Friday, April 12, 2013

Poll Worker Error Causes Questioned Ballots To Be Rejected

Sorry folks, I didn't go downtown last night to watch the Muni go through the rejected questioned ballots.  But Daysha Eaton of KSKA did and here's part of her report:

Cresap was one of 11 voters whose ballots were rejected not because of any mistake of their own, but because an election official failed to sign off on them. The election commission voted unanimously to throw all 11 ballots out, arguing that they had sworn to follow municipal code, which states that votes may not be counted if election officials fail to sign off on them. That doesn’t sit well with Cresap.
“I’ve been voting here for 48 years and I voted the same way I’ve always voted. There was nothing irregular. I didn’t do anything wrong, like voting twice or anything like that. My vote has always been counted before.”
Cresap said that he felt the Election Commission should have made an exception and counted the 11 ballots without the election officials signatures. In addition, he said that the clerk’s office should better train their election workers insure they sign off on the ballots that they’re responsible for. Furthermore, Cresap said the municipal code needs to be changed so that no other voters have his experience.
This is a long post and I would normally hold it a day or two to try to make it shorter and easier to read.  But this one contains lots of detail - some which I learned as an election worker this year - that helps put this question into better context.   But this is timely to post right now.  I've tried to put in some headings to help you.

The basic questions:

Should election worker error invalidate a ballot?
How do you know it's election worker error rather than a voter sneaking in a ballot?  
Getting to the answers:

The post details should help the reader understand the factors that would help someone untangle it all.

Plus, we don't know if it even will affect any of the outcomes of the race.  But even if it doesn't, it's a call to make sure if this happens next time, there are good back-up ways to determine what happened. 
[I use poll worker and election worker synonymously]

Post Continues Here

I've also been waiting until this was over to write up an overview and recommendation post.  But let me give you a preview.  One of the lessons that was very clear to me at 9:30pm waiting to hand in our precincts ballots and voting paraphernalia on election night was this:

Election Lesson:  People who start work at 6:15am should not be in charge of checking all the details (such as matching votes on register to number of ballots used and voting machine totals) at 8:15pm when the polls close.  We were pretty loopy by then and the chance for errors was much higher than it should have been.

When we finally made it into the room at City Hall on election night where people received our polling stuff and checked that we were turning in everything correctly, it was after 10pm.  Someone in there said that about half the precincts had something wrong.  Another person looked at them and said, only half?

A lot of the election workers are senior citizens, some more senior than others. It makes sense.  Retired folks have time to work one day like this.   I qualify for that label and I keep pretty active.  So I'm not saying us old folks can't be fit.  But that doesn't mean all of us are.  And I was very tired at the end of the day.  Hell, I was tired at 6:15 am, but that's way early for me.

The big question raised by Daysha's piece is this:  Should voters (and candidates) be penalized for election officials' mistakes?  

I'm guessing here that the reason that the election worker is supposed to sign the questioned ballot envelope is to prevent voter fraud, to prevent someone from sneaking an envelope and ballot and putting them into the ballot box.  That's a valid reason.  But let's look at the procedure for questioned ballots to see if there isn't a way to balance that need with the democratic interest that a voter's right to vote is paramount.

First, here's what the questioned ballot envelope looks like.  I've marked in blue the section that the election worker is supposed to fill out. I saved it as a big file so you can see it clearly if you click on it to enlarge it.

You can click on the image to enlarge it

Here's what the Election Manual tells the poll worker to do about questioned ballots:

First, there are ten reason a voter may need a Questioned Ballot.  I have those listed in my previous post on questioned ballots so I won't repeat it.  Just go to the link.

Second is a section called "How to Issue a Questioned Ballot."  (The red highlight I added, the bold is in the original.)
  • The voter must sign the Questioned Register.
  • The voter must complete the Questioned Envelope before being issued a ballot.  The Election Worker must sign as a witness and write the date. 
  • Fold the ballot gently into thirds (do not crease).  Folding prevents questioned ballots from being able to be inserted into Accuvote machine. 
  • Give the voter the ballot and secrecy sleeve.
  • Ask voter to place the voted ballot inside the Questioned Ballot secrecy sleeve before leaving the voting booth.
  • Ask voter to return the Questioned Ballot and envelope to the Questioned Ballot Worker.
  • Observe the voter insert the Questioned Ballot into the Questioned Envelope using the secrecy sleeve;  the voter must seal envelope.
  • The Questioned Ballot envelopes must be placed into the Blue Municipal Tote.
(Do not scan Questioned Ballots through the Accu-Vote Machine.)
 Did you catch all that?  OK, you aren't an election worker with the responsibility to carry out all these steps.  I'm sure the election workers who handled questioned ballots  all read it carefully.  I know I did.  But still, it's easy in a busy polling place to forget a step. Especially if you only got a few voters needing  questioned ballots over the 13 hour period the polls were open.  Our polling place only had about 10 or 11 questioned ballots all day.  But election day wasn't busy most of the time, though there were a few times.

In Cresap's case, he says he voted at the Chugiak Senior Center.  That was one of three special voting sites where you could get a ballot from any precinct, so I would expect they had more questioned ballots than the average precinct. 

Now, in our polling place, voters were directed to the register.  Some knew they needed a questioned ballot because they were voting outside their precinct.  Others needed to vote questioned for other reasons.  The ones I did were all "voter's name is not in the Precinct Register" and "Voter is voting out of precinct."  (I really wasn't sure if I was supposed to mark both of those since they were both true.  I mostly marked both.)

If the voter was required to vote a questioned ballot,

  • the voter was given a ballot and directed to the next table.  I did this part in the afternoon.  
  • I had the voter sign a yellow sign up (register) sheet for questioned ballot voters.  =
  • The voter filled out the form attached to the questioned ballot envelope and 
  • I checked their ID to see if the name and address matched what they wrote.  Next
  • I gave them the secrecy sleeve (an open sided envelop, almost like a small file folder with one end open) and explained about not folding the ballot and bringing the whole thing back to me.  Then,
  • I filled out my part of the form on the questioned ballot envelope including signing it. (See picture above)
  • The voter returned from the voting booth.  I opened the envelope and they put the ballot, inside the sleeve, into the questioned ballot envelope. (There was some debate in our precinct if the sleeve was supposed to go into the envelope, but we decided to do it that way.)
  • I held the envelope while the voter sealed it.  Finally
  • the voter put the envelope into the blue Municipal tote bag/box.
I'm going through all this detail so you know all the steps and checks along the way for when I talk, below, about whether it should be counted or not.

Here's what the Municipal Code says about counting a questioned ballot or not:
(I've included the absentee ballot rules too because they are in the same section and may also be of interest before this is over.)

28.80.040 - Ballot review standards. (I can't link to the exact citation - scroll down to Title 28.)
A.  A questioned ballot may not be counted if:
  1. The voter failed to properly execute the certificate.
  2. An election official failed to execute the certificate.
B.An absentee ballot may not be counted if:
  1. The voter failed to properly execute the certificate;
  2. The official or witnesses authorized by law to attest the voter's certificate failed to execute the certificate;
  3. The voter's certificate is not attested on or before the date of the election;
  4. The ballot, if mailed, is not postmarked on or before the date of the election;
  5. The ballot is not received before the public session of the canvass; or
  6. The ballot envelope has no postmark and is received after election day.

So, should the voter's ballot be thrown out if the election worker failed to sign the questioned ballot form on the questioned ballot envelope?

The presumption in the law, I'm guessing, is that if the election worker didn't sign the form, it's because the vote isn't legitimate.  It's good to know the Assembly was concerned about election fraud.

But what if it really is just a mistake by the election worker?

Are there back up systems to track what happened and insure that the voter was valid and wasn't sneaking in an extra vote?  Sort of.

I think everyone will have to make their own conclusions.

First, will it even matter?

In every race, the margin of victory was high enough, that it's unlikely that the uncounted votes will make a difference.  Except one:  the Assembly District 3, Seat D - the race between Assembly Chair Ernie Hall and write-in candidate Nick Moe.  Here are some considerations:

  • If people lived in District 3 
    • and voted out of their district, they won't have a ballot that allows them to write-in the Seat D race.  
    • and they do vote in their district, but another precinct, or didn't have their id or some other reason for getting a questioned ballot, then they would get the ballot with the Seat D race and could vote in that race.
  • If they don't live in that District, but voted in that District, they would have been able to vote in that race.  But since they don't live in that District, the vote in that race won't count. 
  • If they voted in one of the all-ballot locations - the Chugiak Senior Center, Loussac Library, or UAA - they could get their home precinct ballot.  If they live in District 3, they'd get that ballot and could vote in that race.  
Mr. Cresap voted at the Chugiak Senior Center, so he would have gotten his home ballot.  If he lived in District 3, it would include the Hall-Moe race.  But it appears that he lives in Eagle River. Google searches suggest that and Daysha's story says he came "all the way from Eagle River." If that's the case, he would NOT have been eligible to vote in the District 3 race.  

I don't know anything about the home precincts of  the other voters who were rejected because of poll-worker errors.  So, we can ask these questions without knowing if they have any chance at all of affecting the election.

What's the Conflict?

Prevention of fraud versus Counting All Valid Votes

What's missing on these rejected forms is the election worker's signature.  There are two possible explanations I can think of (leaving out options like disappearing ink):

1.  Everything was legit except that the election worker failed to sign the form.
2.  The voter snuck in the ballot, questioned ballot envelope, voted, and left without being detected.

For option 2 - what other evidence might there be to show this was legit or fraud?

1.  The voter wouldn't sign the main regular register, so there would be nothing there.
2.  The voter would need to get a ballot.  In our precinct, when the voter was identified as a questioned ballot voter, the election worker at the register gave the ballot to the person staffing the questioned ballots.
2.  The voter would then sign the questioned ballot register.  If the name is not on this register, that would raise suspicions, but the voter wouldn't necessarily know he was supposed to sign this.  The worker would have to tell him.  It would be hard to sign the register without the election worker's knowledge. I don't believe there are any time or order indicators (ie numbers on the ballots, time marked on the form) that would enable us to know if the name was out of order on the register.
3.  The voter would need to fill out the form on the questioned ballot and get a secrecy sleeve.  As I said above, when I did this I kept the questioned ballot form (and envelope it was attached to) until the voter finished voting and returned.
4.  The voter puts the ballot, in the secrecy sleeve, into the yellow questioned ballot envelope that the election worker is holding, and then seals the envelope.
5.  The voter puts the envelope with the ballot inside into the blue Municipal tote.

So, to double check on this we could:
1.  check if the voter is signed on the questioned ballot register
2.  check the precinct final tallies to see that the number of people who signed the main register plus the number of people who signed the questioned ballot register equals the number of ballots used.  And this should match the number of votes the voting machine  minus the number of questioned ballots (which aren't counted by the machine.)

There are lots of other reasons that the ballot count might not match up.  They might have thrown out a ballot that was marked wrong and the given the voter a second ballot.  Someone might have taken a ballot, but not actually voted.  In our precinct a worker highlighted the wrong name and then fixed it, so I counted one extra voter, until someone figured out the problem. So if the count's off it isn't necessarily because of this voter.

Also, if anything unusual happens, the election workers are supposed to write notes.  So a voter would have to be very smooth to get through all these steps without causing someone to write down an unusual event.

The election worker might even remember the voter and be able to confirm he was legit and the worker must have just forgotten to sign.


There is no way you're going to eliminate all election worker errors.  This is a job with lots of rules, on the job training, and you have to figure it out in just one long day
Then it doesn't happen again for another year, when some of the rules might change.

But worker error shouldn't cause voters not to have their ballot count.  But before approving a questioned ballot without an election worker signature, one would have to check that all the other issues were recorded correctly and that the worker error is the most likely explanation.

Is it worth all that extra work if the vote isn't going to matter anyway (because the vote count won't affect the outcome of any races)?  Probably not.

But if it would affect a race it's not fair to the voter not to count it.  It's not fair to the person he voted for.  But it's also not fair to the person he didn't vote for if there is any doubt.

The best solution is:

1.  To have better trained workers.
2.  To have shorter shifts for workers so they don't get exhausted, especially in the late afternoon when the biggest voting surge tends to happen.
3.  To have lots of double checks so one mistake doesn't cancel a voter's ballot. 


  1. Very interesting post! As a precinct worker myself, I can understand how things can slip by, especially toward the end of the day when people are tired. Our polls are open from 6 to 6, so our workday is only 5:15 to 6:30, and we're plenty beat at that point. I don't envy you those extra two hours.

    One way to reduce such errors would be to not permit people to vote at polling places other than their home precinct. If we can't find a voter in our book, we call the county clerk's office. They may tell us the person is OK to vote here, in which case they sign a supplemental register and we give them a ballot. Or they may tell us the person has to go to such-and-such place to vote, in which case they get in the car and go there. Or they may tell us the person isn't registered and can't vote at all. If the voter wants to contest that ruling, he can go to a judge at the county office.

    This system seems to work pretty well. As a matter of fact, we've never had a "provisional ballot" in our precinct in the ten years (I think) since that federal law was passed.

    People who can't get to their own polling place may be able to vote in advance at the board of election office, but there the professional staff -- not underpaid precinct workers who have been on the job for 14 hours -- are in charge of getting the right ballot for the right person.

    But back at the ranch, I don't know how you should resolve your issues. It's bad to penalize the voter for a worker's error, yet the voter might be expected to notice the space a half-inch below their own signature where the election worker is supposed to sign.

    Maybe your routine as a worker should be to sign the envelope before you give the voter his ballot. Once you've handed the ballot over it's easy to think you're done with the task, and get caught up in helping the next voter.

    The best procedure is one that eliminates as many possibilities for error as you can. Seems to me this is a law or regulation that could stand some streamlining.

  2. The wholly imaginary, over-blown pretense that voter fraud is rampant in the country, and that we need to bend over backward to prevent said fraud from taking over every election has resulted in failure.

    It's not the 1700's, we have the ability to carry out elections. We should have vote by mail, and we should make provision for electronic registration. We have the technology to put voting at our fingertips.

    There's no private interest 'infrastructure' that we have to overcome or keep feeding that would prevent the kind of changes necessary. All we need is politicians with a will, and who actually believe in accomplishing some progress in the way of policy and procedures.

    Chances? Maybe when the greedy bastards who run things now die off.

  3. Joe -- there is a private interest infrastructure -- Diebold and the other manufacturers of high-tech voting machines. As a result of the Help America Vote Act of 2002, every polling place has to have some system to help disabled voters. I'm not sure whether existing systems were noncompliant with the law, or whether states were pressured into buying new systems because they didn't understand the requirements, but many places have spent millions and millions of $$ buying new technology that is rarely if ever used.

    When you say "we have the technology to put voting at our fingertips" you overlook the fact that the technology costs money, and the people who want to get that money are a very powerful special interest.

    I agree with you totally that the hoohah about voter fraud is wholly imaginary.


Comments will be reviewed, not for content (except ads), but for style. Comments with personal insults, rambling tirades, and significant repetition will be deleted. Ads disguised as comments, unless closely related to the post and of value to readers (my call) will be deleted. Click here to learn to put links in your comment.