Behind the Scenes of the Primaries

For most people, Election Day is a spectator sport. Sure, there’s the trip down to the polls to cast your vote (for 35 percent of registered Hawaii voters, at least), but the real meat of the day begins in the evening, after the polls close and the horse race begins. Everyone watches the local news stations, waiting for the first printout of results, the second printout, even the final, if you can manage to stay awake that long.

But the day has an entirely different rhythm for the elections office workers and volunteers who spend Election Day holed up in the state Capitol, making sure the elections go off without a hitch. I got to be a part of this crew during the primary election on Saturday, volunteering as an official observer. The experience was illuminating. Turns out it doesn’t feel like a horse race at all when you’re down in the pits, attending to minutia.

The day starts at full speed at 8 a.m. (although many people get in earlier than that), when the absentee and early ballots are unlocked. These ballots are the most labor-intensive portion of the counting process, and they’ll be the main order of business for most of the day—thousands of envelopes must be opened, ballots removed, sorted, stacked, scanned by hand. A small army of volunteers tackles the job, sitting at folding tables along basement corridors in the Capitol. Retirees, mostly, although there are a few whole families as well, parents spending a Saturday with their kids stacking paper and talking story.

The process moves efficiently but slowly. There’s a huge number of ballots to process, more than 95,000 in all. And not all of them are in good condition. It’s amazing the number of ways a ballot can be damaged. Voters tear them in half, or cut off the sorting barcode, or use white-out to correct their vote, or spill coffee on them or scrawl political screeds on them. Sorters try to catch these rejects early, but damaged ballots manage to sneak through all the way to the scanning stage, slowing the process. Damaged votes aren’t automatically discarded. In most cases, they can be duplicated by hand onto a new ballot and successfully counted.
The entire process—from the time the ballots are opened to the time they’re put into storage—is monitored by observers representing the public. Anywhere the ballots go, observers go, keeping an eye on everyone who handles them. The chance that someone would be stuffing ballots into their pockets, or re-marking them, is probably slim, but it’s made almost impossible thanks to the extra eyeballs. Observers aren’t allowed to touch the ballots, or otherwise help any of the election workers, which means a large part of the day is literally spent standing around. (‘I’d sure like *your* job,’ quipped one of the auditors to me.) But it turns out to be strangely tiring work, making sure that everything is in place and nothing is awry, especially when you’re heading into your 16th hour on the job.

To keep the workers sustained throughout the long day, there’s a free bento lunch served in the Capitol’s underground parking lot, and then a free bento dinner and then pizza at 11 p.m. Election Day is no time to worry about being healthy. And of course there’s all the coffee you can drink, although there was a minor crisis early in the day when one of the official observers accidentally broke the coffeemaker’s glass pot. Luckily, a backup pot was secured, and caffeine forthwith dispensed.

Just as the counting of the absentee ballots is wrapping up, it’s time for the next act in the play. About an hour after the polls close at 6 p.m., a cavalcade of taxis begins arriving at the state Capitol, delivering the electronic balloting machines from all the different precincts. An efficient chain of runners brings them into the counting center, plugs them into a laptop to download their stored voting data and stacks them in a corner. After a day spent laboring over paper ballots, it’s amazing to see the speed with which the majority of Oahu’s votes are tallied. The whole thing is wrapped up within a couple of hours.

One of the last tasks of the day is manual auditing. A certain percentage of the ballots are pulled at random and counted by hand, to ensure that the computers and machines have been toting up counts accurately. The voter signature books, also, must be reconciled with the election results—every vote has to correspond with a signature, and so every signature in every book is added up the old fashioned way, using 10-key accounting calculators. This auditing process can go on for as long as needed, until everything reconciles. Things went smoothly this time around, thankfully, and most of the volunteers got the go-ahead to call it a day at 2 a.m.—relatively early, according to counting center veterans.

I was wiped out by the entire experience, but in, you know, a good way. To hear these veterans tell it, the primaries are just a warm-up for the big, bad, general election, but I’ll be more than ready to reprise my role as an observer come November 4th.