Thursday, September 29, 2011

Being There

There’s a John Milton poem with the line, “He also serves who only stands and waits.” I was thinking of that in relation to the poll watcher training I attended last night. 

Alan Vera, one of our poll watcher trainers

Last week I posted about True the Vote, a nationwide effort to overcome voter fraud, mainly through training poll workers and poll watchers. I said I’d tell a few adventures from last year. In Harris County (Houston area), Texas, where this effort started, there were some 750 incident reports—violations that weren’t immediately corrected. The reports were gathered and used in prosecutions, and also in efforts to change election law. 

Only one law has changed so far: if a presiding judge appoints a peace officer to help maintain order, such persons must be a credentialed peace officer. There’s a reason for this change. Last time around there were some rather large thugs who showed up, calling themselves peace officers, using physical intimidation against poll watchers and other poll workers.  

In one case an alternate judge—not associated with King Street Patriots' True the Vote project, who was serving in her own precinct, as she had done for several previous elections—was ordered to leave by these thugs. Burly men about twice her size threatened physical force, when all she had done was serve as alternate judge in a mild and efficient way. (Was it racial discrimination? Yes, I believe so; they were black and she was white. And up until now the US DOJ has refused to prosecute blacks in voter intimidation cases.) She contacted the county, which told her she was certainly entitled and expected to stay. But the thugs brought in an actual police officer and reported her as disturbing the peace, so, without evidence beyond their say so, she was forced to leave. 

Others were poll watchers, ousted from polling places by these thugs, who were forced to their cars and even followed until they had put some distance between themselves and the polling place. 

Why did these incidents happen at all? Because those polling places were run by people who had no interest in free and fair elections, but only in doing things the way they always had—with advantages to their party. You can guess which party. 

My adventure wasn’t so dangerous, but I was sent to a somewhat troubled area. I went as a midday replacement, after the two poll watchers who started the day at that location were physical ousted by the presiding judge. She physically shoved one out the door; she had to get someone else to go in and retrieve her personal belongings. The presiding judge was a big and forceful woman; this poll watcher (I met her later) was about 5’1” and probably not a hundred pounds. Her companion was also shoved and shouted out the door. Incidentally, she refused to give a reason for the expulsions, nor did she return their certificates of appointment, as required by law. 

I was sent along with another man, with the knowledge of what we were facing. There was a lot of hostility toward us—from the presiding judge and at least one of her clerks. But she didn’t dare try to shove us out the door—probably only because one of us was a strong healthy male and I am tall and sturdy looking. 

Most of the afternoon went fairly smoothly. I had a notebook where I recorded everything that happened, as I was trained: write down the time, write down what was happening—“just the facts, ma’am,” as Joe Friday used to say. If nothing untoward had happened, we would have been witnesses to verify that, so having poll watchers there is a benefit to any honest election judge. I believe that this year, with the expectation that we will be there, more judges will see us that way, rather than assuming we represent an accusation. 

There were some minor incidents I reported, nothing worth Andrew Breitbart’s attention, but probably typical of problem areas. At 4:05 PM a citizen came in and used the clerk’s cell phone. Cell phones (as well as any recording device) are not allowed in the voting place, with the exception of one used by the presiding judge (or an appointed clerk) to call the county, usually to verify if a voter is indeed on the voter rolls when they don’t appear in the book, or sometimes to clarify some procedure. In this case the “voter” (who did not vote while I was there) came in and had a loud conversation on the clerk’s phone to the county officials. So that all people in the voting place could hear, she said she did not see why this polling place had to have observers, rather than some other location that deserved to be watched. She said she was offended and felt like she was being raped. 

I believe the clerk had called the county for her, and then handed her the phone. The clerk and presiding judge did nothing to prevent this disturbance and showed no disapproval. 

So, offensive? Yes. Tolerable? Sure. I lived through it unscathed. Ironically, we do not watch the voters for illegalities; we watch the poll workers, to make sure they follow procedure. We have no interaction whatsoever with voters. In fact, we can be expelled from the voting place if we speak to a voter. Lips are zipped. If a voter asks us something, all we can do is ask a worker (usually the alternate judge) to inform the voter that we are required by law not to interact with them. This complaining woman hadn’t so much as made eye contact with a poll watcher. If our verifying a free and fair election by watching poll workers is comparable to raping her, then her understanding of life experience is more than a little skewed. 

At 7:00 PM, when the polls closed, the presiding judge insisted that we poll watchers leave. “I don’t need you any more,” she said. Of course, she didn’t need me at all. I wasn’t there serving her. Technically, I was there serving as a poll watcher for a particular judge on the ballot. And one of the things I was there to do was to see that all procedures were followed correctly for closing the polls. Make sure the number of votes matched on the machines and on the polling list. Make sure all e-slate machines matched the serial numbers from the beginning of the day. Make sure everything was sealed up so that nothing could be added to the machines during transport to the counting location. I don’t touch anything; I just observe and make sure protocol is followed. So the closing up time is kind of important for poll watchers.  

We refused to leave, mostly by silently ignoring her. She said to me, “You leave now, or I will have the police come and arrest you.” I verified with the alternate judge that I was allowed to stay. I offered to show her the citation of the law that verified my right to be there for the closing up, but she refused to look, so I just did my job.  

When all was sealed up, and the alternate judge was certain of the safety of the machines, we left—and the presiding judge led the clerks in applause and cheering that they had finally gotten rid of us. 

Almost everything that day, while I was observing, was done according to procedure. Maybe because we were there. There was an oddity that, while not illegal, made us wonder. When someone comes to the polling place and does not qualify to vote at that location (their name is not in the book and the county cannot verify that they live there; or they have moved and their new address is outside the county, or they have no way to verify their ID), they can vote provisionally. They fill out a provisional affidavit, and the code they are given at the machine is different from the usual voter’s code, so that their vote will not be counted. Usually these votes are never counted. In a recount, they may be gone through to see if any of them can be considered legal, but usually the margin isn’t close enough to bother. 

The voting place had a stack of probably fifty blank provisional affidavits—and we ran out. The county couldn’t get more to us before closing time, so they suggested using the back side, which was in Spanish. The judges used up another few dozen of these back sides, and had to include a note so that the county wouldn’t overlook the fact that many of the affidavits had one on the front and another on the back. As far as we could see, there was nothing wrong in the way this was handled. The odd thing was that there would be so many people going to that polling place when they couldn’t legally vote there. It was a fairly transient area, with a lot of students, near the medical center, a lot of apartment complexes. So maybe that was just the nature of the area. Or—it could be that it had been practice at that location for the presiding judge to allow many of those voters to vote illegally in the past. We don’t know. We only know that an inordinate number of provisional ballots were used while we were watching, and they were not counted as real votes. 

In the Texas legislative session this past spring, one of the bills that passed was voter ID, which will become law January 1st. Our instructor talked about the need for that, based on his experience as an alternate judge in the last election. The way the law here reads (through this fall’s election) is that qualifying ID can a voter registration card with signature, a driver’s license or other state verified ID, a birth certificate, some other ID—possibly a utility bill with name and address on it. There were two times at the poll that day when someone was allowed to vote, using a utility bill-type ID, and then later in the day a voter came in with voter registration and driver’s license—clearly who they said they were, and clearly entitled to vote—but someone had already fraudulently voted and signed their name in the voting book. The real voter was disenfranchised, having to vote provisionally. It wasn’t the judges’ fault; they had been forced by law to accept the forms of ID that led to the fraud. 

There has been a lot of hoopla from the opposition concerning voter ID. What if an elderly person doesn’t have a driver’s license? What if they can’t get out of their house to obtain an official state photo ID? The concern that some singular person out there might be disenfranchised is their argument to prevent actual disenfranchisement. No one who cashes a check or uses a credit card can do so without a photo ID. If there is such a person, somewhere out there, that can be found as unable to get photo ID (and so far no such actual person has been found, only hypothetical persons), couldn’t concerned people go to them and do what it takes to transport them to get an ID? 

The surprising thing about the somewhat complicated rules about voting procedure is that each and every procedure has been put in place because, some time in the past, someone has tried to interfere with free and fair elections through that avenue. The real solution is to become a people who value honesty so much that fraud would not occur—but until then, he/she also serves who only watches and waits.

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