By Sheeva Azma
Ever wonder what it’s like to work the polls on election day?
(If you live in the United States and are interested in working the polls on Election Day, you can find out how to do so here.)
On November 4, 2008, I served as a Poll Technician at a Washington, DC polling place. My main responsibilities were to keep everything running smoothly to allow voters to cast their ballots easily; to operate the touch-screen voting machine (also called direct recording electronic voting machines); and to answer voters’ questions. I should note that the AVC Edge machine used at the time is now somewhat outdated, but still used in various districts. As part of the poll worker program in which I participated, I was asked to write an essay about my experience. Here it is below — edited slightly for length and clarity. Enjoy!
For someone new to the Washington, DC area, synchronizing cross-town bus routes at 5 AM is a non-trivial endeavor. However, I was excited about it, and for what was in store that day. I would be manning the polls as a Poll Technician — serving as an integral part of the voting process itself.
Earlier in the year, I had signed up for a spot in a Student Poll Worker Project at a local university — a program with the goal of recruiting students as volunteers at the polls to help with the anticipated high voter turnout on November 4, 2008. As part of this program, I attended a nearly five-hour training, where I learned everything I needed to know for Election Day 2008. Serving as a poll technician, I was serving as a conduit for the voices of others to be heard. It was worth it.
As the bus headed towards my destination, I could identify the many polling places along my bus route by the long lines of people already waiting to vote. I disembarked and walked towards my assigned polling location. A volunteer from a city campaign approached me. I continued walking. I saw that some people had brought lawn chairs and were sitting outside the polling place, chatting and drinking coffee. As I walked into the polling place — a church — our precinct captain greeted me warmly. Poll volunteers were joining hands to pray, and to meditate on what would certainly be a busy and exciting day.
As a Poll Technician, I was to work the polls all day — from open to close. My goal was to make the voting process as easy as possible for voters.Tweet
As a Poll Technician, I was to work the polls all day, from open to close, which, in retrospect, required a lot of coffee. I was both elated and intimidated by the challenges of the day. My primary responsibility would be the operation of the AVC Edge touch-screen voting machine. As an undergraduate at MIT, I had developed an affinity for the use of technology to simplify everyday life. As a Poll Technician, I was excited to combine my technical prowess and interest in the American political process.
The notorious “touch-screen,” as it is called, has come under scrutiny for software bugs which cause vote loss, and hardware problems in reading from the data cards . Fortunately, we did not encounter voting problems. In fact, the touch-screen lived up to its expectations as an aid to persons with disabilities. In the morning, a blind woman from our precinct was happy to have finally cast her vote without assistance (poll workers in previous election years had been unsuccessful in putting the touch screen in the required “audio” mode). I was inspired that we had helped enfranchise a voter, and it was still before noon! Every hour, I would re-calibrate and clean the touch-screen. The pragmatist in me wanted to make sure things would run without a hitch. The idealist in me viewed touch-screen inaccuracy as an impedance to democracy.
The touch-screen was, actually, the least complicated voting mechanism in my precinct. Not only did most people vote on paper, resulting in a small number of touch-screen votes, but most touch-screen users in our Washington, DC polling place were quite tech-savvy, often informing me that they did not require any assistance. Humorously, one person did ask for spelling assistance.
However, the touch-screen, like other technologies, has room for improvement. Many individuals requested a receipt, which remains a major criticism of this paperless voting system. A short printout confirming the individual’s vote would be ideal, but this remains difficult to implement due to the necessary disconnection between the voter and their vote, in order to maintain a secret ballot. Another criticism I heard from voters was that the touch-screen marks votes with an “X”, not a checkmark (✔), which can be counterintuitive. Addressing these limitations would improve the usability, reliability, and integrity of this voting system.
Because paper balloting was the preferred method for most voters, I was also recruited throughout the day to assist with paper voting. When called upon by the check-in clerks, I would walk voters through the ballot, describing the voting instructions and reading the names of the candidates. Communication was often a challenge, especially for voters who did not speak English well or those voters who had a disability. In one instance that day, I (a Spanish minor in college) was called over to answer a Spanish-speaking voter’s question about their ballot options in Spanish because there were no other bilingual Spanish speakers around. Signing assistance for deaf voters was also lacking at the precinct. It is important to have bilingual or signing volunteers on-hand to prevent miscommunication and avoid voter disenfranchisement.
Besides the constant movement of voters through the polling place, and a short visit from some election observers, the day was uneventful. At the end of the long day, I was impressed by how smoothly the process went, overall. I helped close out the machines, and pack up the optical scanner and the touch-screen. Finally, we delivered the ballots to the DC Elections Board, who made the rounds to pick up ballots around Washington, DC after the polls closed.
At the end of my long day of working the polls, I was incomprehensibly tired, but also grateful for the chance to help people vote. I also gained firsthand insight into the voting process. Poll workers are observers, themselves — able to detect flaws in the voting processes and technologies to be fixed for future elections.
Poll workers are also observers — able to detect problems in the voting processes and technologies that can be fixed for future elections.Tweet
All across the United States, people were completing this same process, with the end result of millions of votes counted, which would ultimately decide elections on local, state, and national levels. I am honored to have participated in, quite literally, operating the machinery of democracy, and I look forward to future opportunities to serve as a poll technician.
 “Electronic Voting Machine Information Sheet.” Electronic Frontier Foundation. Accessed 11/01/2020. <http://web.archive.org/web/20110810202128/http://w2.eff.org/Activism/E-voting/20040818_sequoia_avc_edge_v0.8.pdf>