Observers Instructions - Poll-closing

Tasks accomplished during poll-closing

The most important poll-closing task—counting our votes—is now usually done by computer, but several critical tasks still need to be done by humans. The tasks serve three main functions:

1)      Make sure all valid votes have been counted (write-ins, absentee);

2)      Detect any obvious signs of error or fraud (mostly, matching the number of ballots cast to the number of voters); and

3)      Create and preserve a true, secure record of the election (reporting the vote totals, creating the inspector’s report, sealing the ballots and other election records).

Purposes of observing

The mere presence of observers—even if they say nothing—helps to ensure the audits are performed thoroughly and in accordance with instructions. Observers serve as extra eyes to help protect against mistakes or deliberate wrongdoing, and If any problems arise.

When everything goes well, observers can provide municipal clerks with independent verification of the election procedures’ integrity, if it is questioned after the election. When problems arise, citizen observers can help to ensure that the problems are adequately noted and resolved.

The basics of observing

Election officials are understandably cautious about the conduct of observers before the results have been documented and the ballots safely sealed, so knowing and following some basic rules is very important.

Every polling place has one person designated as the “Chief Inspector.” Follow his or her instructions and you will do fine. Even if the Chief Inspector is doing something wrong, remember that he or she has the authority to throw you out if you become disruptive (regardless of the reason for your disruption) , so follow the Chief Inspector’s orders and document the incident so you can report it later to higher election officials and possibly law enforcement.

People can observe in any precinct they want, but WGN encourages observers to observe their home precincts where they vote, for several reasons. Election officials are more receptive and cooperative with their own constituents; local residents are more likely to be familiar with the procedures and the people in their home precinct; and in the event that issues arise, local residents have more authority and ability to work with the election officials to follow through and make sure the problems are resolved.

How to Observe: Before Election Day

1)  Familiarize yourself with the basic rules and guidelines for observers.

Anyone—including candidates—has the right to observe poll-closing activities. Every polling place must provide an area where observers can “hear and readily observe” all public aspects of the process, without disrupting the activities.

Be sure to read GAB instructions for observers, noting that different restrictions apply to observers before and after polls close. These simple, common-sense rules have the force of law. 

 Please also review general instructions for observers, part 1 of this series.

2)  Acquaint yourself with the basic tasks of poll-closing.

Look through pages 84-122 of the Election Day Manual for Clerks, though you need not read the whole document. The activities you will be observing are the ones described on those pages, though not all of these instructions will need to be performed in every election.

You will want to refer to the Election Day Manual as you observe. A copy of this manual should be at the polling place for reference. However, in case it is not, or in case the polling place has only an out-of-date copy, consider downloading a copy of the manual from the GAB website onto a laptop or notebook computer you can take with you.

3)  Contact your municipal clerk.

You are within your rights to show up unannounced. However, letting the municipal clerk ahead of time that you will be observing has several advantages. The clerk will be able to alert the poll workers to expect observers and might have some useful information for you.

Try to contact the clerk about a month before the election. The closer it gets to Election Day, the more stressed and busy the clerk will be.

You may want to confirm with the clerk that copies of the Election-Day Manual will be available for observers’ reference at each polling place.

4)  Collect the things you will need to take with you.

  • These instructions;
  • a pen and notebook;
  • a cell phone and the numbers for municipal clerk’s office and the county clerk’s office,
  • a photo ID (a requirement, though often not requested);
  • a laptop or notebook computer with a downloaded copy of the current Election Day Manual; and
  • a camera in case you see something that you need to document.

How to Observe: On Election Day before 8 PM

Arrive at the polling place early enough to introduce yourself to the Chief Inspector and to vote.

In each polling place, one person has been designated as the “Chief Inspector.” You can ask any poll worker to identify the Chief Inspector. Other than that, the Chief Inspector is the only poll worker you should talk to in your role as observer, unless he or she allows otherwise.

Introduce yourself to the Chief Inspector while you are there to vote, unless he or she is busy with some emergency. Let him or her know you plan to observe poll-closing activities later that night. The Chief Inspector will tell you how to sign in as an observer.

Vote after you’ve introduced yourself as a poll-closing observer to the Chief Inspector. This is a solid way to make him or her aware that you are a local constituent.

Set your cell phone on vibrate.

Take a moment to prepare your attitude, so that you’re ready to maintain patience and good will all evening. It might get late, people might get irritable, and some might even be suspicious and hostile toward you. Remember that compassion goes a long way in keeping both you and others cooperative.

If you feel that you are being inappropriately denied access to observing any part of the election process, call the municipal clerk or county clerk’s office.

Observe the processing of absentee ballots, if it is underway. Instructions are below.

How to Observe: On Election Day after 8 PM

Continue to speak only with the Chief Inspector (not any of the other elections officials), unless the Chief Inspector allows you to do otherwise.

Ask the Chief Inspector if you can see any local instructions for printing out the poll tapes and shutting down the voting machines. These instructions are not in GAB materials, because they vary by type of machine.

Do not touch any original election materials (machines, ballots, poll books, etc.) If you want to examine a document, such as the poll tape, ask to have it shown to you or left on a table where you can read it without touching it. If you want to see the back of a document, or a different section of a machine printout, ask an the Chief Inspector or his/her designee to turn the page or move the tape.

Note: The steps described below might not be followed in precisely the order in which they are described here.

How to Observe: Processing absentee ballots

The basics of this process are:

  • Each envelope must be checked to see that it is properly signed and has the required information.
  • Each name must be checked against the list of registered voters (the poll book) to make sure the voter is registered in this precinct, and to mark the poll book to show that the person voted;
  • The envelopes accepted must be opened and separated from the ballots; and
  • The votes on the absentee ballots must be counted.

Some steps may have been completed during the day, before poll closing.

What should observers watch for?

Expect the clerks to follow the instructions on pages 87-97 of the Election Day Manual, including:

  • The absentee ballots should have been delivered to the precinct in a sealed bag or container that was opened where the public could observe.
  • The absentee ballot envelopes should be examined and opened where the public can observe.
  • The officials should review the information on each envelope and accept only ballots with correct information and reject only ballots without correct information.
  • Voters submitting absentee ballots should be marked on the poll book.

Some situations might arise that require officials to make copies of some absentee ballots. See page 94 in the Election Day Manual for detailed instructions about re-making ballots.

How to observe:  Hand counting votes

Some Wisconsin communities still count votes by hand. Expect the officials to follow the directions on pages 97-101 of the Election Day Manual.

What should observers watch for?

  • Election officials should be fair and reasonable when deciding which ballots to reject as defective.
  • Four election officials should participate in counting the votes on each ballot, and all should remain continuously attentive and deliberate, never allowing just one person to determine the votes.
  • If any ballots or votes are defective, the election officials should note the reasons on the Inspectors’ Report.

How to observe: Processing paper ballots and counting write-in votes (op-scan)

The basics of this process are:

  • All the ballots must be removed from the voting machine bins
  • All the ballots need to be checked to find and count the write-ins.
  • Votes from any ballots that the machine couldn’t read need to counted.

What should observers watch for?

Expect the clerks to follow the instructions on pages 101-102 and 104-122 of the Election Day Manual.

  • The officials should maintain careful, tight control of the ballots at all times, not letting them get scattered around the room, never leaving them unattended, and not letting stacks get mixed up.

How to observe: Printing out and reporting results (op-scan)

The basics of this process are:

  • The voting machine output is printed out;
  • The officials verify that there are no signs the machine’s memory has been tampered with during the day;
  • (Local option) Results are electronically transmitted to the county clerk’s office; and
  • The ballots and the voting machine’s electronic memory are sealed.

What should observers watch for?

Expect the clerks to follow the instructions on pages 102-103 of the Election Day Manual, and any other local instructions for shutting down the voting machines and transmitting results. Ask the Chief Inspector to see any additional written instructions provided by the county or municipal clerk.

Note: GAB provides only minimal instructions for this process, so local officials may be unaware of some basic IT-security practices. Two of these are:

  • The tape showing the precinct results should be printed before the machine is plugged into any communications outlet. This is an important safeguard against electronic manipulation of the results. If the voting machine is plugged into any sort of telecommunications system before the results tape is printed, ask that this be noted on the Inspector’s Report.
  • The results should be examined for surprising levels of ‘undervoting’—that is, a curiously large number of voters not expressing any preference for any of the most important races on the ballot. For example, fewer than 2-3 percent of the voters skip the Presidential race when that is on the ballot. Higher rates of undervoting indicate the possibility of voting-machine malfunction, and so should be noted on the Inspector’s Report.

How to observe: Printing out and reporting results (touch-screen)

The basics of this process are:

  • The results are printed out of the voting machine;
  • The officials verify that there are no signs the machine’s memory has been tampered with during the day;
  • (Local option) Results are electronically transmitted to the county clerk’s office; and
  • The voter-verifiable paper trail and the voting machine’s electronic memory are sealed.

What should observers watch for?

Expect the clerks to follow the instructions on page 103 of the Election Day Manual, and any other local instructions for shutting down the voting machines and transmitting results. Ask the Chief Inspector to see any additional written instructions provided by the county or municipal clerk.

Note: GAB provides only minimal instructions for this process, so local officials may be unaware of some basic IT-security practices. Two of these are:

  • The tape showing the precinct results should be printed before the machine is plugged into any communications outlet. This is an important safeguard against electronic manipulation of the results. If the voting machine is plugged into any sort of telecommunications system before the results tape is printed, ask that this be noted on the Inspector’s Report.
  • The records of each ballot on the voter-verifiable paper trail (VVPAT) are considered the official ballots. The VVPAT should be briefly inspected to ensure it printed correctly and legibly, and did not jam or otherwise fail to record the votes. If officials notice any problems with the VVPAT, these problems should be noted on the Inspector’s Report.

How to observe: Reconciling the poll book and the poll tape

During the day, election officials kept track of which registered voters cast ballots by marking voters’ names off on two copies of the official list of registered voters, the “poll book.” One copy will go to the county clerk; the other will stay with the municipality. Both need to include the same information. In addition, the number of voters recorded as having voted should match the number of ballots counted.

The officials will review the voters’ names and any notations made to ensure the two books contain identical information. They will also compare the number of voters recorded as having voted to the number of ballots counted, to make sure that the two numbers are equal.

What should observers watch for?

Expect the officials to follow the instructions on page 113-114 of the Election Day Manual.

How to observe: Sealing the election records.

After they have finished their work with ballots (counting absentee votes, looking for write-ins on paper ballots, etc.), the officials need to seal the marked ballots or the VVPAT in containers or bags that are sealed with numbered seals so that the containers or bags cannot be opened in any way without leaving evidence of the opening. The seal numbers will be recorded on the Inspector’s Statement.

The ballots represent the legal, public record of the votes and should be protected very carefully. If every ballot is not protected and carefully accounted for, it will be impossible to audit or recount the results.

What should observers watch for?

Expect the officials to follow instructions on pages 117-118 of the Election Day Manual. Among the things you can watch for:

  • Officials should maintain careful control of all ballots—marked and unmarked—at all times, never leaving them unattended or getting them mixed up.
  • Officials should be vigilant in recording the unique security-seal numbers of each container or bag accurately on the appropriate reports.
  • Officials should not seal vote tally sheets, machine output tapes showing vote totals, or the Inspectors’ statement in the ballot container or bag.
  • Officials should treat unused ballots with as much care as marked ballots, carefully collecting them and wrapping or binding them separately from the marked ballots, and making sure none are left behind. Although GAB does not require unused ballots to be returned in sealed bags, they can be.

What to do if you see problems

If you see any practices that don’t match the instructions or that seem inconsistent with the purpose of the poll-closing tasks, ask the Chief Inspector to explain. There may be some necessary, harmless variations for sensible reasons. As long as the main purpose is fulfilled—counting all valid votes; documenting any indications of possible miscounts; and creating a clear, secure, accurate and complete record of the votes—there’s no need for observers to be sticklers.

If the clerk cannot give you a good explanation for the variation, and you think the noncompliant practice creates a serious problem, refer the clerk to the precise requirement or instruction that you believe is not being followed. Explain the reason for your concern.

Document the problem as well as you can. You are allowed to take photographs of the documents in question, except the poll book. However, because you are not allowed to handle the documents you will need to have an official place the document so that you can photograph it.

If you cannot work out a mutually satisfactory resolution with the Chief Inspector, encourage him or her to contact the municipal clerk about the matter, and say you will do the same.

If at all possible, discuss the matter with the municipal clerk before the poll-closing activities are completed, with consistent reference to specific written requirements, and an openness to a reasonable explanation for the variation.

If you cannot resolve the issue with the municipal clerk, let the matter go for the evening. As soon as possible—the next day, preferably-- write an account of the problem that concerned you, including all relevant details clearly, factually, and completely. Provide your account to the municipal clerk and to the county clerk, and tell the county clerk you would like the problem discussed and resolved by the county board of canvass. This meeting is open to the public; ask the county clerk when it will be meeting.

Depending on the severity of the problem, contact the Elections Division of the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, the day after the elction if at all possible. GAB can be reached by phone at (608) 266-8005, or email at gab@wi.gov. Consider completing a complaint form (gab.wi.gov/forms/complaint ), and faxing it to GAB at (608) 267-0500.

Please also consider sending an account of the problem to the Wisconsin Grassroots Network at wisconsingrassroots@gmail.com. We may be able to offer guidance in resolving the matter, and we will be compiling data on the problems noted by observers to improve understanding of election integrity issues in Wisconsin.

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A printable version is available through a link on this page.

These instructions can be improved by your feedback. Please comment below or email your suggestions to us at wisconsingrassroots@gmail.com. We particularly invite suggestions from observers who have used these instruction at a poll-closing, and from election officials including people with experience as elections inspectors.

 


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