Tomorrow, Nov 4, is election day in the United States.  I’ll be spending all day as an election official.  As of the moment, I’m scheduled to show up at the Durham Board of Elections by no later than 6am.  However, 97,697 people have already voted in Durham County (out of approximately 175,000) so there is a question of just how busy the polls will be.  It may be that they’re fairly slow or it could be that they’re busy and we have record turnout. Check back later in the week to find out.  Either way, we’ll either have more than enough people working the polls or the right number of people working. Thanks to good planning by the Durham BOE, though, we hopefully will not have the problem of too few people working.

Since the election is tomorrow, I thought it would be instructive to go over the voting process.  In North Carolina there are actually two different methods that someone can vote: an inline process where the voter casts their vote and it is counted immediately, and an offline process where the voter casts their vote and it is counted at a later time.  The later process is called casting a “provisional ballot”. Both allow the voter to cast their ballot and in both cases valid votes will be counted.

So, when someone comes to a precinct, the first thing they do is check in.  North Carolina does not require ID in order to vote.  We do require ID to register, however, and as such, if a voter registered by mail or some other process where their ID was not validated by the board of elections, they will be asked to show ID the first time they vote.  After that, for future elections, they will not be asked for ID.  So, a good rule of thumb is that if you are a first time voter, bring your ID. It’s possible you may not need it but if you are newly registered, it’s a good idea to have it with you.  In either case, though, the voter is required to state to the election officials their name and their address.  At this point in the process there are three possible states:

  1. The voter is in the election worker’s printed pollbook and all their information is correct.
  2. The voter is in the election worker’s printed pollbook but their information is incorrect.
  3. The voter is not in the election worker’s printed pollbook.

If the voter’s situation is #1, the election worker pulls off the sticky label with the voter’s information, affixes it to an Authorization To Vote (ATV) form and then presents it to the voter for them to sign.  The voter must sign this form in order to get a ballot.  Their signature does not have to be legible, but without a signature they cannot be given a ballot.

After the voter signs the ATV, they then take it to the ballot table and present it to the election official there.  The election official takes the ATV and gives the voter a ballot.  What ballot a voter gets depends on where they live and in the case of a partisan primary, what political party affiliation they hold.  (In short, Democrats & Republicans must vote in their respective primaries while unaffiliated voters are allowed to choose which primary they wish to vote in.  They can then vote in just that primary, not both.  In Durham county, where often races are decided in the primary because no Republicans run, like the city council, this causes some Republicans to register as Unaffiliated so they can vote in the Democratic primary and thereby have a part in electing the City Council.)

After the voter gets a ballot, they take it to a pollboth (or really anywhere if all the pollboths are full) and cast their votes.

After they are done marking the ballot, the voter takes their ballot to the tabulator machine and feed it in.  If the ballot contains an “undervote”, that is, if a race has fewer or no votes for it, the machine will take it without question. However, if a race has an “overvote”, that is, if the voter has marked more than they are allowed for any particular race (i.e. voting for both McCain and Obama in the presidential race), the tabulator will beep and on the display say that the ballot contains an overvote and the race that is overvoted.  At this point the voter has a choice: they can accept the overvote, in which case that race will not be tallied from that ballot, or then can get the ballot back, take it back to the ballot and exchange it for a new ballot.  The old ballot will then be “spoiled” and will not be counted.  In either case, the voter should tell the official manning the tabulator what their choice is and the official will press the appropriate button to either accept the ballot or return it.  If for some reason the voter has already left and doesn’t know that their ballot has an overvote, the election official will simply accept the ballot so that properly marked races will be counted.

Once all this is done, the election official at the tabulator offers the voter an “I Voted” sticker and the voter leaves the polling place.  This completes the inline voting process I previously mentioned. Let’s now look at the offline voting process.

We covered case #1 where the voter is in the pollbook and all their information is correct.  Let’s look at case #2 where the voter is in the pollbook, but their information is incorrect.  In this case, the election official checking the voter in checks the “exceptions” box on the ATV and sends the voter to the exceptions table.  This is because nothing can be fixed at checkin. The election offiicial at checkin simply checks people in and sends them to either the ballot table or the exceptions table.

In case #3, where a voter is not in the precinct pollbook, the election official simply sends that voter directly to the exceptions table.

Now, when a voter gets to the exceptions table there can be two possible cases:

  1. The voter has an ATV with the exceptions box checked.
  2. The voter does not have an ATV.

Case #2 is the simplest.  In this case, the voter simply votes a provisional ballot.  The election official gives them a provisional ballot envelope and has them fill out the yellow fields.  Once that is done, the election official looks up the voters home precinct, records that, if possible, and gives them a ballot.  Hopefully, here, the voters is directed towards a pollbooth that is separate from the normal ones because whatever happens we do not want this ballot to go into the tabulator.  Once the voter fills out their ballot, they fold it up and place it in the envelope and seal it up.  Somewhere in this process, the election official takes 3 sticky labels with a unique number and places one of them on the envelope, one of them on the provisional ballot pollbook, and one of them on an information sheet which is given to the voter.  The information sheet has information on how the voter can call the board of elections to see if their vote was counted or not.  At this point, the voter is offered an “I Voted” sticker and they are done.

In case #1, there are several options. Most of the time, this case will be because a voter has moved.  In this case, there is a box on the ATV for them to fill out their new address.  If they have moved to somewhere within the same precinct they can simply fill out the change of address form, get the correct signatures and then proceed to the ballot table to get a normal ballot and vote the normal inline process.  However, if the voter has moved out of the precinct, things get more complicated.  If they have moved out of precinct less than 30 days ago (that figure is from memory, so hopefully it is correct) but still live in the same county, there are two things they can do:

  1. Vote a provisional ballot
  2. Do a precinct transfer

In case #2 they will fill out the appropriate boxes on the ATV and then take that ATV to their new precinct, present it to the official at the exceptions table, and proceed through the normal inline voting process where they will get a ballot at the ballot table and vote as normal.

If, however, they have moved out of the county, of if they have moved more than 30 days ago, the voter must vote a provisional ballot.

Throughout all this process a strict count on the number of ballots is kept.  All ATVs are numbered sequentially and this count is checked against both the number of ballots given out and the number on the ballot tabulator.  In addition, it is checked against the provisional ballot pollbook.  At the end of the day, the number of ballots is added up and compared to the number of ballots that the precinct started with at the beginning of the day to make sure everything matches up.

What happens, however, if there is an exception situation?  If the tabulator breaks down, there is a special compartment directly under the tabulator that can be opened to accept ballots.  This is known as the emergency bin and is used to hold ballots until the tabulator can be fixed at which point the ballots are fed into the tabulator.  Whenever a ballot is fed into the tabulator by someone other than the voter, the election official must announce in a loud voice what they are doing!

Polls open at 6:30am and close at 7:30pm.  Anyone who is in line at 7:30pm is allowed to vote.

There’s more, but I’ve run out of time now.  I’ll have more later, but that should be enough to get a basic idea of the process.  Any errors in the description are entirely mine and I’m sure I’ll hear about them. 🙂

Anyway, if you haven’t voted already, go vote tomorrow!