I just participated in a citizen exit poll in the state of Florida, and I do mean throughout the state of Florida. Ten counties in Florida were covered, in at least one precinct, by citizen pollsters, with more than one precinct covered in larger cities. I don’t have the exact numbers yet since I am typing this without internet, under a canvas canopy in the jungles of a campground near the Sarasota-Tampa area. The Little Manatee River is floating lazily nearby, Spanish moss draped over huge live oak trees, palm shrubs everywhere. Eat your heart out, snow laden states; Florida is the place to conduct exit polls for Presidential primaries, especially those early ones. Florida’s was January 29.
Florida was one of those states where the delegates won’t count for the Dems, since they moved up their primary to Jan. 29. According to the official election—not sure how many absentees or provisionals are included yet—McCain and Clinton “won,” if you trust the official results… which “trust issue” is exactly the point of doing citizen exit polls. Professional pollsters are hired by mainstream media, CNN and the other big networks, and there is ample evidence that they change their poll results to reflect the official reported election results, and do not care a whit for using their polls as a check, or verification, of those official results.
But citizen exit polls! There’s a new concept! Citizens who care most about checking on the honesty and accuracy of the official election results can conduct their own polls. Since the highly questionable election of 2004, a few citizens’ election integrity groups have been conducting exit polls here and there in several states across the country, for instance, in California, Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, to name the ones that I know of personally.
We don’t have the comparisons to the official Florida results, by precinct yet, due to the slowness of the official tally report. Our hand-counted written poll results were done on election night, or, in the case of larger precincts, by the next day. BUT due to machine malfunction, official precinct results are delayed!. We didn’t want to release the exit poll data before the official precinct results were made public, so that the official results could NOT be changed to match them! On the other hand, with a high turn-out of exit poll participants, we are more likely to be correct as a sample, AND we just might have more votes for a particular candidate than their optical scan machine tally shows. We are waiting to release the exit poll tallies until the officials are finished jimmying around with the official tallies, so that they don’t UN-RIG the precincts we did. Isn’t that an interesting exercise to be conducting in the “greatest democracy in the world”?
But I will tell you this. Besides covering a good sample of Florida counties, I witnessed something of a miracle in the precinct I participated in. Voters, in fact the majority, were actually filling out the poll—it could also be called a survey—AND printing their names at the top and signing a statement swearing, affirming, or attesting that they voted the way they did. This form was drawn up by people with law degrees, Mark Adams being the mastermind, to stand up in court to PROVE fraud, if the official count differs significantly, especially if the candidate winning was not the one to receive the majority of votes. Perhaps citizen exit polls have been done with affidavits before (not sworn before a Notary Public, but sworn by signing the statement), but I can’t recall one, and I don’t think such a widespread canvassing--with affidavit-- has ever been done, in the history of citizen election activism.
How did activists pull this off? First this was not just election activists disgruntled since 04, or even 00, or before, over the riggable software of electronic voting. This was a relatively new army of activists, the Ron Paul supporters, who have lately become aware that their candidate was cheated in a straw poll, and could be again in Republican primaries. Voting rights activists, the majority of whom have been drawn from the ranks of left-leaning people, not so much Democrats as people fed up with BOTH major (“corporate controlled”) parties, have teamed up with right-leaning, Libertarian-leaning meet-up going Ron Paul workers. And I do mean workers. The exit polling I witnessed, and helped a little with, in a precinct in Sarasota, was the most organized I have ever seen. Credit must go to the top, Mark Adams, but also to the people who worked with him at all levels. Ron Paul must have quite a team. Our star pollster was a professional salesman, obviously a successful one. Very few people slipped by without filling out a survey; those who did were the ones who didn’t even stop long enough to hear this guy’s persuasive arguments. The rest of us strived to emulate his technique, and passed the “tougher” sells on to him, while we collected the completed surveys, made sure they had put the date beside their signature, and prepared more surveys with a hard surface to write on and pen attached, for our super pollster to hand to the next voter. Here is his spiel, incase you are planning your own exit poll.
“We’re conducting a VOLUNTEER (emphasized a little) exit poll and we’d like to have you participate if you are so inclined.”
You don’t ask them, “Would you like to participate?” because it’s too easy to say, “No, thank you.” Instead, you mention that there is a choice. Americans love choices. Of course if they refused, our salesman was ready to meet their objections with good solid reasons.
He would often follow the first sentence with a second, “This is to validate the votes.”
We would also explain very simply that if their candidate got say 80 votes out here at the poll, but the official count was 60 votes, then we have a problem. People got this and were willing to do it. Mark said that at his polling location, many genuinely thanked him for doing this poll to check the “machine count.” This is Florida, after all.
We got a lot of., “Who are you?” We answered that sometimes by saying who we are not. “We are not the media or tv stations, we are NOT representing any parties or candidates.” “We are a citizens’ group; we don’t get paid.” OR, “We represent an election watchdog group.” You don’t want to seem to be doing too much explaining as if we are defensive. Sometimes we just handed them a little blurb Mark, or someone working with him, wrote up about the website.
The other tough question was, “You want my signature? It’s supposed to be a secret ballot!” Our skilled salesman said to answer the first question with, “YES, absolutely. We need your signature to validate these polls.” I would say, “We need to make sure you are a valid voter.” Or I would say, “The election in there (indicating the machines room) was by secret ballot; this is an exit poll, and we need to know who voted.” Our crack pollster would actually explain to them that to challenge any discrepancy, we needed sworn ballots. Some still refused, so we had to let them go. Often our salesman pollster followed them as they walked away and drew them back by saying, “This is really important.” By our straightforwardness, openness, charisma, and intensity, we got a pretty good percentage of voters signing their exit poll ballot as to how they voted, in fact swearing to it. (See website for actual exit poll survey forms and other materials you will need to conduct an exit poll in your own state http://www.projectvotecount.com.)
Ok. That was the good news. Plus this: we were surprised that we were allowed to have a table right outside the voting room. People would have to walk by us to get in to vote and to leave. Ohio had this interpretation of law als--we are considered to be exit pollers, just like the professionals, Zogby or Edison/Mitofsky. And from my observation of the Mitofsky poll taker in SC last Saturday, we are at least as professional, competent, and effective. In fact more so. We had a team of pollsters (as opposed to a single poll taker in a precinct in SC) , so very few got by and almost everyone was asked. Breaks never took the team’s numbers to fewer than three. ( The election official decided that three of us were all he would allow.) Mark also had provided paperwork on the website that would show the Florida law that allowed us to exit poll. Probably many, if not all, states allow exit polling either outside the 100 foot line, or right outside the official voting room. Ohio also had a directive for the 2006 election allowing us to be right outside the voting room. We could not talk to voters before they went in, in both Florida and Ohio, but we often pointed them to the door to vote when they looked puzzled when they came to vote.
There was a Democrat Party worker who gave us some challenges: she thought we should not be so controversial, telling people their vote might not count, or asking voters’ opinions and then having them sign it. She referred to some guidelines that were written down, but it seemed to us that they were open to interpretation. Every poll I have been a part of always has those officials who question the validity of what we are doing. But what it comes down to is that we are unpaid citizens increasing the transparency and testing the validity of our elections, in one of the few ways still open to us. We can’t watch the vote count on machines that tabulate internally. We can’t even stand and watch people vote, unless we have signed up to be official observers for a particular candidate. And in Sarasota, at least, we, the people, were not allowed to be in the same room where the votes were being tabulated.
Also by Florida law, precinct results are supposed to be posted at the end of the election day, presumably before the memory cards and other election materials are packed up and returned to county location for tabulation. Florida precinct workers, just like Ohio precinct workers, do not follow this law. Sometimes the excuse is that tabulation is not done at the precinct level, even though the machines could be set to print out a tally record. Various other excuses are given, such as, “People don’t look at them anyway,” or “Someone steals the postings,” or “They are too long to post,” but the bottom line is that this valuable check by the citizens that the results are not changed further down the chain of custody , is just too “inconvenient” for the poll workers. We did not get the precinct tabulation results in our Sarasota precinct, and considered ourselves lucky to get even the total number of voters that day, from a somewhat suspicious official guarding the entry to the voting room. And so exit pollsters must wait for the results from the county election office, after who-knows-what happens to them.
We need those precinct results in order to compare them with our poll results, AND the citizens need those precinct results to verify that they were not changed later. There are absentee and early votes and provisional votes added in, either before election day or after, but the machine count of every voter who voted in person on each optical scanner is a fact, recorded on the memory card of each machine. Unless the memory card is lost, or altered by pre- or post-software manipulation, it is a permanent record, until erased, of how the votes were cast on election day, NOT COUNTING absentees, early, and provisional votes. This is a record that MUST be available to the citizens for an honest election. Citizen pollsters, as well as official poll workers, should be able to check that the number of voters that day matches what they recorded in the poll books and on their machine counts. That is the most basic of checks and balances. An audit or poll or partial recount checks to see if the sample of paper ballots counted is of the same percentages as the official count. To do that, an accurate precinct count and tally must be available to the citizens.