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Working the Polls

Inspired by the work that Avi Rubin did on electronic voting, I signed up to be a poll worker with the New York Board of Elections in 2010. Since then I've served as a district coordinator on many elections, including the general immediately after Hurricane Sandy, which tested the many failure modes of the election system. Despite the lack of power in many sites and the displacement of many voters, the election went fairly smoothly.


NY uses a very old fashioned design for the polling places. The 1891 "Elements of Civil Government", by Alexander L. Peterman shows an identical arrangement of polling places. Voters enter the poll site and sign the voter roll next to their name in the registration book, are given a ballot to fill in at the privacy booth, and then drop the ballet into a locked box that is monitored by representatives from all the parties and the public.

The only modern update (other than women's suffrage and the lack of top hats) is that the ballot box now has an optical scanner that tabulates the ballot when it is dropped by the voter. The system is very antiquated, but is admirable for its lack of brittleness. If the scanner fails, the votes can be counted by hand afterwards. If the scanner mis-counts the number of votes, it can be determined at the end of the day by cross checking the number of ballots given out. And, as Andrew Appel points out statistical sampling of precincts can be hand-counted to verify that the scanners are producing correct counts.

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Last update: November 8, 2020