Last Tuesday, November 8th, voters in the Austin area got to see Democracy in Action as 25 or so volunteers for VoteRescue, our local election rights group, held a Citizens Parallel Election with paper ballots, hand-counted. Our effort was funded primarily through Black Box Voting and was a joint effort, sponsored by BBV and blessed also by the Coalition for Visible Ballots. We covered twelve precincts in six polling places (each where two precincts were voting) and the experience was both exhausting and exhilarating! Our county uses the Hart InterCivic E-Slate machines, which provide no paper ballots, so we knew going in that even if we got great data, we couldnt force a recount. We chose to move forward anyway as an exercise in democracy and to educate the public about the perils of e-voting.
Karen Renick, my co-producer of the event who formed VoteRescue this past summer, is a dedicated patriot whose number one passion is restoring voting rights to our citizenry: namely, through paper ballots, hand-counted in public view. We met in the summer of 2004 when she e-mailed the Coalition for Visible Ballots and her message was forwarded to me, as the National Chair of that organization. Realizing we were both in Austin, I invited her to a press conference we were about to hold at the Capitol while Bev was in town, demanding of our Secretary of State (at that time) paper receipts on our electronic voting machines. (BTW, this effort, which drew an overflow crowd and lots of press, was met with an instant rebuff by our S of S, who called us special interest groups who were discouraging voters from voting!)
Since that time Karen and I have kept in touch regularly and shared a hotel room in Nashville this past March during the first National Election Reform conference hosted by Bernie Ellis and his fine group. It was on the trip back that Karen and I first discussed the possibility of holding a parallel election with paper ballots, an idea first formulated by paper ballot advocate and journalist Lynn Landes and described on her website, www.ecotalk.com.
Each time we met to plan, we realized how many more details there were yet to cover. Initially we thought we could put it together in two meetings; we ended up having five and felt like that was not enough, as toward the end of our planning period we still had so many loose ends to tie up. Many thanks to Judy Alter and her California parallel election workers; Judy and Ed Spencer shared their procedures, forms, and supply lists with us, as well as a lot of great tips, and gave us a great foundation from which to build and plan.
We created Volunteer Pledges which we handed out at our first meeting, setting forth our expectations of our helpers and requiring their signatures on the commitment to conduct themselves honorably, honestly, professionally, and with integrity, and especially to honor the sanctity of the ballots and the election process. I think this helped lend formality and significance to the act of volunteering.
We provided all the necessary paperwork, including a short handout to give to the voters as they approached the polling place; hundreds of copies of the ballot; handouts with more information on the problems on e-voting to give our voters; the black and white composition notebook we used as our sign-inbook for all of our voters and the Voters Pledge for each sign-in page (Judy Alters), stating that all people voting with us pledged to vote exactly as they had in the official election ; a plastic ballot box with an orange top (again for the Ukraine;) tally sheets for the final vote total compilation at the end of the day (model provided by Judy) ; and to each location we provided a VotePada non-electronic voting system for the blind and physically impaired designed by Ellen Theisen (and associates) of VotersUnite. Each VotePad required a tape recorder and a foot pedal, and a pre-recorded tape of instructions for blind voters on how to use the voting system. (Many thanks to Ellen and her team for all their work to produce the VotePads and get them delivered to us on time! And to Allen Davisson, one of our volunteers, who recorded the instructions for us and made all the extra copies of the tape for each of our locations.)
We identified four major roles to be played by the volunteers: the greeter, who approached voters arriving at the polling place, hand them our short flyer, and invite them to come vote with us on a paper ballot after they voted inside; the person in charge of the registration book, to make sure everyone signed in properly and wrote in their precinct number, since each polling place we selected had two precincts voting; the person handing out clipboards with ballots (designed to NOT look like the official ballot, but to duplicate all the voting issues on the official ballot); and last but not least, the runner, whose job it was to go to the official Substation after 7 pm, which is the middle school or high school where the official election workers turn in the memory cards, voting machines, and paperwork and where computers calculate the final vote totals and post them for the public. The runners job was to find the totals for the two precincts covered by his or her polling place and record the vote totals on each voting issue, as well as the number of total voters who came into that polling place and voted that day. With those numbers, we could first of all calculate the percentage of participation we got from the voters at each location; and whether each amendment or proposition passed according to our election results, versus according to the official election results.
Feeling 99% ready after our last meeting with the Precinct Captains the night before the election, Karen and I each stayed up late making final preparations. Like many of our crew, I got up at 5:30 to go help one of our teams who was lacking the essential third member for the morning shift. (We divided the day into three major time shifts: 6 til 11am; 11 til 4pm; and 4 til 9pm. The Precinct Captains had to commit to working until 10, as did the runners).
I arrived at Kiker Elementary School in southwest Austin at 6 am sharp and soon after arrived the Precinct Captain, Kim Rihn, and her mother Joan. We got our table completely set up and then watched as voters began arriving from other directions not near us; so we picked everything up and moved it over closer to the path of most election foot traffic, careful to stay outside the 100 No electioneering line from the polling place entrance. We were very excited to get our first Parallel election voter around 7:30 or so. I wanted to take his picture, but he said hed rather not, so I respected his wishes and didnt do it.
Gail Fischer from the County Election office came over to say hello next. She was going around to all our six locations to advise the election workers about us and that we were there legally and with the Countys knowledge. Our County election officials, headed by Dana Debeauvoir, and supported by Michael Winn, Gail Fischer, and Mary Fero, have been very cooperative in our election monitoring efforts, which began last November with the Presidential election.
Adrenaline pumped as more voters agreed to vote with us. We kept our discussions about electronic voting simple and to the point, not wishing to data dump on people but giving them a few salient points to think about, along with our handout with VoterUnites map of the US, the What Went Wrong in 2004 graphic that has such great examples of e-voting snafus all over the country. Many people thanked us for what we were doing and expressed distrust of the machines, including some voters who were computer people and claimed to know how easy it is to either manipulate software, or for it to be hacked. We told them their instincts were quite on target. Of course everyone a few of the naysayers and negative respondents. One voter during my morning shift simply said, I write software and I trust it. The shocking naiivete of that statement almost made me dumbstruck; but I rallied for a little debate, and in the end succeeded in at least giving her our handout.
At about 10:30 I packed up my stuff and left for Barton Creek Elementary, for I still didnt know at that time what had happened with the police since no one had called me back to update me and I couldnt reach them by phone either. I was hoping that was not because they were all in jail. When I arrived there all was well and they had extra crew; they had two or three people acting as greeters which really helped bring up the participation numbers. I visited with them and heard some of their stories of the morning, and gradually made my way across town to visit each of our six locations, stopping to meet with Karen to pick up the tally sheets which she had just finished putting together at about 3:30 that afternoon! (talk about cutting it close!) We split them up to each deliver to three of our six locations, and I headed north.