Election Worker Training

I spent yesterday afternoon being trained to be a warden in the
Cambridge city elections on November 5. It was an unusually tense
training session — normally you want to choose your seat so that
your nap isn’t interrupted by the snores of the person next to
you, because everybody has done everything before, and if the
training didn’t take then, it isn’t going to happen now.

In Cambridge, the city elections are different from the others
because of proportional
representation.
As a voter, what this means is that instead
of putting X’s next to the names of the people you want to vote
for, you have to rank the candidates in the order you prefer.

As an election worker, this means you do a lot less of the
total process, since the counting takes place in a computer back
at the election commission, instead of in the scanner and the
various tally sheets at the precinct. But you have to do more
voter education, since a remarkable number of the voters have no
idea that they have to do anything different for this
election.

Of course, this city election takes place every two years, but
it seemed like a longer interval than usual this time, because
we’ve had so many more elections than we used to. I’ve done
special elections and primaries for a state senator and a US
senator, and lots of poeple have also done them for state
representatives, and the primary for the US Representative.

Part of the tension yesterday was that the Election
Commissioner was new and hadn’t ever done this particular
training. Actually, he’s someone who’s done the warden and clerk
job before, so to some extent his answers to questions were more
practical than some of the other commissioners. Example:

Q: Can we tell the voters to use a ruler, so that they
won’t be as likely to vote the same number for two
candidates?

A: You can tell them that, but you can’t yell at them
when they decide not to and spoil their ballot.

But the real reason for the tension I think was one particular
trainee, who I think is insecure about whether she’s doing the job
right, and has found all the training sessions that are exactly
like all the other training sessions very reassuring, and suddenly
this one started out by saying, “Here are some things you have to
do differently for a city election.”

So she freaked out, and it set off a few other insecure
people. In justice to them, some of the material could have been
organized better. For instance, there are two different problems
that are referred to as “overflow” — one is the actual ballot box
physically overflowing, and the other is the memory card in the
scanner running
out of room. This isn’t a problem in a regular election, because
all it has to store is the tallies of how many votes which
candidate got. For proportional representation, it has to store
each ballot separately, because if your first choice candidate
gets “counted out”, the computer back at the election commission
has to be able to find your second choice candidate. In any case,
there was a set of directions about what happens if the memory
card is in danger of overflowing, and 15 minutes later, a second
set of directions about what happens if the ballot box is in
danger of overflowing, and a completely different number of
ballots.

It was a pity the session got so hung up on these technical
issues, because there is an actual voter education problem I’d
like to discuss in that setting some time. When I was first at
the precinct I work at, there were two checkin inspectors who did
a particularly good job of warning the voters that they needed to
fill in numbers instead of marking X’s. Then suddenly one year,
there were brand new inspectors at that table, and we had a lot
more spoiled ballots. I keep trying to remember what the first
two said, and never do.

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