Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Practice at the Polls

What would election day be without a threat that the police were coming to remove me? It seems to be becoming tradition. But, still, I have reason to believe things are getting better. 

Yesterday was a good practice day for poll watching. Turnout was low on an off year, although within the city, where I served, the mayor’s race and city council positions were on the ballot. I was sent in mid-afternoon till closing to give a second pair of eyes to an area that was having some difficulties. I wasn’t given details, just that things were confusing. 

The presiding judge was experienced, had been running the place for nigh onto twenty years. Not used to poll watchers, however. She wasn’t sure there could be a second poll watcher (there can be two from each party and two from each candidate on the ballot). 

The presiding judge (PJ) was an elderly woman, 77 she told me later. Not all elderly people are equal. She was energetic and trim—despite suffering an encounter with a city bus this past weekend, which she described to me later in the day during down times. But much of the difficulty at the site was related to her belief that she knew what she was doing and asserting her authority without actually knowing the laws and procedures. She confided to me during down time that the training they gave (her party?) turned out to be all different from how things really are. 

She was going to place me at the far corner of the room, where I wouldn’t be able to see much or hear anything. So I said, no, I’d just take this spare chair and place myself where I needed to be. I wasn’t able to see the voter roll books from where I was, but I could get up and look as needed, and I could hear everything. 

This was a mostly Hispanic area. The alternate judge (AJ) was at a disadvantage. The PJ and clerks (one of whom was the PJ’s very helpful and effective son), as well as the other poll watcher all spoke Spanish. I don’t look like I speak Spanish, so they probably didn’t realize it, but many of the encounters between voters and clerks were in Spanish, so that was handy. 

Most of the conversations were about names and addresses. And many (more than half) of the voters were at the wrong polling place. In Harris County (Houston area), there are two weeks of early voting at a few dozen voting places. Voters can vote at any location during early voting. But on election day voters must vote only at their precinct’s polling location. This particular location had been available to everyone for two weeks of early voting, but was there on election day only for a single precinct. That apparently caused a lot of confusion. So the clerks spent much of the day trying to help people figure out where they should go to vote—something they probably couldn’t have spent time on during a busier election.  

But there was no attempt to allow voters to vote illegally at this location. As a poll watcher, I am there to verify their good faith efforts, just as I would report attempts at illegalities. So for anyone working to have free and fair elections, having poll watchers there is to their advantage. 

We missed a couple of things. When ID address doesn’t match the address in the voter roll book, the voter is required to fill out a statement of residency. Then their vote is counted only after their eligibility is verified. Last year we ran out of those forms, we had so many such voters. Yesterday we didn’t use any SORs. But I know of two voters that should have used them. There were so many issues about wrong addresses for this polling place, it didn’t immediately sink in what we were seeing. So when we realized (after the voters in question had left) and brought it to their attention, the clerks were determined to do it right if it came up again. It didn’t. 

That’s the kind of thing that experience helps with. I’ve had more experience now. So have those clerks and the other poll watcher. We’ll all be better prepared during a more critical election next year. Other poll watchers got training and practice this year too. And poll workers got more used to having poll watchers on hand. 

OK, about the police threat—it happened again at the close of the polls. The other poll watcher left ten minutes before the polls closed, not sure why. But I was there to observe, so I didn’t worry about it. But the PJ said, now that there were no voters, I had to leave. She claimed twice to have called the county, with differing answers, neither of them accurate, and once claimed the police were on their way to remove me. But I knew what I needed to do. The AJ and clerks knew and accepted me. So I went about my business, verifying numbers on the machines, etc.  

Somewhere along the way the PJ saw that I wasn’t interfering in any way, and she had no support from the other workers in her efforts to keep me away. Plus, of course, no police actually came. A while later she came to me and apologized. She reminded me of the pain she was in from her accident, and said she saw she had been rude and asked if I forgave her. Next year, if she’s there again, she’ll expect a poll watcher to observe the closedown.  

This is a huge improvement over my adventure last year. So, I hope I’m getting better experience ahead of serious need. And I hope judges and clerks at all the various polling places are getting better with practice as well. Because the goal, as people who love our freedom, we all want a free and fair election.

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