18 October 2008

Poll Watchers and Election Day Challenges

UPDATE: This post contains errors and inaccurate reporting--indicated by asterisk (*)--which have since been corrected. Clarification here.

Via TPM, this Milwaukee news clip regarding GOP efforts to recruit veterans, police officers, firefighters and security personnel as certified poll watchers in inner city precincts smacks of potential voter intimidation efforts.

Fresh off a poll worker training held yesterday by the Denver Elections Commission, I can report that I learned a couple of essential new things. First of all, at least in Denver, the bottom line should be that everybody votes. Elections officials yesterday emphasized the need to minimize conflict at voting locations and to allow people to walk away happy. This may be a stretch. The plan is to resolve any disputes, disagreements, or uncertainties by furnishing a provisional ballot to any person who for any reason may not meet eligibility standards on election day. It is not the poll worker's responsibility to determine, in cases of questionable eligibility or citizen challenge (which we'll come to in a moment), whether the voter is eligible. Instead, the provisional ballot is voted, and elections officials will make the final determination of eligibility within ten days of the election. At that time, a person's vote will either be counted toward the official election result that is submitted to the federal government 30 days after the election, or the vote will be tossed.

The other key thing I learned is that any citizen can challenge any other citizen's eligibility to vote.* This frankly scares the hell out of me. The idea is that if you see your next door neighbor at the polls and know for a fact that he or she is ineligible for any reason, you have the right to raise the issue with a poll worker on the spot. In Denver, the response should be for a poll worker to call a supervisor over, and the supervisor will evaluate the challenge. Since it will be impossible to determine on site and beyond doubt whether or not the voter in question is definitely eligible, that voter will likely end up voting a provisional ballot*, to be assessed for eligibility and, assuming the voter is in fact legit, counted in the days after the election.

This is where poll watchers, and the above news clip, come in. Poll watchers are individuals sent to ensure that election day activities are fair. In order to watch the polls, individuals must apply for and receive special accreditation, and also swear to an oath not to abuse the privilege of watching. Poll watchers are different from observers who may include city, state, or federal officials, as well as members of the media, who monitor the activities in a polling location throughout the day. Poll watchers are citizens who represent the interests of the candidates, the campaigns, special interests, or the initiatives, proposals, or amendments that pepper a ballot such as Colorado's. And this is where the soup gets pretty thick.

Poll supervisors have the ultimate say* on whether or not poll watchers are behaving appropriately or crossing any lines. If, as the media picked up on in Milwaukee, there's a concern that poll watchers may be in place to intimidate voters, then the poll supervisor will be tasked with making the final determination on election day. A poll supervisor can ask a poll watcher to leave, if need be, and I strongly suspect that the majority of poll watchers understand this and will not be so overt in their actions as to push a supervisor to that point. If, however, poll watchers are also local law enforcement or connected with local law enforcement, then that creates a unique situation for the poll supervisor, who's only recourse* to insist that a poll watcher leave an election site is to call the police. Of course, we all assume it will never come to that. And yet the last two elections cast a shadow of a doubt.

According to the City and County of Denver Poll Worker Manual, poll watchers may only interact with a supervisor at the polling place. If I understood the Milwaukee news cast correctly, poll watchers there may ask voters any of four questions to determine eligibility, and then presumably challenge that eligibility to the poll supervisor at the front of the line. There are also clear rules that no poll watcher or observer may encroach within six feet of a voter at the voting station or voting machine. Regulations about activities in the line, or immediately outside a polling place, are however not so clear to me.

I have more questions than answers right now about what actually happens between supervisors, poll workers, poll watchers, and the voting public on election day. I also have another training pending before November 4, so this whole process will be a bona fide civic education, I'm sure. I like to think that with all the federal laws involved around the voting process, that all this concern amounts to nothing, since nobody wants to risk ending up in court over election day antics. And yet I wonder how enforceable those laws are, and who will be watching for bad faith practices in lines or immediately outside polling locations.

After the last two elections, I am convinced that party officials will stop at nothing to achieve their desired results (and that cuts both ways, though Democrats appear to be on the receiving end of more of these efforts than Republicans). The single biggest problem, I worry, is the over-aggressive local party chair who organizes some monstrous guerrilla election day effort to disrupt the process and challenge specific voting blocs, say Hispanics, African-Americans, or single, working moms, in an attempt to affect the outcome in a specific precinct. I'm not sure how any poll worker with 3 hours of training will be expected to deal with a challenge like that. I am reminded of the saying we heard routinely in Oaxaca: Vamos a ver. We will see.

On a final note regarding Denver procedures, I was wildly pleased to discover yesterday that electronic voting machines will not be used except by persons who request them. All voters will be issued a paper ballot unless they specifically ask for the touch screen voting machine. Also, according to Denver Elections officials, 50% of registered voters have requested mail-in ballots. That promises to alleviate at least some of the challenges possible on election day.

*Indicates inaccurate information. See here for clarification.