. I expect similar problems were happening across the state; it affected both of my machines and another one in the room.

I was probably better equipped to address this than most divisions, as a computer expert by trade, but I was still skeeved out about doing anything to the machines which wasn't written down in my book. I was more skeeved out about the possibility of not counting write-in votes, however, so I decided to very carefully start pressing buttons. I guessed correctly at how to summon the administrative menu (something we had access to but were never trained on how to use), and poked around until I found some receipt printing tool that could prepare various kinds of reports. The specific report we needed to deliver to city hall was not available, but there were two reports which, together, contained the same information as the desired report. I printed this out on both machines, stapled them together, then included with them a signed note describing the undocumented process I used to obtain them. Then I went to the third machine in our room (for another division) which had the same malfunction, and repeated the process. The hardest part during this process was making sure none of the other well-meaning poll workers touched the machines — no, you there, DO NOT touch my machines, god dammit, you are not helping, fuck off! As soon as I found a button labelled "erase media", I did not want anyone else anywhere near these machines.

Ultimately, the votes are extremely secure regardless of this incident. The paper votes have two levels of redundancy, the plain-English votes and the barcode, and are stored in a locked and sealed hopper. The votes are digitally tallied on the USB stick in the machine, and again on each of the receipts. These records all also have to line up with the two books. All of these redundant sources of truth are handed to several different people, of different affiliations, and brought to different places. It would be very difficult to make an important error at any step, let alone to commit voting fraud. Regardless, every discrepancy and divergence from procedure was meticulously recorded to make it as easy as possible for city hall to make sense of the records.

The rest of the process is straightforward, and much less stressful. The seal on the admin box is checked, removed, and recorded, and the machine is powered off. The flash drive is removed and placed into bag A, along with the signed receipts from the machine and a few other records. The ballot hopper bins are removed, secured with a numbered seal, and placed into bag B, along with the provisional ballots, surrendered mail-in ballots, and some other records. A pair of police officers arrives after the polls close to collect these, and they take them to city hall (having the police handle these skeeves me out, too, but again — the system is so redundant and secured that any funny business on their part would be discovered). The poll official's handbook didn't cover this, but I also took the opportunity (both this year and last) to record the officer's badge numbers.

Actually, the police officers were the subject of another sketchy incident. The same officers arrived earlier in the day, while the polls were open, to drop off some materials. There are strict laws regulating police and poll workers while the polls are open. Police are not allowed within 100 feet of the polling location, unless they're actively voting or there on official business at the request of the election board. Additionally, anyone working at the polls in an official capacity is not allowed to wear any clothing with political messaging.

One of the officers who showed up earlier in the day was wearing a hoodie with the American flag on it, and the US armed forces oath of enlistment printed in place of the white stripes. As they were leaving, I pulled the officer aside and asked him to remove the hoodie before making his next stop, politely explaining the law. Another poll worker affirmed my instruction as legitimate. Later, after the polls closed, the same officer returned to pick up the ballots (with the same hoodie on, but now that the polls were closed it didn't matter). Apparently, when I was photographing the badges of the officers as a matter of record, he believed that I was planning to file a complaint. I didn't catch on, but another poll worker tipped me off.

On my way out of the polling location after everything was closed up, I passed the officers and stopped to clarify that I was just recording the badge number as a matter of course, and that there weren't any hard feelings over the hoodie — just trying to do my job. He was with 5 or 6 other officers at the time, and he started to puff up and make a scene. I didn't feel comfortable with the situation, so I just left, and with that, my long election day came to an end.

Overall, the election day experience was decent enough. The voters were mostly polite and gracious, and the community was lovely — lunch, snacks, and bottled waters for poll workers throughout the day were donated by local businesses. I made $250 for my efforts, which probably won't show up for several months. If you have any ideas for who I should donate it to, let me know — usually my default is the EFF, but there are bigger problems right now.

EDIT: After answering a few questions about this post, I think it would be helpful to share this link:

Guide for Election Board Officials in Philadelphia County (PDF)

EDIT 10:05 PM: Added note regarding other election board roles.

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“My experience as a poll worker in Pennsylvania” was published on November 10, 2020.

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