One person, one – never mind.

I’m pretty upset right now.

I like to think that I’m an intelligent person. I’m in an Ivy League grad school; I can take apart and fix my bike; I can follow directions and make a souffle. I’ve voted in many elections before and never had any trouble figuring out how to use the machines. I’ve read articles on voter disenfranchisement of various sorts; I’ve seen pictures of hanging chads and misleading electronic choices.

But my vote today won’t be counted. Yes, it was ultimately my actions that led to that fact, but that doesn’t excuse an outdated system, incompetent and ignorant volunteers, and the lack of any clear instructions.

As a good American citizen, I went to my polling place straight from class this afternoon. The room was a bit disorganized, but friendly election workers got me to the right people, who checked my IDs, marked me off the list, and pointed me to a voting booth. I stepped over to the booth and stared at the system for a moment. Connecticut uses mechanical voting machines designed in the 19th century instead of electronic or paper ballots, and I’d never voted with anything similar. Before I stepped in, I politely asked if there were instructions for how to use the machine, as it certainly wasn’t clearly labeled. Their (verbal) instructions consisted of “step into the booth, pull the lever, and pull the tabs for your candidates.” From looking around the booth, I figured out that one could write in candidates through little slots on top and register the vote by pulling the lever back.

When I tried to make my selections, though, it wouldn’t let me vote for governor. (As I later learned, if you open the write-in tab area for a race, as I’d done experimentally, you can’t proceed to choose a normal candidate’s tab. However, that wasn’t explained to me or written on the machine, and none of the volunteers seemed to know it either.) I called for help and they ran me through the basics repeatedly: make sure the lever is pulled, make sure nobody else in the column is selected. I deselected all of my candidates, just to see if any of them were causing the other race to jam, which didn’t work; when they told me repeatedly to make sure the lever was pulled, I tried pulling it back and forth a bit . . . which irrevocably registered my vote. As a blank ballot. Which they could see.

One of my coworkers suggested I go talk to the city voting registrar, where I was treated to the most condescending response I’ve received in a very long time. Yes, I know, election day is the busiest day of the year for that department, but that doesn’t excuse patronizingly telling people “you must have screwed up the machine, and you obviously don’t know what you’re doing,” instead of listening to what went wrong and figuring out what happened. Apparently, if I lost my right to have a fair vote, that was my problem, not the city’s.

Now, I know enough math and game theory to know that my one vote, realistically, doesn’t make nearly as much of a difference as all the political work I’ve done in the past, working for candidates and issues and getting out the vote. But if this happened to me, I doubt I’m the only one, and it’s frustrating beyond words to be disenfranchised after I jumped through all the hoops as well as I could.

As suggested by my coworker, I’ll be rewriting this into a letter to Connecticut’s Secretary of State after the election, especially as she’s been fighting to improve Connecticut’s voting technology. Maybe it’ll make a difference. For now, though, I needed to vent.

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2 comments on “One person, one – never mind.

  1. shari says:

    That’s really upsetting.

    I was pleased to discover that voting in my precinct here is done the “old-fashioned” way – we were handed paper ballots and black pens, and we filled in ovals to indicate our votes and then fed the ballot into a machine which (I suspect) scanned our votes from both sides and then stored the paper ballot. And there was a sign indicating that you could request another ballot if you made a mistake on yours.

    There are plenty of other problems with the system here, such as how difficult it is for a third-party candidate to get on the ballot (the article I read indicated that for a state-wide election, something like 1 in 73 North Carolina residents has to sign a petition). Your experience, though, will make me wary the next time I change states. More and more people are voting absentee, and I might do that if I think it’s more reliable than voting in person.

    Let us know if you get any response to your letter.

  2. I’ll definitely let you know what happens.

    And yes, the scanning-paper-ballots method is, as I understand it, the one that’s currently the frontrunner to replace the machines in Connecticut. You can physically see what you wrote and get a new ballot if necessary, and the machine rejects it if you filled it out wrong accidentally. As I understand the technology, it’s also less easy to hack than the completely computerized systems. I can’t remember the provisions made for visually impaired voters – some kind of automated phone system, I think? – but I know they exist, as opposed to the current machines, which require another person to assist you.

    Absentee voting does also seem nice, yes. Apparently in WA, anyone can request them – not a bad idea.

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