Earlier this week, I packed my bags and drove out to Las Vegas, Nevada, to volunteer on the ground for the Obama campaign on Election Day. This was part of their â€œDrive for Changeâ€ campaign, which encouraged people from California (and other states) to volunteer in battleground states. I decided that, given the historic nature of the election, and the fact that Election Day happened to fall on my birthday, I would drive out and participate.
The organization of this was a little bit haphazard, perhaps owing to the extremely tight schedules the campaign was working under, and the fact that there were a lot of people participating in the program. Information about a meeting place wasnâ€™t in my hands until a couple of days before I left, and I actually didnâ€™t know specifically what I would be doing until I got there. The campaign representatives also seemed to be surprised at the level of turnout â€“ the original intent was to use volunteers as poll watchers, but they werenâ€™t sure that they actually had enough polling places for all the volunteers to watch. (Many people opted to do additional canvassing instead.) I was wondering if they would be seeking volunteers to drive people to the polls â€“ the campaign, however, delegated that responsibility to the local volunteers (who know the local turf way better than the out-of-staters).
We estimated that there were probably 500-600 volunteers in the orientation session that I attended â€“ there was an additional one later in the evening, as well. The couple sitting next to me had arrived as part of an organized bus trip, and got a bit of a surprise as they ran into their neighbor at the orientation. The session speaker, who would give us instructions on poll watching, was running late, and had gotten pulled over by the highway patrol on her way over for speeding. The orientation started almost an hour late, with some of that delay filled up by a short speech by Dina Titus (who ran for, and won, the 3rd congressional seat in Nevada). Later, the organizersâ€™ attempts to herd people into manageable groups for giving assignments smacked of inexperience. The whole session was controlled chaos.
I drew an assignment watching a polling place near the Strip, at the Stupak community center. I arrived bright and early, about half an hour before the polls opened, and introduced myself to the team there. There was one other poll watcher from the Obama campaign â€“ a lawyer who doubled as the â€˜voter protectionâ€™ representative for the polling place. There were no poll watchers from the McCain camp â€“ itâ€™s not clear to me, though, if it was because my polling place appeared to be in heavily Democratic territory, or because of a sheer lack of volunteers on the ground for McCain. (The information packet I got at the orientation labeled the polling location as â€œtier 3â€ â€“ I speculate that meant that it was fairly low on the list of anticipated trouble spots.) At any rate, the county as a whole went for Obama by 18 points.
To my surprise, a significant portion of the county election workers hadnâ€™t worked the polls before. This inexperience was counterbalanced by the presence of several people who had worked the polls for many years. Various representatives from the county election board dropped by during the day, to ensure that things were running smoothly and that the polling place had adequate supplies. The polling process went smoothly â€“ there were slight delays for voters in the morning (about 30 minutes, once the line built up), and a few voting machines that needed to be reset, but no major hiccups.
My main responsibility was to gather a list of voters who had voted that day, and relay that information to the campaign. The rationale for this is that, even on Election Day, canvassers can still go out into the field and get people out to the polls. By eliminating people who have already voted, the canvassersâ€™ efforts can be focused on those who havenâ€™t yet voted, saving time wasted calling and knocking on doors of people who have already cast their ballots.
The names of voters were supposed to be read off as they signed in, making it easier for poll watchers to record their data. However, due to the layout of the polling place, the poll watchers were stationed quite far away from the registration tables, so it was impractical to do this. Instead, at various times during the day, the master lists of who voted were made available to us poll watchers â€“ we would transcribe the results on the master lists to our campaign-provided lists, and then submit that data.
The voter information databases were updated in real-time, by one of two methods: a phone hotline, or a website. (This is the â€œHoudiniâ€ system that has been mentioned in post-election wrapups.) The orientation speaker claimed that the phone system would be the easier way to go â€“ it was simply a series of voice prompts, for which you punched in precinct and voter numbers, followed by confirmation. However, the phone system was inaccessible in the morning, ostensibly due to the large volume of callers. Itâ€™s not clear to me if there was a software glitch, or a lack of capacity. Fortunately, I had decided to bring my EEE PC along with me. I tethered my phone to my laptop, and used my phoneâ€™s data plan to get Internet connectivity. I then used the website (which was still working correctly) for punching in voter information. The phone hotline was restored later in the afternoon, but I felt it was easier for me to use my laptop anyway, so I continued to use that for the rest of the day.
There were no signs of disenfranchisement or any other bogeymen. The biggest surprise was that a street construction crew was digging a ditch just outside, blocking street access from one direction. However, following a short discussion with the construction crew, signs were put up indicating that voters needed to detour around to get to the polling place.
As a poll watcher, youâ€™re not allowed to speak with voters, or have any sort of campaign paraphernalia with you (since it might influence or intimidate voters). Most of this applies to the poll workers as well, and both groups adhered to these principles without any trouble. However, this did result in an amusing â€œelection vernacularâ€ evolving between us, though, as I believe most, if not all, of the poll workers were also Obama supporters. There were frequent mentions of how excited one was about the election, how excited one was to see all of the new voters, whether or not you were going to the Rio party (I did not, bowing to incredible exhaustion and the desire to watch the election returns until the outcome was no longer in doubt), etc. Pretty funny.
All in all, it was a pretty interesting experience, even if it was mostly sitting, waiting, and watching. There were many people who were first-time or first-time-in-a-long-time voters, but who were clearly very motivated to come out and vote. Two Asian women had let their registrations lapse, not realizing that they would be purged after several years of inactivity. They waited patiently (and doggedly) while the poll workers confirmed with the county that they would be able to vote provisionally. One of them actually had to go home and come back to finish voting, as she had forgotten to bring her reading glasses, and needed them to fill out the provisional paper ballot. Another woman, who had one arm amputated at the elbow, said that she hadnâ€™t voted in 30 years, but was tremendously enthusiastic about voting. Several voters came in, but were at the wrong polling place â€“ the poll workers looked up their information online, and were able to redirect them to their appropriate polling locations. Many voters brought their kids with them, wanting them to be a part of the experience as well.