“There are over five thousand people in this city
who know that being an inspector is an endless, glamorless,
thankless job that’s gotta be done. I know it, too.
And I’m damned glad to be one of them.”
Joe Friday E.A. Blair
Guest author, E.A. Blair, looks ahead to Voting Day and his time on the front lines as a Wisconsin election inspector.
“The story you are about to read is true. The names have not been changed in order to implicate the guilty.”
“This is the precinct. District 3, Ward 138. I work here. I carry a badge. My name’s Blair.
It was Tuesday, November 6. It was cloudy and cool in the city. I was working voter check-in when they came. They were shifty, nervous, and they had badges of their own that said “Election Observer”. They had notebooks and pens and took a lot of notes. They eyed the voters like a butcher sizing up a side of beef, like a tiger ready to pounce. But instead of claws and teeth, they were armed with challenges and misinformation, seeking not to kill but to disrupt and delay. They signed in as “Concerned Citizen” but were silent about their concerns. At the slightest provocation, it was part of my job to send them packing. If I had to, I could call for backup. The polls had only been open for an hour, and voters had been lined up for two. The “Observers” were making them nervous. It was going to be a long day.
Prologue: There are only a couple of days left before the Big Day. While most people are looking forward to the day after, when the ads, the knocks on the door, the robocalls and the endless wrangling over who’s a bigger liar will finally come to a brief end (until the 2014 midterm elections), I am concentrating on the days leading up to the election, maintaining my sanity by not answering the phone unless the caller ID shows someone I know. There is a sign on my door telling people that I’ve already voted (I haven’t) and to go away:
If You Are Here About The Election:
I Voted Early
You’re Too Late
You Can’t Change My Mind
Don’t Leave Literature
Go Annoy Someone Else
There is another sign showing my politics:
But my real concerns come from the fact that I work at my local ward as an elections inspector. The job that I and the others in my crew have is to set up and operate the polls on election day and to do everything we can to make sure that everyone who wants to cast a vote gets a reasonable chance. Our day starts at 6:00; voting takes place from 7:00 to 8:00 PM and the final tabulation and securing the ballots for transport to City Hall takes another hour and a half. Working the full shift means a fifteen-and-a-half hour day. If it’s busy, as presidential elections usually are, there’s no time to take a lunch break. By the time I get home, I’m barely able to function, much less watch the returns on the news. I’m more involved in the preparation work than everyone else in my crew except the Chief Inspector, mainly because I live less than a block from the school where Ward 138 votes. I do the location scouting and smooth things over with the school staff. If I get a call from my Chief asking me to check on some detail or other, the school is a two minute walk from my door.
The Players: This year, at least two groups have targeted Wisconsin for an attempt at voter interference. Posing as election observers, they are being instructed to insert themselves into the voting process with the intent to disrupt.
One of these groups is called True The Vote. Based in Texas, it is an offshoot of the King Street Patriots, a tea-party group. They present themselves as a non-profit 501©)3 charitable organization, but are engaged in lobbying for voter ID laws and supporting conservative candidates. They have inserted themselves into Wisconsin politics before. During the summer gubernatorial recall election, True The Vote ran Verify The Recall, supposedly a volunteer effort to verify signatures on the recall petitions but, in reality, an attempt to challenge and invalidate enough signatures to nullify the recall effort.
The other group is backed by the Romney campaign, part of a multi-state effort called Project ORCA. They have held a series of training sessions for election observers and have been omits a number of acceptable forms. Copies of the PowerPoint slides that Project ORCA used in Wisconsin have been posted online.
Means: Wisconsin law allows anyone except a candidate appearing on the ballot to be an election observer. They can be affiliated with a political party, a campaign, a citizens’ group, or be just an election junkie. They could even be a homeless person looking for a warm place to sit for the day. They are allowed to watch and make notes, and do not have to register or get a permit; all that is required is that they identify themselves as observers to the Chief Inspector. They may not insert themselves into the election process unless a voter asks one to assist in casting their vote. They may, however, challenge any person’s eligibility to vote, which then requires that the voter produce proof of residence.
Motive: So why are these “concerned citizens” here? While they cannot engage in electioneering or overt intimidation, there are other ways they can disrupt the process.
Voter Challenges: If a voter’s eligibility is challenged, that person is then required to produce proof of residence in accordance with state law. Lacking that, the voter may either go home to get the necessary documents and return or may cast a provisional ballot, requiring them to present their proof at City Hall within five days. Why do this? It cause delays, delays that may discourage people waiting in line and reducing the time available to process more voters while the challenge is resolved. More delays means fewer votes cast.
Covert Intimidation: There are a number of tactics that observers can use to intimidate voters while remaining within the letter of the law. Inside the polling area, standing too close to the voting booths, taking notes while observing individuals and, of course, challenging voters are all things that can be done to intimidate and disrupt.
Opportunity: Outside the polling area, observers may try to misrepresent themselves in a semi-official capacity to people waiting in line and bring up matters of eligibility or ID and suggest that a person is not able to vote. Other ways include taking pictures of people in parking lots, entering and leaving the building and waiting in line.
Countermeasures: I have been in communication with my Chief Inspector and we’re planning a briefing session for the entire crew before we set up the polls. All the inspectors will be warned to keep an eye out for misconduct by observers. We don’t have the authority to restrain anyone, but we can instruct them to leave or try to prevent them from entering or re-entering. If necessary, the Chief can call a mobile supervisor. If the supervisor deems it appropriate, a police officer can be sent to the ward to maintain order. We are also posting signs in the waiting area asking people to report any attempts to interfere with the voting process. It’s going to be an interesting day, even if only in the Chinese sense.
Epilogue: On November 6, trial was held in Ward 138, District three of the City of Milwaukee. In a moment, the results of that trial.
Commercial Break: Voting In Wisconsin
In Wisconsin, voters mark paper ballets with a #2 pencil then feed them through an Opt-Tech scanner to tabulate the votes. The paper ballots are retained in a locked compartments and are stored for ten years against the possibility of recounts, lawsuits and other investigations. This is a portion of the 2012 Wisconsin ballot:
Voters mark the ballot by connecting the two ends of the arrow with a straight line. The scanner rejects ballots that are improperly marked (e.g., two votes for the same office, stray marks). Voters have two chances to redo a rejected ballot. In the event of irregularities, the paper ballots preserve a record of the vote that is available for hand inspection. Hanging chads are not an option.
Write-in votes are accomplished by filling in the name of the candidate on the line at the bottom of the column and completing the arrow for that section.
Epilogue (Continued): The suspect was found guilty of severe fatigue and a tendency to get cranky. He was remanded to the custody of his cat and sentenced to eight to ten hours of bed rest and avoiding watching election returns.
E.A. Blair: Now serving his sentence under house arrest.