Election odyssey, first lesson: rules of engagement

Our rules of engagement for election observation are simple: don’t obstruct and don’t intervene. Upon entering a polling place location, our instructions to observers are to always introduce yourself to the polling place workers, especially the head polling place judge or inspector; explain your purpose and intentions (we are there to observe the process and stay out of the way); ask where is a good location from which to observe; never intervene or get in the way of voters or poll workers; always ask to see materials or to take photographs; and always be polite and thank the poll workers for their help.

The consequence of following these simple rules of engagement? We almost always end up learning an enormous amount of interesting detail about the process, and while in many cases polling place workers are sometimes initially suspicious of our intentions — they typically end up being very friendly, very helpful, and very informative.

Generally what happens when we follow these rules is that the polling place workers tell us to locate ourselves in some out-of-the way position in the polling place, and also tell us not to disturb the voters. Then, usually if we stay in that position long enough for them to grow comfortable with our presence — and usually, for a lull to occur in their election-day work — they will typically initiate a conversation, ask us what we are doing and why we are doing it, and then begin to offer up their experiences and be in a position to answer questions.

Here is one great example of how well our approach to election observation works, from a polling place in Riverside County, located inside the Corona Fundamental Intermediate School, located at the intersection of Main and Grand in Corona. This photo is taken from the entrance to the polling place, showing the inspector and the two workers. While there was a steady stream of voters coming into this location, after I described what I was there to do, the inspector was very willing to answer all of my questions, to honestly discuss the difficulties associated with the particular poll location he was using (more about that in a later essay), and to talk about his experiences as a poll worker and inspector. He let me take this photograph of the interior of their poll site (which is sometimes not an automatic “yes” in Riverside County!). All in all, a very informative and helpful visit for me.

Another excellent example occurred on election night, when I was with two Caltech undergraduate students in Los Angeles County. We were observing the poll closing process at the Alpine Recreation Center, in downtown Los Angeles (in Chinatown). This is a very good place to observe the difficulties associated with the polling place and election administration process, as this polling place serves a highly diverse population — serving multiple languages, both very young and very elderly voters, and new citizens who are sometimes not familiar with the voting process. And it is also a very busy voting location!

But we have observed the process a number of times in this same location since 2001, and have become known to the polling place workers, especially the head inspector. The fact that we have been neutral and unobtrusive in the past in this location has helped us to establish a high level of trust with the folks staffing this location. That trust has given us fantastic access to the process, for example, as shown here in this photograph. Here are the two Caltech students (at the left end of the table), with the polling place workers at the table, closely observing the initial post-election tally of the cast ballots in this precinct. The poll workers here are counting the number of absentee ballots cast, provisionals, and cast ballots — and insuring that those numbers are consistent with the numbers from other tally sheets (the number of registered voters who cast ballots, and the numbers from the ballot stubs of ballots that have been handed out to voters). This is a great experience, and a wonderful way to see the nitty-gritty details of election administration first-hand.

However, sometimes we hear that problems have arisen in polling places, caused by improper election observation practices. Unfortunately, we were the victims of improper behavior by another election observation group, who had earlier visited a polling place that we planned on visiting during the evening on November 8. I took a group of Caltech students to this polling place in Pasadena on Tuesday, during the peak evening period of voting. I entered the polling place, introduced myself to the head polling place inspector, gave her my business card, and asked her if it was okay for us to observe the process in their location, one student at a time. She was clearly not happy with this, and told me that they had students from another local college in their precinct earlier in the day, and that they had been somewhat obtrusive in their observation process, including taking photographs without permission of people voting. She also told me that under no conditions could we take any photographs in the polling place, because of the problems that they had experienced earlier in the day with the students from the other local college. It was not a good situation, as the poll workers were clearly upset about the previous student observers and were stressed by our presence there.

This makes me wonder if we need to start thinking seriously about developing and trying to implement some standards or principles for election observers and monitors in the United States. Some really good development of election observation principles has recently been conducted by a variety of international organizations, culminating in the October 27, 2005 release of the “Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation and Code of Conduct for International Election Observers” at the United Nations. It might be a good idea for us to borrow for these principles and standards, for example, the principle of not obstructing the election process:

Observers must not obstruct any element of the election process … Observers may bring irregularities, fraud or significant problems to the attention of election officials … and must do so in a non-obstructive manner. Observers may ask questions of election officials … as long as observers do not obstruct the election process … (page 2, “Code of Conduct …”)

I’m not certain how we might begin to develop and implement principles and standards like these in the United States, and am open to suggestions from Election Updates readers. But I do think that we should start a discussion about the development of election observation and monitoring standards, principles, and codes of conduct in the United States, as my guess is that we will continue to see an increasing amount of interest in election monitoring in future elections in the U.S., especially in the next federal election cycle just a year from now.