Poll Watching (and Worrying) in Philadelphia
Published in FredBernstein.com
November 5, 2008

Obama's victory restored my faith in many things.

So did my Election Day experiences at the Morris E. Leeds Middle School, in northwest Philadelphia. Although, as you will see, my time there also raised a troubling question.

The Leeds School is in an African-American neighborhood called East Mt. Airy. The poll workers, mostly middle-aged women from the community, were paid $100 to work from 6:00 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. (or later, if the polls were unable to close on time). They were dedicated, efficient, and kind. Voters were greeted by name and treated like honored guests -- helped up stairways, offered refreshments, escorted to voting booths, and (when necessary) patiently instructed on how to work the touchscreen machines.

I was one of about half a dozen Obama volunteers, all lawyers who had come down from New York with "poll watcher" i.d. cards hanging from our necks. We were there to protect voters' rights. (For example, we knew what to do if someone who claimed to be registered was turned away from the polls.) And we did what we could to help streamline the process. In the morning, there was a two-hour wait to vote. If someone couldn't stay, a volunteer took down her name and phone number, then called later in the day when the lines had died down.

This was Obama country, for sure. After the polls closed, the results were read off paper tapes printed by the machines. One machine had recorded 284 votes for Obama and 3 for McCain. Hearing McCain's total, one of the poll workers blurted out, "That many? (It was hard for her to believe that even 3 people in East Mt. Airy had chosen Obama’s opponent.)

The tapes produced by the machines also recorded the number of undervotes -- instances in which people had voted, but had not voted for president. (This was true for about 1 in 30 voters -- not an insignificant percentage.) Everyone -- poll workers and volunteers alike -- assumed the machines had lost those votes. Who, after all, would come out to vote this year in Pennsylvania -- where no other important offices were up for grabs -- and not bother to vote for president?

Were there as many undervotes in predominantly Republican neighborhoods?

Happy as I am with the results of the election, the new Congress MUST reform voting procedures. Can you imagine how fast a bank would fix an ATM that spit out the wrong amount of money 3 percent of the time?

That voting machines malfunctioned -- or even that they could have malfunctioned, with no way for anyone to check -- is terrifying.

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