Marj Creech. April 25, 2008
It's hard to keep track of ballpoint pens when 10 to 20 students are streaming out of a large room where they just voted, many for the first time, and we are asking them to participate in an exit poll, filling out our survey of "just nine questions," that "will take only thirty seconds." Or as another of our pollsters said, "just a minute." We streamlined the process as the day, April 22, 2008, Primary Day in Pennsylvania, progressed from poll opening at 7:00 am to 8:00 pm. I was getting tired of saying, "We are doing an exit survey and we'd like you to participate," while Stan from Maryland, a retired high school history professor, seemed to have unlimited energy for dealing with the enthusiastic students. He'd enthuse, "You just voted? CONGRATULATIONS! Now we'd like to have you fill out our survey!" So I unloaded and loaded clipboards for him and the others for a while. We'd have a stack of surveys and I'd remove the top one the voter had just filled out and place it in the slot of the locked file box with the slit in it, just the right size for a regular piece of paper. I'd gather pens that were often returned on top of the clip boards and return handfuls back to the pollsters. I'd say, at least 95% agreed to fill out the survey; the ones who "got away" were the ones we didn't ask, slipping down some stairs or mixing with other mingling students who were in the student activities building for other purposes than voting.
So I'd guess we got about 70% of the ones who voted that day. If you are looking for the official numbers, Penn State has them and their statistics professors and grad students are analyzing them. Our poll organizer, Mary Vollero of Concerned Voters (concernedvoters.org) of Centre County, personally has known the lead statistician for twenty years. Results will be posted as soon as we get them. Penn State is located in the center of PA in the town of State College (who would have guessed?) Mary's group also polled at one other location, at a church. We made a reasonable effort to keep the locations secret, but that info could have been guessed by riggers. I can't believe all the activists who asked me, "Where are you doing this?" I think we activists would make lousy spies. They could easily have "unrigged" the precincts we polled.
I was surprised we were allowed to poll right outside the room, about 20 to 30 feet away from the doors, as to allow plenty of access for voters to get in and out. There were five of us pollsters most of the day, and an estimated 2200 plus voters.
It always seems that when I have done these citizen exit polls, SOMEONE has to question if we have the right to do this and tries to block us in one way or another. That obstructionist can be an Ohio poll judge telling us we have to be "outside with the candidates", (even though the directive from the Secretary of State clearly states we can be inside the 100 foot line), an attorney for a board of elections, interpreting "being outside the polling place" as being outside the building, no matter what the weather is like, and no matter how large the building is and what other activities are going one. It seems to me that the very name "exit poll" by definition indicates that we must be positioned to talk to people as they exit the location where they just voted. If we are far away we are going to get a sizable number of people on other business than voting. Since exit polling is for the purpose of reporting a sample of voting trends to the general public, it is also a matter of free speech, a point recognized by the judge who ruled in Ohio on letting pollsters be within the 100 foot markers.
In PA there was no signing, no names required, and the surveys were all completely confidential. Our contrary person at Pen State was an Obama worker, who was also a newspaper reporter. For some reason he glared at us the whole day and was convinced we were making students fill our the survey as if it were part of the voting process. I know most of us stated that the surveys were voluntary; I know that because I kept hearing students say, "Ok," just before they started filling out the survey. As nice and eager to please as these students were, I can't believe very many, if any, thought they could walk out of the voting room, be approached by people with clipboards, and have to fill out a survey to complete the voting process. This reporter also said we were "too aggressive." Most of us were just plain tired, having driven from Ohio, Maryland (Stan), and Massachusetts (Trish), either all night or the day before, arriving near midnight and getting 3-5 hours of sleep the night before. I don't think many of us had the energy to be aggressive, though the history professor had a remarkable amount of energy. It seems this reporter's major complaint amounted to that we were being too successful.
Not that any other of the Obama supporter-volunteers were obstructionist. They had arranged with the election officials to pre-screen voters to ask them to remove candidate t-shirts and buttons, see if they had ID, if they lived in the areas covered by the precincts, and which precinct table they should go to once they got inside the room. These screeners had to remain non-partisan, of course, as they were acting as volunteer poll workers for the day. But they performed a remarkable and effective service of speeding up the lines, which seldom developed, and of preventing confusion of voters going to the wrong precinct table inside. It was one of the most smoothly operating people-sorting mechanisms I have ever witnessed.
Paddy Shaffer, Ohio Activist and head of the Ohio Election Justice Campaign, drove up with me, as did Jane Schiff, from Cincinnati. Paddy also videotaped students who agreed to an interview, because they had a problem with their registration and were sent away or had to vote provisional. There was not much of this, from what I saw, but it is always a failure of the system when someone may lose their vote, when they think they are registered but find out they are not in the system. I talked to one African American woman who was told she must vote in Philadelphia (at least two hours away, assuming she had car access) , where her parents lived. This may have been her fault or the elections board's fault, but it was still sad when she asked me, "What time do they open tomorrow?" I told her that they closed at 8 pm tonight. I don't know if she had the means to go there or not.
We were also able to do some education, during lulls in the flow of student voters. There were a few newspaper reporters and one TV reporter there, besides the obstructionist one, who actually were interested in what we were doing and why. We explained that paperless touch screen voting is the most insecure kind, there being no way to verify that the votes appearing on the machine were what was being recorded inside the machine. And there was no way to do a spot audit or a recount, because there is nothing to recount. 25% of paperless voting machines in the country are in PA, according to activist and radio show host, Mary Ann Gould. 85-90% of all voting in PA is done on paperless touch screen voting machines. We also explained that numerous recent tests by computer experts, both in industry and in universities, show that the machines are riggable (insider manipulation) and hackable (outsider manipulation), and that election results can be changed without leaving a trace, not even on the computer "log." By citizen exit polling, we were providing the only "paper trail" these machines would ever have. It is a type of "audit," or at least, a "spot check" comparing the paper records of how voters say they voted to the machine count. We did not separate the voters by precinct, but will consider the totals from one big "Superprecinct." We have found that voters do not remember their precinct, or put the wrong one down.
There was a reporter from the student newspaper also. She seemed to have a lot of time for me to explain what is wrong with elections in our country. I decided to go back to HAVA, the Help America Vote Act, which was a lobbyist-led response to the hanging chads, registration purges, and butterfly ballot problems of 2000, especially in Florida. I said to her. "You remember the hanging chads of 2000?" She stared at me blankly and I had a light bulb experience. This student reporter was probably ten or eleven years old in 2000! We election activists have our work cut out for us, folks. There were a few students who were studying computer programming or computer security, or who worked in elections, who understood the problems of voting on computers before we told them, but the majority are clueless. The surveys where I peeked at the last question as I stuffed them into the locked box, asked, "Should PA keep the paperless touch screen voting machines currently in use? "Should we go to a voter verified paper ballot?" (Note that this does not even go as far as hand-counting) or are you "undecided?" There were a few Voter Verified Paper Ballot answers and a few Undecideds. But most of what I saw was "stay with paperless touch screen voting." I can only conclude that the technology seemed to have worked smoothly, was easy, and the young voters figured it out quickly. They probably never had heard of a Voter Verified Paper Ballot till they saw the question just then.
Many thanks to the activists who exit polled at Penn State on April 22, paying their own way, sacrificing sleep, and time and effort to carry out the largest exit polling in one place I have ever seen. Much gratitude to Mary Vollero and her election integrity group and the Obama supporters who were making disenfranchisement much less likely. Mary provided us with a charming vacant house next to her house, and had mattresses and bedding for us to crash like 70's hippies, complete with her original art on the curtains , coffee, milk, sweet rolls, donuts, and vegetarian chili. I'd like to visit the quaint town of Bellefonte, PA again and actually sleep for the night. But there is very little time for rest for election activists until we do our best to stop the theft of November 2008.