What's inside Mike Madigan Democratic Party Voting Machine? I met some cogs and found some loose washers when I pollwatched in his district during this year’s Illinois primary.
140 of us volunteered in a Team 200 Project sponsored by the Illinois Election Integrity Initiative, John Reeves, and the Republican Renaissance PAC. Our goal was to ensure ballot integrity by watching the election process. As Carol Davis from the Illinois Election Integrity Initiative points out, “[I]f our vote doesn’t have integrity behind it, then what do we have in this country? That is the fountainhead from which everything else springs.”
Anyone can pollwatch if they’re registered to vote, have proper credentials, and want to sit tight for 13 hours. But it’s nice to have some idea of what you’re doing before you show up. We were trained and equipped the night before the election. One extremely helpful resource was the Chicago Judge of Election Handbook. We were encouraged to make sure the ballot scanner was zeroed, keep a vote tally throughout the day, bring home a copy of the vote tally printed at the end of the day, and as much as possible ensure that proper procedures were followed in the precinct. I couldn’t touch anything, but I could sit within eye and earshot, and ask questions.
Another useful document in this process was a list prepared by Team 200 organizers. It listed the registered voters in my precinct, and showed their age, sex, address, whether their voting status was "active" or "inactive," and whether they were alive or dead. It turns out that there's some delay in removing a person's name from the registration list. If the state has a compelling reason to think the voter's name should be removed (i.e. they moved or died), they deem them "inactive."
If a person has been labeled "inactive," but shows up to vote, they should be challenged by an election judge to prove their identity by showing a picture ID and answering a question about personal information such as date of birth or Social Security Number. If they cannot establish their identity, they should be issued a provisional ballot. A provisional ballot allows a person to vote, but its results aren't added to the official tally unless the voter's case is proved.
The final piece of information showed whether by government records each person was deceased. It was an important point: five of the people in my precinct were deceased, yet active--at least when it came to voting. My zombies didn’t show up. But then it was only the primary.
As each voter came into the room, they were asked “Republican or Democrat?” That information was first recorded on the call list of the Democrat precinct captain who checked in periodically. Blue, if the person voted Democrat, red if he voted Republican. No identification of any kind was required, beyond their signature. They were asked to sign a sheet of paper, and their signature could be compared to the signature on file in the voter registration files. From what I could see, the judges did not compare the two signatures, and no election judge challenged any voters based on their signature throughout the day.
You'd like to think that there's at least a system of checks-and-balances, but not enough Republicans volunteer to be election judges in Chicago, so there's some "Republican-for-a-day" activity going on. One guy who voted in my precinct voted Democrat--while wearing a "Republican Election Judge" sticker.
Election judges were also very unfamiliar with how to handle routine election practices: even though I challenged two inactive voters to the election judges, one was not asked to supply any additional information, and the second showed a picture ID but was not asked to provide any other information. Both were not issued provisional ballots, but allowed to vote with regular ballots. Chicago's Board of Election website shows pride in the fact that over 4,000 high school and college students served as student election judges during the 2008 and 2010 elections, but I saw how student judges could easily be intimidated by seasoned political operatives.
Three of the judges in my precinct were student judges. At one point, I had slipped out to use the restroom, and when I came back into the room, the precinct captain was closely questioning the head student judge. When he asked her how things had been going, she mentioned that someone had tried to vote whose name wasn't on the list. He asked, “But you let her vote, right?” She saw me coming up and didn't answer the question. But you could tell she was pretty upset.
Many people that voted in the precinct where I was working showed their ID because they thought they should and were mildly surprised or even shocked when they found out they didn't need to. I could quickly see why the confusion went on, however. Some voters who showed their IDs weren’t told that it wasn’t necessary, and thus will continue in their delusion through at least the next election cycle.
One man, when told he didn't need to show his ID, held it higher and said solemnly it was a matter of principle. Another man came in very upset because he couldn’t find his voter ID and he was worried someone had taken it. The election judges couldn’t understand his concern: he didn’t need it, after all.
A slow but steady stream of Democrats came through all day, with a few Republicans sprinkled in. Throughout the day, the local precinct captain was back to take down the names of those who had not yet made an appearance so he could call them in. It was easy to keep track, because an election judge was marking it off for him.
While most of the hours had been relaxed, as closing time came on, the tension increased exponentially. The election judge overseeing the process was a young college student, and was unsure of what needed to happen to close the polling place. The votes from the paper and electronic ballots were collated, one tape printed the final vote tally for the precinct, but before another one could be printed, the polling place administrator accidentally turned off machine printing the tapes. Panic ensued and the election judge called the Election Board, but their instructions were to bring all the equipment to the main office—nothing more could be done at the precinct itself. Even though I couldn’t take a copy of the tape (which all pollwatchers can request), I did compare my vote tally to that listed on the tape. They were the same.
Here is what several other pollwatchers experienced during their time in the district that day:
One polling place was using the wrong ballot, and electioneering was happening less than 100 feet from the door. After everything was said and done, leaders in this initiative gathered to discuss the outcome:
From what we could see, voter turnout was a competition among precinct captains. It lead one precinct captain to absurd heights: his precinct’s polling place was installed in his own basement, and he placed an eye-catching, two-story-tall inflatable eagle in his front yard. In case this wasn’t enough, he donned an Uncle Sam outfit to welcome voters.
Much of what I saw firsthand and heard about from the Team 200 recap boiled down to marketing or cluelessness. But the Chicago election process is a world of opportunity for those who only care about the final number tally. Plus, we saw the machine on a slow day. I hate to see what happens when it chugs up to full speed.