Can poll workers peek?
September 16, 2010 10:05 AM   Subscribe

Are poll workers allowed to peek at your vote?

My polling place now uses scanner style voting devices. You pencil in ovals on a ballot to indicate your preference, then you feed the ballot into the scanner. In the last two elections, the poll workers have 1.) asked me to hand them my ballot in its folder, 2.) taken the ballot out of the folder and torn a little slip off the bottom, 3.) looked directly at the ballot, 4.) slipped it back into the folder and handed it back to me.

Is this against the law? If it is illegal, what recourse do I have? Who would I complain to?
posted by Faze to Law & Government (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Is it possible they were checking to be sure that the ovals were filled in correctly? I don't know anything about those polling devices, but I remember back in school being grilled about how touchy the computer grading devices were. Maybe the poll workers were told to make sure people have filled things out correctly to avoid messing up the machine or dealing with 'hanging chad' issues.
posted by TooFewShoes at 10:08 AM on September 16, 2010

Voting is by secret ballot; this is an essential part of democracy because if the Powers That Be were to know who you voted for, they would be able to coerce you to vote as they wish. But the poll workers probably are not paying any attention to your identity, are not filing any reports about who voted for which candidates, and are just being careless when they look at the ballot. But really, this sounds like bad organization to me. Why can't you tear the little slip off yourself, so that the poll workers don't have to do it and therefore can just leave the ballot in its folder?

As for the question of who you can complain to, there is always some agency that runs elections, but that depends upon the jurisdiction you live in.
posted by grizzled at 10:11 AM on September 16, 2010

I'm pretty sure, since the poll workers are feeding them face up, that ballots aren't so secret anymore.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:14 AM on September 16, 2010

We feed our own ballots in my jurisdiction, precisely to avoid anyone seeing our vote. And yes, I'd complain if I were you, to the local department of elections. (Usually these are county agencies.)
posted by bearwife at 10:16 AM on September 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

My area just switched to the same system. Part of the system (where I am), is that the person who fills out your voter card (which verifies that you, the named individual, have voted), is different from the person who helps you at the scanner. The person at the scanner has no idea who you are.

(I imagine this works less well in places where poll workers are very likely to know voters in real life.)
posted by ocherdraco at 10:18 AM on September 16, 2010

We generally feed our own ballots into the scanner (we color in arrows rather than bubbles), though I have seen poll workers help elderly/disabled/confused people put their ballots in.

But yeah, the person at the scanner doesn't know who you are. And the times when I've seen them helping someone, the amount of time they spend glancing at the ballot (so they feed it in the right way) isn't long enough to let them know anything useful - the ballots are long and have lots of text on them, are often double-sided, and have more than one page.
posted by rtha at 10:23 AM on September 16, 2010

It might be easiest to talk to the League of Women Voters in your area - this is the kind of issue they care about. Otherwise, a 50-state solution is: call your Secretary of State's office.

They shouldn't look. But they know about hanging chads and overvotes and Scantron and, there's a crummy process in place.
posted by SMPA at 10:30 AM on September 16, 2010

Ugh. Mine (volunteers) sent me to the wrong section to vote and I had already filled in my ballot and went off to scan - then they figured out what was wrong, took my ballot back from me and the last time I saw them they were using white out on it ?! So, I don't think they are supposed to, but they certainly can.

I think you complain to the local elections board. I'd cc a senator and/or rep too.
posted by cestmoi15 at 10:32 AM on September 16, 2010

NY Election Law:
§ 17–130. Misdemeanor in relation to elections
Any person who:

10. Shows his ballot after it is prepared for voting, to any
person so as to reveal the contents, or solicits a voter to show
the same;

is guilty of a misdemeanor.
(Not a lawyer, etc.)
posted by zamboni at 10:34 AM on September 16, 2010 [4 favorites]

The NY Primary elections on Tuesday were a trainwreck of polling place volunteers not understanding, at all, what they were supposed to do. They are not supposed to look at or touch your ballot. I know some of them were doing it because they felt voters were taking too long but when I looked over at them, they stopped.

They are NOT allowed to look to see if you 'filled them in correctly'. No way no how.

I have a letter of complaint half written which is addressed to the Board of Elections, my city councilperson, and my state senator. I also bitched in the NYTimes comments in the City Blog post regarding the debacle.
posted by micawber at 10:55 AM on September 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

As a pollworker in an town in Massachusetts that uses scanning machines (slightly simpler than the ones in the linked videos), I've always been instructed that we are not allowed to look at marked ballots even if the voter asks us to. If someone fails to feed a ballot into the machine properly so it gets spit out, we're supposed to have the voter feed it back in him/herself. If the machine gives an error code about overvoting (more ovals filled in than allowed in a particular race) or stray marks, we're supposed to have the voter look at it him/herself and decide whether to submit it for hand counting or to void it and take a new ballot. If a voter has already left before making sure that the machine has taken his/her ballot, the pollworkers do have to push it into the machine or put it into the hand-count section.

We offer the privacy envelopes, but hardly anybody uses them; I have no idea why they would be tearing either the envelopes or the ballots.

In my area, elections are conducted by the Town Clerk's office; in New York, I think it's at the county level.
posted by nonane at 11:33 AM on September 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

Call your county's Board of Elections and ask them. They can either explain what happened or know what they need to emphasize next time they train poll workers.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 12:51 PM on September 16, 2010

I don't know if it's illegal. You can always file a complaint with the board of elections and/or call Election Protection or the League of Women Voters. While the poll worker did the looking, I'm hesitant to blame them - it's more likely a training issue (no one ever told them they couldn't do that). Plus, by blaming the poll worker, one risks discouraging more people from serving as poll workers when poll workers are always needed.

For what it's worth, I've always loved this quote (from this article) about voter privacy and election officials seeing voters' ballots: "Once doctors look at naked women long enough they say, who cares? We’re the same way. We see ballots here often enough that we don’t care. We’re not interested in how people voted. We just want to be sure that they are allowed to vote and that their vote is counted.”
posted by kat518 at 1:00 PM on September 16, 2010

I've worked MI elections (with similar machines) for four or five years. If the ballot is inserted in the privacy sleeve properly, there's no reason for me to even see the ballot. Unfortunately, even though we've been using the same ballot style for close to a decade, there are still people who put the ballot in the sleeve upside down, so that we have to remove the ballot from the sleeve in order to remove the number tab (I usually ask the voter to swap it around, but most don't care whether I see their ballot for the five seconds it takes to flip it around). Five seconds later, even if I had *looked* at the ballot (which I usually do not), I couldn't tell you whether that person's ballot was even filled out, much less who they voted for. The only time I ever actually look at a ballot is when I'm duplicating absentee ballots (and there's a number of checks/balances for that).

Chances are good that the poll worker was simply ensuring that the ballot was facing the correct direction -- which they shouldn't have to. Properly calibrated vote tabulators don't care which direction the ballot is facing as it's inserted into the machine. It's highly unlikely that the poll worker would 1)remember how you personally voted, or 2)keep track of how people were voting. It's technically illegal, but I doubt that you'll be able to do anything about it other than contact the board of elections, which may help in preventing similar situations in the future.
posted by jlkr at 2:13 PM on September 16, 2010

Call the county clerk's office.

And while you've got them on the phone, please sign up as poll worker. It's fun and interesting and MY GOD DO THEY NEED THE EXTRA HANDS...
posted by mimi at 2:15 PM on September 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

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