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Tales of an Early Voting Clerk (circa 2013)

As mentioned previously, I had the joy of working as an Election Clerk during Early Voting the past two weeks. The biggest challenge of this experience seems to be how best to combat pure boredom. That's not for want of good company among Election workers - to a person, we had a great group of individuals from both parties who took their jobs seriously and were great to work alongside of.

With that, a few observations about what it was like to check in voters for twelve full days.

About Those Affidavits
Expect to hear that only some reasonable or lower-than-expected percentage of voters had to initial the affidavit acknowledging that their names were different, yet "substantially similar" to the name on the Voter Registration rolls. There's good reason for this - the process doesn't always work like the law expects.

We had two people at each check-in table (standard procedure). At my table, I was usually the person looking up voters and checking IDs. There was one person who worked alongside of me for most of the time to manage the paperwork, get voters to sign in, ask them to initial, and instruct them on which machines to vote on. I know for a fact that we missed some. Day One, in particular, we didn't get any due to instructions that we were just to "check" the box. For some amount of time, our slots were rotated out (lunches, breaks, etc ...). During those times, you're not communicating the same way to the person that you're working with 75% of the day. So even more initials didn't get initialed. In short, I don't think any team was anywhere near 100% accurate in how they got initials when the situation warranted.

Observing other teams, the process for checking ID varied. Some were checking photos, which makes sense considering the fact that we were "checking IDs." One problem, though. The law doesn't say anything about checking the photo outside of noting that the form of ID is likely to have one. If you present an ID that has a picture of Bozo the Clown, there is nothing in the law to stop you from voting. It's merely the names that have to match. And if they don't, then you compare the address and date of birth. I saw teams checking ID so fast that there was no conceivable way they could have possibly checked the name on the ID against the name on the voter registration rolls (and just a hint - it wasn't the Democrats in the room doing that). So it seems reasonable to me that there was a broad range of execution in how people were verifying IDs. And it stands to reason that when we expand from 37 locations of Early Voting to several hundreds of locations in Harris County, we're going to get a far broader array of how people check IDs, compare names, get initials, and otherwise follow procedure like it was meant to be followed.

The strange case of "Voter's Similar Name Correction Request Form"
Going in, I obviously knew that everyone was going to contend with some new procedures that were part of the Voter ID law. But this form caught me by surprise. Namely because there was zero training about it, nor it was never mentioned in a presentation by the Secretary of State or from the County. What it was, was an approximately quarter-page form with all of four fields for voters to fill in the corrected version of their name (first, middle, last, and suffix). On Day One, we were provided a bundle of these and told to fill them out whenever we had a "substantially similar" name situation. We were also informed - accurately - that it was optional form. By a wide margin, voters didn't have a clue what this was and didn't care much for it. Explaining that a middle initial wasn't an "exact match" to the middle name didn't quell many fires, either. It wasn't enough to get a majorly-blown gasket out of most voters. But it was also easy to see how this would slow down an election where there were longer lines. I asked the crew at Bayland if they set up more check-in tables for even-year elections. Turns out that they processed 2012 with the precise setup they used for 2013. So if you thought the lines were bad in 2012, then you might want to hope there's some flexibility for County Clerks to boost their EV setup when needed.

Some clerks were better at pushing the form on voters - typically, by suggesting that it was not optional. I personally got better at getting the form filled out by simply asking very nicely and just taking no for an answer when voters didn't see the need for it. We ran out of this form by sometime on the last Wednesday of Early Voting.

Aside from the lack of clarity in training on the use of this form is the root of why we have so many names that don't match. The DPS has their own set of rules for how a name is to appear on an identification card. One of the biggest hooks is that maiden names are to be used as middle names for women. Meanwhile, the Voter Registration cards let you fill it in however you darn well please. There is a place for "Former Name" on the Voter Registration form. But that name doesn't seem to make it all the way to the voter rolls. And several women seem to interpret "Middle Name" as just that. It's probably worth a question about what happens to the "Former Names" and why those aren't shown on the voter rolls.

Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart is on record as saying that "about 40% of names don't match exactly." That sounds plausible to me and I hope that Stanart's statement is based on some concrete evidence. Based on my two-week datapoint, I'd say that the turnout during Early Voting was a bit lower than a 40% result on mismatched names. Factor in that odd-year elections get a very different electorate than an even-year electorate and that not every registered voter is an in-fact voter ... that 40% represents the high end of the spectrum, with maybe something like 30% being an effective disparity for a Presidential election and something closer to 20-25% being "substantially similar" for a city year.

But I'm expecting a good number of supporters of the law to come back after the election with some low-ball showing for how many affidavits there are in this particular election, offering it as proof that the law is no big deal. The problem is that it ignores the folks who are less frequent voters. And it's likely to ignore the fact that hundreds of Election Clerks are executing the law very differently. What I'll look forward to even more is a report of how each check-in station fared in terms of their "substantially similar" affidavits as a percentage of voters checked in, per day. I know you'll see some disparities from Bayland, and I'd expect to see even more elsewhere.

"Thank You"s go a long way
There seems to be a bit of confusion among voters over whether EV workers are volunteers or paid for their service. They're paid. But it's not enough to make anyone give up their day job and I doubt anyone does it for the money. Still, there are usually a handful of souls who exit the polling place with some kind-hearted thanks to us workers for either volunteering, serving or working. It's fairly easy to appreciate the sentiment in a low-turnout election where you have a good number of voters who make it a point to vote - probably anytime there's an election. It's still good to see the goodwill that some voters express for the work these folks do.

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Comments (3) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Great post and valuable insights for voters and poll workers.

  2. I was an election clerk, a few years back. It was a fun, if sometimes frustrating, experience. Met lots of nice folks and had a good time with it. This was, thank goodness, before voter I.D. laws made such a mess of things.

    Yes, the County pays you. Kinda like jury duty. Not much. It’s a long day. Before 7:00 a.m., and after 7:00 p.m., before you are actually done. Lots of aggravation some times. Probably more so now, than then.

    The folks who do this have my admiration, and my gratitude. They help keep the wheels of the Republic/Democracy turning.

  3. My experience was a little different than yours, although your major points were the same. I worked the polls on Election Day as an alternate election judge in Jeff Davis County. Since the entire county had the same ballot with only the state constitutional amendments in question, the three precincts in Fort Davis were combined in one location while the Valentine and Davis Mountains Resort subdivision polled at their usual locations.

    We had a two-hour training session about three weeks before the election. The “Voter’s Similar Name Correction Request Form” was never mentioned in training, nor did we have any in our supply packets. Instead, what we had to deal with the most was the change of address form.

    During the last decade, in order to coordinate the local 911 system, the county had to formally adopt street names and assign address numbers to lots. Beforehand, nearly every subdivision plat in Fort Davis had a name such as “Main St.” or “1st St.” that was redundant with names of other subdivisions in town. As a result, the residence locations described on the voter rolls were usually very vague, often outdated, and generally useless in pinpointing where any actual voter resided. Needless to say, redistricting the county commissioners after the 2010 Census was a complete clusterf**k as it had always been.

    This time, armed with the new 911 system, we’ve been taking advantage of every election since then to correct the voter rolls. We were given a breather in 2012 when no one challenged the incumbent commissioners. This past election as we dealt with change of address forms, we strongly encouraged people to fill out their names exactly as they appeared on their driver’s licenses to avoid so much of the affidavit initialing next time. After noticing when I renewed my license earlier in the year that the state had changed the graphical design of the card, I suggested to the other workers that they pay attention to the expiration of the cards with the older design since the newer design was not old enough to be expired.

    In my precinct, both I and the GOP election judge are experienced veterans who regularly work together in non-primary elections. The other two precincts are less stable, and all of their workers were newbies. They were repeatedly asking us for instructions in procedure, which was often exasperating when we were slammed with multiple voters standing in line. To make matters worse, the polling place was a small conference room where all three precincts were having to work at the same table seemingly on top of each other. Voters were frequently trying to select ballots from the wrong precinct pile. Predictably, the other two precincts couldn’t get their closing ballot count reports to balance. I and the other judge in my precinct could have finished long before 8:00 PM, but we stayed much later to direct the newbies at the other precincts.

    Compounding the space problem was the FDISD school election on a separate ballot administered from another table in the same room. The school question was whether or not to approve a hefty 13 cent tax hike that greatly boosted turnout far beyond what we’d normally expect for a constitutional amendment election. In our county, although the ballots are counted by machine, the voter still has to fill in the ovals on paper ballots. There was only room for three booths to do so, and voters who stood in line to sign in invariably had to wait some more for a booth to free up. It was definitely not a place to be if you’re claustrophobic.

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