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Maryland Primaries From the Inside

Maryland Primaries From the Inside

Last week, Barack Obama and John McCain swept through the Potomac and picked up victories in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. The Republican turnout was low, perhaps because McCain holds a commanding delegate lead and all sorts of Republican heavies are coming out to endorse him now that he’s already in essence won the nomination.

Mike Huckabee won’t quit yet, though, and continues to get enough of the “Conservative” vote (read: Christian, anti-abortion, Rush Limbaugh-listeners, or just plain McCain haters) to make McCain’s life at least a little more annoying.

The Democratic turnout was huge, though, and Obama took 75% of the vote in D.C., 64% in Virginia and 60% in Maryland.

Turning away from campaigning and candidates for a second, there’s a whole other side to the election process. There are people who do all the grunt work of making sure the elections go off without a hitch. In these post-2000, electronic voting machine days, that can be a lot of work. Kaffeine Buzz spoke to Lori Plazinski, who works as a Chief Judge at the polls in Maryland on election day, about the inner workings of the voting process.

Kaffeine Buzz: Can you tell us about being an election judge and what exactly you do?

Lori Plazinski: A Chief Judge in Maryland is part of a non-partisan team that plans and manages the operations of the polling place.  We support the other judges and help the voters vote.  At the end of the day, we certify the election results from our precinct site.  Our responsibilities include attending a 5 hour training session, a 2 hour pre-election site meeting to set up, and then all 15+ hours on Primary day.  Chief Judges also have to pick up and return election materials to the Board of Elections (BOE).    

This year we had a new position called Closer Judge, who arrived at 6:30 pm and drove the critical materials back to the BOE.  I really like the Closer Judge position.  It is nice to have some mid-day relief and some fresh eyes. 
We use an electronic poll book to determine if the voter is registered in the precinct.  A properly registered voter can cast an electronic ballot on the voting machines. If there is some issue, voters can cast a provisional paper ballot and the Board of Elections will determine if the vote can count. 
At our pre-meeting, we check our inventory, put all the furniture out and hang our many voter instructional signs in multiple languages.  We put up the sealed voting machines on their legs and start the machines charging.  We then lock up and secure the room until we get there at 6 am the next morning. 
On election day morning, we get ready for the voters.  We run two zero reports from the machines.  We post one from each machine for public display and leave another attached to the machine.  All day we assist voters from 7 AM until 8 PM.  At 10 AM and 3 PM we post the number of Republicans and Democrats that have voted.  At the end of the day, we run our machine totals.  We also post for display each machine’s end total.  
We take the memory card from each machine and accumuate the results from all the poll site’s machines onto one memory card.   Some sites will transmit this information via modem to the BOE, but my site just delivers the materials back that evening with the other secure materials. 
The next day we return the non secure materials. 

KB: How many times have you done this?

LP: I first began working as an election judge in 1998.  That year I just helped put ballots in a neat pile facing the same way so they could be run through a machine to tally them. 

I began to work in polling places in 2000.  I was a provisional ballot election judge one year.  For the last 3 cycles, I have been the Chief Republican Judge.  My family (who are all Republicans) find this funny, because I am registered as an Independent.  However in my county, there are so few Republican election judges that they use Independents to pair non-partisan teams together.  

KB: Do you have any interesting stories from past elections?
LP: This is a tough question, because for the most part, being an election judge is all about trying to keep things fair and calm and routine as possible. 
The most interesting experience I have had has been in the 2006 Primary, our Board of Elections (BOE) accidentally did not ship the plastic cards that voters use to bring up their ballot on the machines.  Although we set up the polling place room the evening before hand, our critical materials were in a locked bag the didn’t get opened until 6am the day of the election. 

Around 6:30 our site realized that we did not have the access cards.  I (with the Democratic Chief Judge) was in the middle of bringing up our voting units.  This involves completing an integrity report, running two zero reports on each machine (one that is posted for public display and one that stays in the machine to be attached to the evening vote count), and then locking and sealling the machines back up and recording the serial numbers of the tamper tapes. 

The first couple times I just kept telling them to keep looking for them.  About 6:35, I started to look myself. 

I suppose I should say that being Chief Judge is probably how it feels to be a mother.  Every other judge is told that they need to call a Chief Judge if they have any problems, and there are a whole bunch of opening reports that folks need to complete and the Chief Judge has to sign off on them.  I appreciate how my mom must have felt when she was trying to make dinner or something and all three kids were calling, “Mom come here” from different parts of the house. 

A less than helpful Judge kept saying that she had seen the access cards.  I tried to get her to say where, when or where they in a box or bag, but she couldn’t remember.  The previous night we had a little problem because my Democratic Chief Judge had brought in only one bag and claimed that was all that the BOE had given him. 

Since he was supposed to pick up four large duffle bags, we called BOE to report that issue, and they told us that he had in fact picked up all four bags.  I sent him back to his SUV, and he found the other bags.  So, having no idea the state of this guy’s car, I sent him back to his car and tell him to see if he might have left the cards out there. 

I called the BOE at about 6:45 and was waiting on hold with them.  At about 6:57 I was still on hold, I was starting to get a little bit nervous about how I was going to open.  I think probably half of my judges came up to me and tried to tell me that since we had one voting unit up, we were OK to open (this is something that they really stress in training). I would then ask them how they were going to pull up a ballot without the access card.

At 7, I decide we will just have everyone vote provisional until I get word from BOE.  I make an announcement to my folks to refer everyone to provisional, with the reason : Other – no access cards. 

We were getting things going, when this woman walked up to me and handed me my access cards.  I was relieved, and I asked her “Who are you?” 

She told me that she was from the BOE. I was really suprised, since I thought it was just my polling place that was missing the cards.  At this point I realized that every polling site across the county was missing their cards.  It was about 7:10, and by 7:30 we had resolved our line. 
That year, they extended voting hours by (I think) two additional hours.  During extended voting hours, everyone must vote provisionally.   Since that election, we have been allowed to open our canvas bags and take inventory of them on Monday night.  Previously, the critical materials bag was one of the items we were not supposed to open until Tuesday morning.   
I think that the reason the access cards did not get included was human error.  One employee stepped up and took the fall, in a very noble letter of apology.  I remember feeling sorry for him.  There was a lot of last minute changes that year and a number of State lawsuits allowing and then not allowing early voting. 
This year the BOE did not provide us enough tamper tape to close our units, so we were later than we should have been in closing our polling place.  We also had extended voting hours because of poor weather. 
KB: Is there any reason that a voter would be denied even a provisional ballot?

LP: A voter, who shows up in the Electronic Poll Book as being in our precinct, at the correct address, is reasonably the same age as what is listed, is (for primary elections) of the same party as listed, is good to vote on the machines. 

A person cannot just choose to vote a provisional ballot, there has to be a reason.  Reasons are that the voter is not in the Electronic Poll Book/ Precinct Register, an address change, voter claims a different party affiliation (for primary election only), Pollbook Flag–Absentee ballot issued, Acess Card Issued, Provisional Ballot indicated on Pollbook, If ID is required and voter cannot supply it, if voter’s identity is formally challenged, extended voting hours, or 17 year olds who will be 18 before November 4, and have registered as a Democrat or Republican.
In the end, Provisional ballots allow the judges at the poll site to not have to deny any person the right to vote.  If a person insistes on voting provisional, they can do it, and it would be up to the BOE to determine if the vote would be counted.  The poll site judge simply explains to them what they are permitted to do and direct them to the correct solution so their vote will be counted.  The option of a provisional ballot allows them to vote, but all or part of their ballot may not count. 
For example, this year we saw many independent voters who wanted to vote in the presidential primary.  If the person is non-affiliated with a party or is an independent, their ballot only included a school board member at large race.  If the voter then claimed that they had changed to Democrat or Republican, we allowed them to vote provisional. 

If the person acknowledged that they were independent, we told them that they would have had to change their party affiliation by November 19 (something like 13 weeks before the primary date) in order to vote in a different party.  We had forms on hand for voters to change party affiliation.  One of the issues our election judges had was trying to impart this information in a neutral manner, to educate the voter, but not influence. 

Additionally, we did not want to encourage an independent to vote provisionally for a party, unless they felt that the BOE data on the polling book was in error.  We also never want to tell someone that their vote won’t count, because we do not determine that, but the reality is if they are not a member of the party, that part of their ballot won’t count. 
At my polling place, it seems like we have more and more provisional ballots each election cycle. 
KB: What are the rules for poll watchers from the campaigns?
LP: From a election judge perspective, a poll watcher or challenger needs only have the proper credentials to be official.  I think those forms are available to dowload from the internet. 
Any voter could point out a problem to the chief judges, and they would log it and respond to it. 
KB: Which machines does Maryland use and do they have any sort of paper trail?
LP: We use the Diebold AccuVote TS machines.  I think the company is now called Premier Election Systems.  There is currently no paper trail.  My understanding is that by 2010, Maryland will be doing something to overhaul the machines or change machines, so that a paper trail is available. (Demo available here)
KB: Have there been problems with the machines in the past?

LP: Aside from that major problem when the BOE did not deliver the access cards, we have had only very minor problems.  In my polling place we have 19 machines.  Like I said before, essentially if we have one machine running the polling place is considered open. 

For example, this election, one of our machines had a broken leg so it could not stand.  We decided to put that on a table and used it as one of our two handicap accessible units.  When we set up the machines the night before, we notified the BOE that we were short one of the plug-in cords we needed.  Since the machines have a battery back up, in the morning we just swapped a cord with one of the charged units and we had that unit in service.  We reported our evening problems to the BOE and we call then at 7 AM to say we are open. 

At 7 AM, we had 3 units not in service.  We have a roving technician assigned to our precinct who arrived at around 8 AM.  He was able to resolve the issues with two of the machines, by powering them on and off.  I was a little embarassed, because if I had spent any time dealing with those machines, I could have done that. 

A second BOE employee visited our site and fixed a loose connection in the third machine and brought us the power cord for the other machine by 9 AM.  Those machines had no impact on our ability to serve voters in the morning.  There were no other problems with the machines throughout the day.     
KB: How  long has Maryland used the electronic machines?

LP: I think that we started using machines in 2000.  I do not believe that our switch to machines was the result of the whole hanging chad issue.  I think Maryland had converted to electronic machines before then.  However, I could be wrong and it might have been 2002. 

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