November 25, 2012
Getting to Root of RI Voting Problems
Edward Fitzpatrick has a column today in the Providence Journal about some comments from state officials on their findings about how the voting went during this month's election. Unfortunately, the focus is always on the precincts that had the most trouble, especially the Juanita Sanchez precinct in Providence where it was reported that some people waited upwards of three hours to cast a vote. Did that happen anywhere else? Not that I've heard. Other than that horror story and some ballots sent to the wrong towns, it all seemed to go relatively smoothly. Sure, I had to wait about 30 minutes at my precinct where normally I can get in and out in less than about three minutes. But unlike primaries and non-Presidential years, this year people were excited to vote. Many of the polls were pointing at a dead heat in the campaign for President, so possibly more people made sure they got out to cast their vote.
As for situations like the Juanita Sanchez precinct, state officials are trying to figure out how to make things better and unfortunately, some may be making the typical mistake by inferring causation from correlation, even where there is none. Secretary of State Ralph Mollis is quoted in Fitzpatrick's column:
Mollis noted that in 2008 Juanita Sanchez was the polling place for 1,136 people and 599 voted there, but this year it was the polling place for about 3,000 voters and 1,251 voted there. “Slightly more than double voted there,” he said, “so that had to have an effect.”Sure. This year, the maximum number of voters per precinct was increased from 1,900 to 3,000. If there were only 1,251 who voted, still fewer than the half allowed and still fewer than the previous maximum, that does not appear to be the problem. The problem would seem to be that while the state reduced the number of precincts from 541 statewide to 413, quite possibly they did not increase the number of staff working the polls or increase the number of machines at the precincts. In the example above, Mollis pointed out that Juanita Sanchez had 599 voters there in 2008 and 1,251 this year, more than double. Did they double the number of workers? Did they double the number of machines? Or did they keep those numbers the same? Or were the issues at this one precinct merely a statistical anomaly that no one could possibly have accounted for?
When those 128 precincts were eliminated, that must have freed up another 128 voting machines and 128 sets of poll workers. Many of those will not be necessary, as that was the whole point of cutting, but clearly some were. Were any of those extras used to beef up any precincts that needed the help? Does the Board of Elections have someone on call who can deliver machines or staff on short notice?
One other issue that baffled me on election day and others reported similar findings, was also mentioned by Board of Elections Chairman Robert Kando:
And he said some polling sites did a poor job of splitting voters into different lines based on the first letter of their last name, so you might have 200 voters in the A-to-L line and 500 voters in the M-to-Z line. In the future, the Board of Elections will advise polling sites on how to split the voting rolls more evenly, he said.I was in the A-L line and it was about 30 people deep and took about 30 minutes to get through. The M-Z line was non-existent. People with a last name in the second half of the alphabet were able to walk in and right up to the table. Why? I thought the split was made on the number of registered voters in the town, not by the approximate halfway point in the alphabet. If you have 1,000 people in the A-L lists and 500 in the M-Z lists, why break them up that way? Was this part really lacking this much common sense?
Lastly, and the part that I would put more weight on being the problem is that of the uninformed electorate. C'mon people, is it that hard to educate yourself before heading to the voting booth? If this is the first time you've even read everything on the ballot, how in the world are you going to make a smart decision on any of the referenda?
But more than anything, “those multiple-page ballots killed us,” Kando said. “In Providence, it was three pages, with five sides, and a lot of people didn’t know who they were going to vote for. They just walked into the voting booth and started reading.”Not knowing "who" you're going to vote for before you get in there is mind-boggling, so when you add in not knowing "what" you're going to vote for and seeing how long some of the referendum questions were, that alone is going to clog up the system.
I'm hoping that the state does figure out how to fix the problems for next time. However my fear is they will use the turnout numbers from this past election for planning the next election which is actually a non-Presidential primary, a voting day with normally the lowest turnout of the all the statewide election possibilities.