Ted Selker's guest blog: Poll watching in the Boston Area, November 7 2006

By Ted Selker (MIT)

This short description documents the variety of practices in Boston that are
worse than surrounding towns and indeed worse than other jurisdictions I have
observed in Nevada, California, Chicago, and New Orleans.

In my next blogs I will describe small problems that can be improved in the
cities of Brookline, Arlington, and Cambridge, Massachusetts

Boston: comparing Nov 2004 and Nov 2006 elections

During the presidential election of 2004, I witnessed active voting at
approximately 30 precincts and watched closing practices at one in Boston.
Observations included a line of 62 people at 7:00AM at the entrance to a
polling place that was actually the entrance to four precincts. The result was
all voters regardless of their particular precinct waited in this line because
one of the polling places checked registration at the entrance, and the other
three precincts had no lines. Although these lines were at the top of at least
a dozen steps, the marking for the polling place was around the back on a door.
We tried to enter the polling place by this more accessible back way and we
found ourselves in a cafeteria; the route to the polling place took us through
an active commercial-style kitchen. After poll workers learned we traversed it,
a poll worker designed and put up signs to help anyone that would vote through
the maze. In doing so, they opened the back door with the polling place sign on
it eliminating any viewable signage of the polling place from the street. The
multiple polling place, single line problem was seen later at other polling
places, with long lines and frustrated voters. Few of the Boston polling places
I visited at that time were accessible. I have detailed this experience in
talks I have given, but will write more about it soon.

During the election of 2006 I witnessed repeats of several problems that I had
witnessed in 2004, many of which were disturbing. At all of the three polling
places I visited, canvassers effectively intimidated voters at the entrance. In
two of them, signs crowded both sides of the entrance gate less than 30 feet
from the polling place entrance surrounded by canvassers. In a third location,
the gate was more seriously crowded by people making the entrance a bit of a
squiggle by them as they shoved literature into your hand. In this polling
place the gate was also the only way to enter the polling place and the
courtyard was about 100 feet walk to the entrance of the building. At one
polling place, I told the canvassers that they were too close, one of them
became angry and told me that she was the past commissioner of elections and
was it bothering me and so on. I approached the polling place warden who asked
me “Is anybody complaining about it” I said I was. The polling place warden
came back from talking to the canvassers and said, “They are upset that you
took their pictures.” The placards were not removed, the people were not
removed and the policeman assigned to the polling place began harassing me as I
stood on the street talking to a colleague in California about details of
electronic voting. The policeman became visibly angry, challenged me to take
his badge number and began accusing me of things. I left feeling very

In 2004, I watched one polling place in which a uniformed policeman had taken
over the exit poll book checking operation. I also witnessed anther uniformed
policeman who had taken both intake poll book and exit poll book, placed them
on top of each other and was checking off both books when a voter arrived by
himself without supervision. Certainly this compromises the goal of the poll
book. The specter of having to face a uniformed officer upon entrance to a
polling place to vote is not best practices. I am not certain that the police
actually had training in polling place operations. At all three locations that
I observed in 2006, police officers were responsible for the exit poll book in
Boston; I have never seen this in other jurisdictions around the country.

In 2004 at the end of the polling day, I witnessed two poll workers spend more
than 10 minutes working together to compare the intake poll book and exit poll
book with pencils in hand. They obviously erased and changed various records
with these pencils.

In Boston in 2004 I was struck that the precinct scanner was transported with
its counting module in it, making both the voting machine memory and the
secondary memory in the care of the same person who was transporting the
ballots. I also noted that the ballots were in the same color (manilla)
envelopes as the other election materials. I also was struck that all these
materials were transported by an individual policeman who was part of a strike
that demonstrated in front of the Democratic National Convention a few months
earlier. I have not witnessed such sloppy chain of custody anywhere else in my
poll watching.

The this year I had difficulty in getting in touch with and communicating with
Boston’s election commission. When we couldn?t get responses with email and
phone calls, I visited. The person that came to talk to me began aggressive.
The commissioner did follow up and sent me a letter of introduction so that I
was credentialed through my poll watching for which I am deeply grateful.