Election odyssey: lesson three, maintaining voter privacy

Something that I doubt occurs to many who are interested in election reform and election administration are the on-the-ground complexities of precinct voting. I mentioned a few in “lesson two” of this series of essays, and will have more to say about this general issue in later essays as well. But overall, two general conclusions that I’ve reached having observed many precinct voting operations over the past few years are that every precinct voting situation is unique, and that layout of the voting operation can be one of the most important issues determining a successful precinct voting situation from a pathological precinct voting situation.

One of the issues of precinct voting layout is the placement of the voting devices in the precinct. A very typical layout is shown in this photograph from the California special election, showing the touchscreen voting devices in a Riverside County precinct (Corpus Christi Catholic Church, 3750 McKinley Street, Corona, California). To the far left is the table where the polling place workers sat, facing the voting devices.

This was a very small voting precinct, located in a small space. From my perspective, located right next to the polling place worker table, I could very easily see the information that was being rendered to the screen of four of the five voting devices. In fact, you can relatively easily see the starting screen on most of the voting machines in the photograph. If I could see these screens from where I was located, so could the polling place workers.

While I don’t have precise quantitative data on how many voting machines seemed to be easily visible to polling place workers or observers, it certainly is not rare. Here is a second Riverside County example, from St. John’s Episcopal Church, 526 Magnolia, Corona, California. Again, the poll workers sat to the left of the photo, facing the voting machines. While the interior space of this voting location was much larger than that of the Corpus Christi Catholic Church, in both locations one could see the screen of the voting devices from where the polling place workers were located, and what was being rendered on those screens.

This represents a dilemma of sorts for election administrators. On one hand, we need to insure that voters have the opportunity to cast a secret and private ballot, at least under current laws and regulations. That principle requires that the choices being made by a voter should not be visible to polling place workers or to any observers. But on the other hand, the polling place workers do need to be able to observe what voters are doing while voting, to insure that voters are not tampering with the voting devices and to be in a position to easily provide assistance when needed.

The bottom line is that we need more analysis of polling place layout, in particular of the placement and orientation of the voting devices themselves. We might also need to more carefully analyze the physical nature of the voting devices themselves, including how they are equipped to insure that voter privacy is maintained. As our observations have made clear, privacy is not a principle that is easy to maintain with contemporary polling place practices.