For the last few years I have been keenly interested in the mechanisms of democracy. I am also interested in the underpinning philosophy of democracy (and government in general), but I’ve been more focused lately on the particulars. From the electoral systems that are used to the minutia of what happens when a ballot is cast, I want to know what the best practices are and push to get them adopted.
In the vein, last year I hosted a tour of the Multnomah County Elections Office through the City Club of Portland (well, the Director, Tim Scott, was gracious enough to do the hosting but you know what I mean). Due to it being a very small special election (Oregon’s first Congressional District), we were able to see the whole process as it was actually happening. It was really great and I was so into it that I asked if I could volunteer in the future. Tim let me know that the Elections Office doesn’t take volunteers, however he instructed that I check back in March when they’d be hiring for the elections season.
So I watched the Multnomah County website and made sure to apply when the posting came up. I received a callback for an interview and then got the job. Sweet! I had let them know that I was really only able to work evenings and weekends and the election day itself due to my (more than) full time job. They only needed me for the elections day, so I showed up at 8am on Tuesday morning.
I suppose I should back up and provide the groundwork that Oregon has used (an awesome!) vote by mail system since 1998 (history here). So election day is less like what you may be used to with lines of voters and everyone scrambling to have the right ID or be in the right precinct. It’s more like tax day, with everyone having an envelope and frantically trying to get it in before 8pm.
It’s wild how much people procrastinate. 3 weeks before the election a voter pamphlet is mailed to every registered voter in the state (no more than one per household though, so you do have to share with your housemates), then 18 days before the election every registered voter is sent a ballot with a secrecy envelope and a return envelope. You have to pay postage if you mail it, but you can also drop it off at many drop sites in the area. I say all of that to help understand that people have their ballots two and a half weeks before the election, yet about one third of ballots come in on election day (one third the week before election day, and the last third before that). So there are hundreds of thousands of individual pieces of paper that need to be verified, sorted, opened and counted before results can be released all on the night of the election.
The process is awe-inspiring. In my regular job, where I supervise, among other things, our document intake and processing department, I estimate that we lose (which really means, misplace, mis-scan, or attach to the wrong person) probably one document every 3 weeks or so. We process about a hundred thousand documents a year. In contrast, at the elections office, they process several hundred thousand documents in a single night and there’s not one document lost. I won’t get into too much of the paper-management details here, because I doubt other people are as into the process engineering, color coding and task segmentation as I am, but needless to say it’s very streamlined.
So what happens when you cast a ballot in Oregon?
When it’s received the ballot goes to the Blue room (yes all rooms are color coded) to be sorted into precinct.
When it’s run through the big machine it also takes a picture of the signature on the envelope. This signature image is then sent electronically to a group of trained workers who get a headsup display with the ballot signature and the signature from the voter’s registration card. If they don’t match then it’s reviewed a second time and if it’s unacceptable, then the ballot is set aside (voter is contacted to update their signature). The vast majority match and are sent on to “the boards.”
The boards are groups of 4 or 5 people of different political party registration who open the ballots and remove them from the secrecy envelope and review them to establish voter intent. This means they look for things that may confuse the machine such as stray marks, over voting, or marks that may be too light to read. If there are potential problems with the ballot (in that the machine might not read it correctly), then all the members of the boards must agree and then corrective highlighter marks are made on the ballot to instruct the machine which marks to count.
After the boards have reviewed it, the ballot goes to the Red Room where it’s fed through one of several machines that performs the actual count. At each stage the number of ballots is compared to the known total for that batch to make sure that everything is accounted for and counted correctly.
Ballots being loaded (and turned into votes) in the Red Room
Cameras capture everything going on in the Red Room
At the most basic level that’s the flow that a ballot goes through when it’s received. Other than the process itself, another commendable aspect of the whole operation is the complete dedication to transparency. Every stage of the process is open to members of the public to observe.
Which brings me to my assignment for the day. I was working within a team of four as an “observer monitor” meaning that we accompanied any members of the public (or more accurately members of political parties, political campaigns and the media) around each area to answer any questions they had and to make sure that they were following the guidelines. For the most part though, the observers were much more knowledgable about the process than I was (after all many of them do this every time and for me it was my first day).
Also, since it was a somewhat small election, there weren’t too many observers (especially not at 8am when I got there), so I spent a lot of my day in the front office waiting for people to come in. It’s unfortunate that there’s not really much cross-training, so while parts of the office were working furiously, I was standing around and smiling waiting for observers to come. Here was my view:
The Multnomah County Elections Office circa 7:45pm, all the cars are voters who are swinging by to drop off their ballots before the cutoff at 8pm
Overall it was a great day. Long (I worked from 8am to 12:15 am and there were many people who worked longer), but really fulfilling being a part of such a great system. I’m really excited for November!
Update: I found this cool video that shows the whole process (I didn’t even need to type it all up).