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General News    H3'ed 4/14/09

Pollwatching at Chicago's Central Vote-Tabulating Room

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On March 3, 2009, a primary election was held to select candidates to run in the April 7, 2009, election for representative of the Fifth U. S. Congressional District in Ilinois. This seat was recently vacated by Rahm Emanual, who moved on to serve as Chief of Staff for President Obama. The district comprises a section of Chicago and a section of Suburban Cook County. I served as a pollwatcher for one of the candidates, and chose to observe Chicago's central vote-tabulating computer room (aka "server room").

The offices of Chicago's election department are housed downtown. Suburban Cook County has its election department in the same building, on a different floor.

I arrived at 6:55 pm, signed in at the security desk, and rode the elevator to the sixth floor. I showed my pollwatcher-credentials to the election-department's receptionist, and she summoned another staff person, whom I'll call "Mark." He said that he wasn't sure these credentials were sufficient to allow me to view the server room. So we went down to "Election Central," the nerve center that provides phone support for the poll judges during the election. (Composite photo is at ) Mark consulted with a manager, who left the room to consult an attorney. When the manager returned, he told us that different credentials were needed, but that I would be given a waiver for the evening.

Mark then escorted me to the outside of the server room. Through its broad glass window, I could observe the people and equipment inside. However, from my vantage point the computer screens were not legible and no sounds could be heard from inside the room.

When I arrived, around 7:00 pm, there were five people sitting at terminals; three were Sequoia Voting Systems employees, and two were City employees. Occasionally, one person would toss a flash drive across the room to another person. A half-dozen flash drives sat next to the keyboard of one of the Sequoia staff persons. Four other City employees, who seemed to be managers, stood nearby in a group, chatting and occasionally glancing at the computer screen of the Sequoia staff person near the window. As expected, nothing much was happening.

About forty-five minutes into the evening, Mark was summoned into the server room. He chatted for a few moments, then came out. He said they were curious about who I was. According to Mark and a colleague nearby, I'm the first person to ever asked to pollwatch the server room during the vote compiling. In fact, few if any members of the public ever come out to watch any of the City's central election-processes (for example, the pre-tests of the voting machines), despite the fact that these processes are public and are duly publicized. Tonight, even the press room is virtually empty. Newspapers, cutting back on reporters, are gathering most of their election data from the Internet.

Mark was curious about what I expect to see, other than a bunch of people sitting at computer terminals. I told him I didn't expect much, but just wanted to see if at some point they all suddenly jumped up and started running frantically around the room. Mark got a good laugh of that.

The server room was roughly twenty feet square. In the center of the room were four desks, pushed together to form a makeshift worktable. Ten computers were spaced along three sides of the worktable. Eight were sideways to the window and hard to see; four of them were on one side of the worktable, and four on the facing side. The other two computers were on the near side of the table, about about ten feet away from where I stood at the window. The fourth side of the worktable, farthest from the window, was hemmed in by several five-foot stacks of computer-paper boxes. A few feet away from the window, at my left, was a desk with two computers, their backs toward me. About six other computers sat on a row of desks that abut the right wall. One of them was displaying the Cook County Clerk's website from the Internet. (Mark told me that, for security reasons, all the other desktop computers in the room were isolated from the Internet.)

The two corners on the left of the room each contained a refrigerator-sized air conditioner. Against the wall between them stood a pair of six-foot-tall rack-mounted computers. Another two computer racks stood in the near right corner of the room.

A photocopier-sized printer sat right next to the window. Against the far wall was a large Nuvera 120 printer, which the City uses for printing voter-registration cards, training materials, and mass mailings. It's about size of a regular ten-cents-per-page photocopy machine, but twice as long. Mark says It's not used to print ballots, because the ballots have to not only be printed accurately, they have to be cut extremely precisely. This is to ensure that the optical-scan registration marks are properly positioned relative to the ballot edges. High-end printer companies are needed for that task. The company chosen must also be flexible enough to handle the printing of up to 250 ballot types, resulting from the fact that the borders of higher jurisdictions do not neatly overlap with the borders of lower jurisdictions. The cost of printing comes to about 40 cents per ballot.

In the City, Mike Quigley took an early lead of about a thousand votes, and his proportion of the votes stayed close to 24% for the entire evening. In the County, he trailed two or three other candidates throughout the evening. Mark tells me that 486 precincts in the City are taking part in this primary, along with 92 suburban Cook County precincts. Each of these jurisdictions comprises over 2000 precincts.

About 8:35 pm, four more Sequoia staff persons arrived and strolled around the room. Mark said that among them were Sequoia's president and vice-president of support. They left after a few minutes.

Mark described mail-in ballots. The voter fills out an optical scan ballot, places it into a security envelope, and then places that into a mailing envelope. The voter then must sign the mailing envelope, similar to the need for the voter in the polling place to sign a ballot-application slip. This signature validates the enclosed ballot; any envelope received without a signature is set aside and its ballot is not counted. Mail-in ballots are all received at the same downtown office of the elections department. If the envelope is signed, the mailing envelope is opened and the security envelope is placed unopened in a stack with others. (I believe Mark said that each stack is opened and counted at the end of the day.)

Mark told an interesting anecdote. Mail-in ballots have to be folded by the voter before they can be inserted into their envelopes. One particular ballot had been folded in such a way that the checkboxes for two candidates were pressed together, and the pencil mark from one of those checkboxes smudged the other. During counting, the optical scan machine interpreted the marks as an overvote, and discarded the voter's choice in that contest. Fortunately, the problem was discovered and corrected during an audit.

Mark noted that each of the touch-screen voting machine paper-trail "ballots" gets a bar code printed at the bottom.. The barcode is designed for use during recounts and audits. It can be read by a special high-speed barcode reader available from Sequoia. But the reader is quite pricey. Since very few voters in the City vote on touch-screen voting machines, the City finds it cheaper and just as easy to handcount the paper-trail contents.

In the course of the evening, Mark received a report that three touch-screen voting machines had malfunctioned and had been returned from the precincts, and that staff was engaged in recovering those votes. On one of the machines, they had to consult the roll of paper "ballots," because the memory cartridge had already been removed.

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Roy Lipscomb, Emeritus Director for Technology, Illinois Ballot Integrity Project

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