Election observation in Buenos Aires — understanding the process

Since arriving in Buenos Aires last week, the local election officials here have kept the observing team quite busy. Other than some time off on Saturday afternoon, it has been a whirlwind visit, especially on Sunday, election day here in Argentina. Our agenda is given here for those interested in seeing what it looked like.

The primary purpose for our visit was to evaluate and examine the e-voting pilot project in Buenos Aires. The e-voting pilot project had been planned for Sunday’s elections in Buenos Aires, to be conducted in 53 different voting locations in yesterday’s elections. However as the day progressed, we heard that in at least 9 voting locations the local judges had decided to not allow the pilot project to proceed in their location. Still, the initial report we heard late last night was that approximately 14,000 voters had participated in the pilot project. Here’s a photo of a streetside sign ( slightly blurry closeup here) advertising the pilot project in Buenos Aires, one of the various ways that the project was advertised in the city.

Most of our time in the past few days has been spend winding our way around Buenos Aires in a tour bus, though on election day we were broken into smaller groups, and spend the day in a smaller and much less comfortable ride! But as Buenos Aires is a beautiful place, and as our mission involved a number of interesting people, we had a very good time traveling from event to event, polling place to polling place.

I’ll cover the e-voting project in more detail later, it was very interesting to observe and I believe that we — and the local team who conducted the project — learned a great deal about how e-voting might work in Buenos Aires.

But here are some important details about how the voting process works in Argentina, including some of the insights I learned over the past few days.

First, in Argentina voting is compulsory, and elections like these are conducted throughout the day on Sundays, primarily (in Buenos Aires at least!) in public schools. Voters show up to the polling place, and scan posted lists of registered voters for their name and specific voting location in the polling place. Here are voters looking for their names on lists posted outside a public school, “ESC No. 25 Bandera Arg.-EMEM No. 6 Padre C. MUJICA”, located at PJE EEUU DEL BRASIL y Av.Ant.ARGENTINA (this is the information as given to us for the location). Note the pink and blue sheets — the men are listed on the pink sheets, the women on the blue sheets. In many of the polling locations we visited, men and women voted separately, sometimes with the women voting on the first floor of the school and the men voting on the second floor.

Next, here is a typical school voting site in Buenos Aires (located in the same school). Note the “voter bill of rights on the walls” (“A Los Votantes”). The voter approaches the appropriately numbered “mesa” (table) and the polling place workers check off the voter’s name against the list of eligible voters for that location. The voter’s identification book is then stamped to show that they voted. The voter then stands in line in from of a school room door, and one-by-one they enter the school room. Inside the school room are the ballot lists for each party, for each race. The voter selects the lists he or she wants to support for each race, puts those in an envelope, and brings the envelope back outside and deposts the envelope in the cardboard box on the table. At the close of voting, the workers here count the ballots for each race, and provide the initial count to the tabulation center in each jurisdiction.

According to what we were told, working in a polling place is sort of like jury duty in the United States; workers are randomly selected, sent a letter instructing them to show up for service, and that is how they recruit polling place workers. I did not get any data on how effective this practice is, but would love to receive any data or research on this procedure that anyone has.

But, like in the United States, polling places in Buenos Aires have huge variability in layout and in the physical facilities. We went to another polling site on Sunday that was in one of the most massive spaces I’ve ever seen used for voting. Here are two different photographs of the interior of this polling place ( first shot and second shot), showing what I counted as 25 separate polling places!

This massive polling place differed from the others, in that here the voters were not going into a classroom to get their ballot papers. Rather, once the voter checked in at the right station and got their book stamped, they went behind a small plywood screen located next to the wall. We were given the opportunty by a very cooperative poll site judge to actually walk behind the screen and see the ballot papers, just as a voter would see them. Here is the best photo I could get of the ballot papers, showing two of the panels very well. Again, the voter would take the ballot papers for the party-office combination he or she wanted to support, put those in an envelope, and deposit the envelope in the ballot box on the reception table.

Based on seeing the existing process, and talking with people who adminster these elections or who participate in them, this existing process has some potential deficiencies. As we were observing regular polling operations in this voting location, we noticed that there were people being escorted by election officials or poll workers to behind these screens where the ballots were located. We later determined that these individuals were party representatives, who are checking to make sure that their party ballots are in sufficient supply for voters to use. Given that these party representatives can access the ballots, there is the very real possibility that they could engage in a number of strategies to help their own party’s chances for election by moving their party’s ballots to a more accessible and easy-to-find location, putting their party ballots on top of the opposition’s ballots to make it difficult to find the opposition’s ballots, or even removing entirely the opposition’s ballots. Of course, voters themselves could do the same things when they are behind the screen or in the classroom by themselves.

As far as I am aware, the precise extent of these problems is unknown. But one of the hopes is that by using different types of voting systems, including optical scanning and electronic voting devices, that they could improve the process in a number of different ways — one of them being to make it difficult if not impossible for some of these problems with paper ballots to exist in future elections. Of course, as data becomes available from this e-voting pilot project we will be in a much better position to gauge the extent to which new voting technologies and procedures can improve this process, and at what cost.