Q&A with an election inspector

If that title didn't rouse you, I don't know what will. Don't worry, this isn't a political rant. Folks, the 2016 election is finally over. I was fortunate enough to be outside the United States from September 2015 to March 2016, so I was somewhat quarantined from the campaign shit-show. However, as I returned and the election neared, I found myself asking questions. I'm generally a curious person, but these were questions I had asked before.

How does voting really work? Trump said the election was rigged - was that possible? Given the proof (via Wikileaks) that the DNC clearly favored Hillary over Bernie, it didn't seem that far-fetched. When I found out that Chris Czub, a friend of mine in my home state of Michigan was an election inspector, I wanted to ask him some questions. So follow me on this wet and wild Q&A that represents this blog's first foray outside of travel writing.

Chris was kind enough to respond in detail and all credit must go to him for this post; I merely asked the questions. Naturally his answers apply only to his precinct in Ann Arbor.

What were the results?

Our precinct had 666 ballots. 587 Clinton, 41 Trump, 21 Johnson, 8 Stein, 7 McMullin (valid for Michigan), 1 Marco Rubio (!?) and 1 voter who likely wrote their own name in. Only "valid" write-ins are counted in MI, and the inspectors are not allowed to tell voters which ones are valid. They have to ask for that information from the city clerk. It would be nice if they could send one of their officials to post the list for people.

What was it like to be an election inspector?

We had to arrive at 6 AM to set up the polling location. The City Clerk was responsible for delivering the equipment to the polling location. We confirmed everything was working as expected, set up the area so voters could efficiently flow throughout, and completed the rest of our setup tasks. You can find the details in various documents, e.g. http://www.a2gov.org/departments/city-clerk/Elections/Documents/Manual%202016,%2001_11_16.pdf.

Could you elaborate on the equipment? Is that just an optical scanner for the ballots? Is that count blindly trusted? Trusting man-made machines to count is one area in particular I am concerned with.

It is a Diebold Opti-Scan machine. This is rumored to be the last election they will be in use in Michigan, I am not sure what they are considering next.

The individual vote counts on the day of the election are, indeed, blindly trusted on Election Day. That is, we confirm the total number of votes received, but do no verification of the results absent a recount. The accuracy testing process is definitely an area they could improve on.

Pre-voting testing is performed of machines by the City Clerks: https://www.michigan.gov/documents/TEST_DECK_MANUAL05_131814_7.pdf but on Election Day we do no testing of the machine besides making sure the counts start at 0.

What did your job entail?

We had a few responsibilities, and inspectors shifted their assignments between them throughout the day. The responsibilities primarily entailed:

  • Answering general questions about the process
  • Instructing voters to fill out Applications to Vote
  • Collecting Applications to Vote and verifying ID and registration
  • Collecting and verifying completed ballots and assisting with loading them into the tabulator

Was it exciting, boring, both at different times?

It was much more uneventful than I predicted it would be. The morning was busy — at 9:00 AM, the line to vote was nearly an hour long. However, this dissipated by around noon, and we had no major lines for the rest of the day. The end of the night, waiting to close up, was boring as only a few voters came in during the final hours.

How long were you there?

6 AM until 9:30 PM. By 10:10 PM our results were visible on the Washtenaw County elections site. It paid $11/hour.

Were there any legitimate concerns?

A few people we had to turn away because of invalid registration. We only had one guy get remotely close to causing an issue — the polling facility was inside an elementary school, and “A2gether” is a slogan the Ann Arbor Public Schools have been using for the past couple years.

He got upset about a sign saying “a2gether” that the school had up on display, saying it was clearly an endorsement for Hillary [Her slogan was “Better Together”]. Luckily we had a city attorney there to tell him otherwise.

How do you feel about the legitimacy of the voting process? Do you see any holes in the process from casting a vote to results being handed to the secretary of state?

In Michigan, I feel good about it. I am not sure how the selection process for elections inspectors works, however I do know that many precincts are understaffed (including ours). If you apply, you’ll probably get accepted. There is the possibility for conspiracy on behalf of the City Clerk on whom they assign to which precincts, but I would consider that far-fetched. They would need co-conspirators affiliated with both the Republican and Democratic parties to collaborate to pull it off.

As far as any holes — different states have different processes. Some of them are much weaker than others. In Michigan, I saw that we do a good job keeping things legitimate. We have the requirement for inspectors of multiple parties to be present at all times, and the inspectors are not necessarily working the precinct they vote in. For delivering the results, again, at least two inspectors of different parties are required to take three copies of the printed election results (more inspectors are welcome to join), all the original ballots and applications to vote, and the memory card from the tabulator to City Hall. Additionally, a publicly visible copy of election results had to be posted in the polling place after we had results.

Our small precinct (~1,580 registered voters) had eight inspectors present, representing different political parties, that would need to collude in order to publish false results. I was able to check the results on the Washtenaw County site at 10:10, and see that they exactly matched the numbers I saw.

I can’t comment in a well-informed manner on the processes in other states.

So 666 out of 1,580 voted (42%), which isn't too surprising given the presidential choices, but sad because that means they also skipped out on all the other contests. Does that account for early and absentee voting? When are those counted?

Yes, this counted for early and absentee voting. In Michigan, clerks have leeway with how they deal with absentee ballots: they can either appoint a separate board of elections inspectors (from the public and different political affiliations) to solely process absentee ballots on Election Day or they can send the absentee ballots directly to the precinct. What they do depends on how busy the precinct will be and how many absentee ballots they have, we only had a few so we counted them at the end of the night by copying the ballots (City Clerk sends a photocopy we have to manually copy) and running them through the tabulator.

The 1,580 count is probably somewhat inflated due to people dying, or moving and not updating their address.

What was your application process like?

I downloaded an application form from the City Clerk’s site, and brought it to their office after completing it. I received an email about a week later telling me I was accepted, and then they scheduled a training session with me and about 30 other people. They offered additional training classes, but I did not attend them.

The form was basically a standard job application form, but with more warnings that if you don’t follow the duties of the job that you’re guilty of a crime. And it also asks your political affiliation.


How do you feel about the primaries? The idea that Bernie was robbed by the DNC and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (DWS)?

Yeah, that was upsetting to me. Especially how DWS was immediately tapped to join the Clinton campaign after being booted from DNC. I don’t necessarily believe he was “robbed” in terms of voting fraud, I think the voters chose Hillary, but I think the DNC did their best to influence the voters’ choice towards her, which is, in my opinion, irresponsible. I think the DNC is due for change, or the people are due for a viable left-leaning alternative party.

It doesn’t make me feel optimistic about the future. I think the voting system itself isn’t terribly flawed; it’s the people.

What kind of change do you think the DNC needs?

I have no damn clue. For their own sake, they should figure out a plan and present it to the electorate. I would probably prefer a (reasonable) third party without the baggage at this point.

The winner-take-all and 270-to-win aspects of the Electoral College make it seemingly impossible for a third party to win. Maybe if they only had to win a majority among candidates (538 / 3 = 180), but this election is the fifth example of the president elect winning the electoral college but not the popular vote. What do you think the answer is there? 

1) The Electoral College isn’t living up to its historic purpose. There are 29 states with laws on the books binding electors to the popular vote. However, many of the punishments are on the order of $1,000 fines. In Michigan, a faithless elector is considered to have resigned from their position.

2) Preferential/instant-runoff voting could embolden people to select third-party candidates. Wikipedia has an easily understandable explanation of how it works, but voters would select their candidate in order of preference — so in this election, they could have said, “Johnson ideally, but Clinton if he doesn’t do well.” With some of the tight margins we’ve seen in key states, it’s possible that could have affected the outcome of the election.

3) Another option is to allow the splitting of electoral votes, like in Maine and Nebraska: http://www.nbcnews.com/card/why-do-maine-nebraska-split-their-electoral-votes-n679226

Should it be a simple popular vote?

I would suggest that we need to evaluate the purpose of the Electoral College and whether it’s living up to it or not. If it’s not, we need to decide whether we want to fix it or switch to a popular vote.

Some other ideas (added by both Chris and myself):

An overview of issues with the Electoral College

An idea for how to unofficially (but quickly) switch to a popular vote

OG doc by Hamilton on the intent of the Electoral College

How the Electoral College came about

If you have any thoughts or questions, please comment.