Part 2—A Poll Worker’s Experience
This is what democracy looks like. In 2008, Los Angeles County began to study ways to move its voting system to an electronic format (while retaining paper ballots). In 2017, California changed the date of its primary election from June to March, adding the state to Super Tuesday. These changes came together for the first time in the 2020 presidential primary election along with a move from voting in individual precincts to regional vote centers and ten days of early voting prior to Election Day on March 3. Vote centers allow voters to cast ballots in any center and do not require voters to visit their individual precincts in order to vote on all the contests related to that precinct.
The new system is called Voting Solutions for All People, VSAP. The technology has two parts for voters and poll workers: ePollbooks and ballot-marking devices (BMDs, a.k.a. voting booths). The ePollbooks are tablet-like devices (they look like iPads) that provide access to precinct information for all Los Angeles County voters based upon names and addresses. The ePollbooks are linked to small printers that print QR codes onto paper ballots. When a voter inserts a paper ballot into the BMD, it reads the code and accesses the correct ballot options for that voter. The BMDs allow voters to make choices on a touch screen and to print out the choices on individual ballots. Voters also have an option of accessing their ballot information in advance, making their choices, and creating a Poll Pass code that can automatically upload the voter’s choices to that voter’s ballot. After a voter is satisfied that all choices are properly recorded, she or he can print the ballot and cast the ballot at the BMD. The paper ballots are cast into ballot boxes that are physically attached to the BMDs. Vote centers varied in the number of BMDs that were available. I believe that there were centers with fewer than ten BMDs and some with fifty.
The Role of the Poll Worker
Primary elections are complicated for both poll workers and voters. Party affiliations and numbers of primary candidates are important to everybody. California law allows voters to align themselves with one of six qualified parties (American Independent, Democratic, Green, Libertarian, Peace and Freedom, or Republican) or to remain nonpartisan (“No Party Preference,” or NPP). Party affiliations determine which ballot choices a voter receives. It is up to the political parties to determine whether an NPP voter can vote in its primary. NPP voters can vote for presidential candidates of the American Independent, Democratic, or Libertarian Party or choose to remain NPP; the other qualified political parties do not allow NPP voters to cross over to vote for their candidates.
I have been a poll worker since 2012. Helping at the polls is always a long, busy, hard day. On Election Day the polls open at 7:00 a.m. and close at 8:00 p.m. Any voter who has arrived at the polls by 8:00 p.m. will cast a ballot (unless the voter leaves before voting). In the past, poll workers had to physically set up and take down the voting booths and the rest of the equipment necessary to allow people to vote. Under the VSAP system, crews set up the voting booths and bring all materials to the vote centers. Poll workers arrive at 6:00 a.m. to activate the ePollbooks and BMDs, post signs, and prepare for voters.
Some vote centers were open beginning on February 22 (for a total of eleven days), and the rest were open for four days. For the March 3 Primary Election, I worked at the Eaton Canyon Nature Center Vote Center on February 29, March 1, March 2, and Election Day, March 3. On the three days of early voting, the polls were open from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Our center had five workers on Saturday and Sunday, three on Monday, and six on Election Day. Our vote center was equipped with three ePollbooks and ten BMDs. One of the ePollbooks never worked. The BMDs worked very well and we had very few (and relatively easy to resolve) problems.
We had difficulties on February 29 with getting the ePollbooks activated and properly synced with the voting system. An extremely proficient troubleshooter and several tech support workers helped us get going. Once we had the system running, it worked well, and we processed increasing numbers of voters each day. Many people dropped off vote-by-mail ballots that we deposited in a ballot box. Each day’s ballots and dropoffs were counted and delivered to our designated collection center after the polls closed.
Many voters did not take advantage of early voting or vote-by-mail, and we were extremely busy all of Election Day. As all of the polls got busier, it took longer for the ePollbooks to sync with the county system. The ten BMDs at our center were never all occupied, because we were unable to process people fast enough. The actual process of voting went much faster than the check-in.
Lines at our center grew longer as the day wore on. We worked hard to treat each voter patiently and respectfully while providing ballots as quickly as we were able. For the most part, the people waiting were courteous and patient. We had families with young children, people with walkers (we tried to provide chairs for those who needed to sit), people in business attire, young, and old; almost everyone seemed to understand that we were working as efficiently as possible. One young man played a ukulele and had people singing and children entertained. We finished serving our last voter at 10:30 p.m. and left the voter center a little after midnight to drop off ballots to the collection center. We had assisted almost 800 voters on Election Day. We need to thank and acknowledge the Nature Center workers who arrived early to let us in and stayed late to lock up after us.
A Poll Worker’s Assessment
Yes, there is a tremendous amount to do to improve VSAP before the November election. But I think that it is very important to recognize that many, many things went right in this election. Most voters were able to use the BMDs without problems. Many people prepared Poll Passes and were able to cast their ballots in less than a minute. Millions of people voted.
Clearly ePollbooks are a weak link. When they are working properly, it is quick and easy to check in a voter. But ePollbooks are fragile, especially when the entire system is being heavily used. Also, the small printers that add the precinct QR code to the blank ballot are very slow. Valuable time could be gained by speeding up printing. These and a number of other suggestions would help streamline the process; see “Ways to Improve VSAP” in this issue of the Voter.
Yes, there are many ways that VSAP should be improved. But it worked remarkably well when tested under the difficult conditions of a presidential primary election. As Winston Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
—Hester Bell, Altadena, California