Monday, November 03, 2008

New Mexico's Election Process

(This is long, but I need to make up for not posting in the last several weeks!)

Last week I attended two poll worker training sessions in preparation for some Election Day observations I will be involved in tomorrow. I thought it might be interesting to outline exactly how elections are run here in New Mexico, since I’ve come across a lot of people recently that are not only really skeptical of the election process, but just have no idea what happens. While my training was limited to Bernalillo County (where Albuquerque is located), the process across the state is theoretically similar and the same training materials are used state-wide. The only exception is some minor changes to the process in Albuquerque because of its size. Tomorrow, I will be part of a team observing elections in Doña Ana County, New Mexico, which includes Las Cruces, Hatch, Anthony, and a number of other small towns in Southeastern New Mexico, and I hopefully will be able to do some live blogging about what we are observing and how much the observed process differs from how the election should be run. There will also be teams observing in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Farmington, so if anything interesting happens in those areas we will be in touch and I hope to be able to blog about those areas as well.


In New Mexico we have paper ballots where we fill in a bubble for each choice we make. A sample ballot can be seen here. It is a lot like a scan-tron, and after an individual fills in their ballot, it is then fed into the voting machine, called an M-100 Voting Tabulator. The voting machine is nothing more than a big metal box, with a scanner on the top. There is an electronic zip disk (yes, they actually still use zip disks) that includes the code for each precinct inserted into each scanner, which allows the scanner to read the ballot and record the votes correctly. When the machine is turned on, a zero tape is printed out that shows all the counts for each race and ballot question are at zero. When the polls close, another tape is printed out that includes the results for all races and questions.

At each precinct, there is an election board that is made up of a presiding judge, and a number of poll workers. Each election board is supposed to be balanced between Republicans and Democrats. I attended both the presiding judge training, and regular poll worker training.

Prior to Election Day and Opening the Polls

Presiding judges are required to attend a 4-hour training session prior to each election. The training I attended included about 100 people, and I would say about half of them had served before as presiding judges. The training session includes a video presentation of how to set up and take down a precinct, what the voter ID law is in New Mexico, what to do in case of emergencies or problems in the precinct, how to deal with provisional ballots and absentee ballots, and how to use the M-100 voting machine and the automark system, which is a voting assistance machine for those with special needs. There was a wide variety of people at the training, definitely on the older side, but also a lot of people in their 30s and 40s. Poll workers attend a two-hour training that is very similar to the presiding judge training, but since poll workers have less responsibilities than the judges, there is less to cover. Presiding Judges are given a list of the poll workers that will be working at their precinct during the training, and are supposed to be in contact with the poll workers prior to Election Day. It does seem that for the most part, judges and poll workers do not know each other before Election Day, since a lot of people do not actually work in their own precinct.

Much of the training session was taken up by question and answer, and some venting by a lot of the judges. Our voter ID law does not seem to be very popular among the presiding judges and poll workers, so it will be interesting to see how this is applied. (You can read the Voter ID law here. Also the provisional ballot process, which allows anyone to fill out a ballot on election day regardless of registration status or if they are in the correct location, is complicated and seems to be fairly disliked by election workers. Most provisional ballots end up getting thrown out, but it does allow for a more open electoral process and is a good safeguard against inadvertently disenfranchising a voter because of a clerical error or some other problem. It is somewhat of a problem that lot of the judges, and poll workers as well, seem to only grudgingly accept their responsibility to apply the law as it is supposed to be, and will likely mean that the application of Voter ID laws and the allowance for filling out a provisional ballot is not going to be universally applied across New Mexico. But, I’ll get to see this first hand tomorrow, so hopefully I’m wrong!

In the week leading up to the election, county clerks begin delivering the voting machines  and polling booths to each individual precinct. In Bernalillo County, the Sunday before the election, presiding judges pick up the ballots and other administrative materials they need to set up their precinct on Election Day. All of this material is received in a locked ballot box, which they have to bring with them to the precinct. Polls open at 7am, so all judges and poll workers have to show up at 6am to set up the precinct. Setting up the precinct involves setting up tables, putting together the polling booths, turning on the voting machine, and setting up the Automark system. They also are required to post all the typical signs one sees at a precinct on Election Day. No campaigning is allowed within 100 feet of the polls, and the poll workers are required to determine where that designated 100 feet is, and to make sure throughout the day that that barrier is maintained.

Election Day Voting

Once polls open at 7am, voters identify themselves and sign off on the list of registered voters. Poll workers also have a second list that is checked off by a second poll worker, to ensure accuracy and help balance out the number of voters with the number of ballots cast at the end of the day. After a voter has identified themselves, they receive a ballot and a voter permit card. The voter permit card includes the ballot number and the voter’s number on the registration list. Each ballot is numbered, but this portion of the ballot is torn off prior to being given to the voter. The numbering of the ballots and the voter permit cards is necessary in order to make sure ballots are not lost and all ballots are accounted for at the end of the day. As long as the ballot stub with the number is torn off, there is no way to attach a permit card to a ballot after the fact to figure out how any individual person voted. After a person has filled out their ballot, the voter is supposed to put the ballot in the voting machine. Poll workers are allowed to help in inserting the ballot, but only if asked. Once a ballot has been given to a voter, no poll worker is supposed to touch it unless asked for help. This also applies to voters who make a mistake on their ballot and need a new one, those who vote provisionally, and those who fill out an in-lieu-of absentee ballot. However, I’ve heard there is wide variation in how poll workers handle ballots, and it has already happened to one person on our observation team where a spoiled ballot was “disappeared” by a poll worker in an early voting location, even though the voter him or herself is supposed to place it in a special envelope and seal it.

Closing the Polls

Polls close at 7pm. Poll workers are supposed to identify the last person in line who was there by 7pm and allow those still in line to vote. After all votes have been cast, poll workers print out the results from the voting machine, and start breaking down everything that had been set up at the beginning of the day. A number of different results tapes are printed out and mailed to different locations, including the county clerk, the secretary of state, and the district attorney. The results are also supposed to be posted at the precinct in a visible location so voters can come and see how their precinct voted. The ballots are taken out of the M-100 voting machine and placed into a locked ballot box. There are two keys to the ballot box, and once it is locked at the precinct, each key is mailed to a different location and cannot be opened without a court order. Any provisional ballots, in-lieu-of ballots, and absentee ballots that were handed in at a precinct are not supposed to be placed in the ballot box, but in previous elections they were, which really delayed the election process in New Mexico because a number of court orders were required to open up ballot boxes. In the trainings, the trainers really stressed not to put anything in the ballot box besides ballots from the M-100, so hopefully it is less of a problem this time around.

Throughout the day, there may be a number of ballots that were unreadable by the M-100. In some cases, voters made a mistake on their ballot and voted twice for a single race, and so the machine rejected the ballot. Voters are allowed to fill out a new ballot if they want to, but in some instances they refuse. These ballots are placed in a special slot in the M-100 machine and have to be hand-counted at the end of the night after the polls close. In this election, the hand-counting tally sheets are six pages long. Hand-counting ballots is extremely time consuming and much less accurate than machine counting. However, these ballots are counted at the precinct, and the results of any hand-counted ballots are delivered to the county clerk on election night as well. (They are, however, not posted at the precinct along with the machine results).

After the polls have been closed, the machine turned off, and all ballots counted, the poll workers have to balance out the number of voter signatures on the registration list, double-check it against the second registration list, and make sure the number of voters matches the number of ballots counted by the machine, plus hand-counted ballots. They also have make sure the number of voter permit cards matches the number of voters and ballots. Any remaining unused ballots are to be destroyed on site, after the numbered stubs are removed. The ballot stubs are saved to account for all ballots that were provided to each precinct. The poll worker trainings really did not emphasize saving the ballot stubs, and the printed training materials do not mention retaining these stubs. It is an important part of the process to make sure ballots do not end up missing.

The presiding judge is then required to take the ballots to the county clerk, where all the paperwork is checked over by county clerk employees to make sure everything is in order. In Albuquerque, there are drop zones across the city where judges take the ballots, but I think in most other places, the ballots are returned to one central location where the ballots are stored.

Feel free to ask questions in the comments, I'm sure I left out a lot!