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A Look Into Election Security – Civics Journalism

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Nevada recently passed an initiative to make voter registration an “opt-out” versus an “opt-in” system, where people are automatically registered to vote unless they specifically decline. (Roibu/iStockphoto)

As the long-anticipated and likely historic 2022 mid-term elections are mere days away and with early voting underway, the Sierra Nevada Ally talked with county officials, non-partisan non-profits, and poll workers to answer some of your questions about the behind-the-line processes that protect your vote and secure our democracy.

Jamie Rodriguez is Washoe County’s Interim Registrar of Voters. Rodriguez is an experienced administrator who came to the job having been Washoe County Manager of Government Affairs where she worked closely with the previous Registrars, staff, candidates, and Legislators to keep them up to date on changing laws and regulations. 

Rodriguez says that when the previous Registrar left, “I was asked to come down and be here full time and get the department through the primary election, which I think we did very successfully.

“I think the most important role of this office—to ensure that any eligible voter who wants to exercise their right to vote has all of the information about how to do it and that we make that process and that information as easy and as attainable as possible. Our job is to make sure that they have places to go and exercise that right… that they have the information (about) choices of how to vote, where the locations are… and that they’re able to exercise that right without any obstacles in their way.”

Process

It’s clear that not every voter is well informed on the process. So, how does Rodriguez deal with misinformation about voting and vote security? Rodriguez recommends voters with questions come straight to the source. “Going to the source is always the best policy. One of the top priorities of this department is to better inform the public about the process.” The department website has a cache of detail here.

Rodriguez recognizes that “we can always do a better job” at public information and says that they are continually working to improve the site. “That’s a practice we’re expanding so that people do have that information, that they can understand that if you’re a voter in Washoe County, you know, here’s what we do. I think there’s a lot more education we can do to help people understand the process, feel much more confident in the system, and better understand the checks and balances that we do have in place to be sure to conduct a fair, safe, and secure election, both on the local and on a state level.”

An Ally reader asked this question: At a state level, we did have a fairly high-profile situation where a person voted twice. How did that happen? Do you have any idea?

Rodriguez says, “So, you know, there are a lot of checks and balances and there are times where things can happen somewhat simultaneously. And so, we’re able to catch it then, or we’re able to catch it somewhat after the fact. Can that happen? Yes, that can happen, and there are a couple of ways that can happen.”

The book you sign when you check in at a polling place is connected to the internet.

”You know, technology is great when it works but sometimes it doesn’t. The poll books will work if the internet goes down, so sometimes you have these gaps in time. The popup will continue to work, but is there a possibility that I’ve received your mail ballot and processed it? The internet has gone down and you’ve also now voted in person, but that poll book hasn’t had a chance to catch up and been made aware of that in the system. 

“Maybe, we also have checked in a mail ballot. Those types of nuances can happen. Are they extremely rare? Yes. But again, we’re also able to catch it. As soon as that system reconnects it, all the pieces start alerting. We get an alert that says wait a second. We have a mail ballot for this person and now they’ve also voted in person. The system wasn’t conducted during that time-lapse, so it didn’t stop them at that point in time, but we’re able to catch it and then send those to the Secretary of State’s office to investigate.”

A poll worker in the Reno High gym disinfected every voting machine after use – 2020 – photo: Brian Bahouth/the Ally

The Voting Public Has Oversight

A transparent system of voting is essential to a secure and safe process and, as voters, we have oversight if we choose to exercise it. Scrutineers.org is one bi-partisan non-profit with a mission to teach us how.

There are many groups with missions to mobilize the turnout vote and organize to take voters to the polls, but very few pay close attention to the dangers of disruption to counting ballots and preserving the integrity of those results. 

Emily Levy is a founder and director of Scrutineers, a nonpartisan online community that’s focusing on fair, transparent, accessible, and secure elections. Emily had been an activist for over 50 years. She specializes in helping members understand how election technology and security issues work and trains vote count observers to look out for election errors and sabotage.

“You know, a lot of people think of elections as pretty simple. People vote. The votes get counted, and the winners are announced. But the more you learn about elections, the more you’ll understand just how complicated they are and how hard it is to get them right.”

Vote count observing is what happens after the voting, starting when the polls close on election night. It can stretch into days, possibly even a couple of weeks that follow until the election is certified and any audits are complete. 

“So, we’re going to teach you”, Levy says, “About how you can help ensure that the votes are counted fairly and accurately by observing at your local election office or vote counting center. We need volunteers all over the country to do this in communities large and small.”

While you might be able to observe at a polling place on election night, Levy makes the case that it’s actually more useful to observe at the election office or wherever the votes are coming in from the various polling places and being processed. That might be a warehouse or some sort of special facility or the elections office. Throughout the vote processing, election workers have to make sure that they don’t lose ballots or double count ballots, permit ballots to be changed or allow anyone to tamper with the election computers.

Per Levy, “What we found is that most people don’t think all workers will be perfect. That’s one of the key reasons to observe. There are actually three major reasons that this observation work is so important. The first one is to catch mistakes, election offices tend to be underfunded and understaffed which makes it even harder to get everything right, and then add to that the pressure from the way that election workers are being harassed this year.” Poll working has become more contentious, making working conditions less than ideal.

Who Are These Observers? 

Levy says, “Most states allow nonpartisan observers… but some states only allow representatives of political parties or campaigns to observe. Some states may have other limitations like having to be a resident or having to be a registered voter and over 18, that sort of thing. And some jurisdictions may let you observe remotely through a video feed. Remote observation is better than nothing but it’s generally very difficult to see what’s happening and there’s usually no opportunity to ask questions. So, we encourage you to observe in person if you can.”

The Scrutineers site links to a map published by the National Council Conference. Click on your state and it will tell you the rules there. A few states are grayed out, apparently because the rules there aren’t clear. Check out the rules in your state and whether there are initial steps like signing up at your election office or signing up through a candidate or party.

How do non-partisan observers deal with a situation where some observers on site act out with motives that may be less than pure?

“Great question,” says Levy. 

“One thing you might, if you observe them doing anything disruptive, that’s something that you’re going to want to write down and potentially report it. If they’re really being disruptive to the point that you think it would be useful to have legal observers present, I would recommend calling the 866 Our-Vote Hotline and see if they can get someone with legal training down there to observe. We also have a training on nonviolent conflict response for vote count observers, specifically for if the situation gets really heated.” That’s also on the Scrutineers website. 

Despite a commitment to a mail-in primary voting system, the single in-person polling station in Washoe County was crowded at 6:45 on Tuesday evening, June 9, 2020. The polling station closed at 7:00 – photo: Brian Bahouth/The Ally

What’s it like to work the polls?

There are opportunities on election day if you want to connect with organizations helping people become nonpartisan poll worker-paid staff. You can also serve as an unpaid volunteer observer during the actual voting process on election day and the days of vote counting that follow.

Teresa Aquila is a 45-year veteran of the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office who has volunteered at the polls for nearly 30 years. Her role at the polls is Community Liaison. “I am in charge of the security for the sheriff’s office to make sure that all the ballots arrive safely… are distributed correctly within a controlled environment and that nothing is tampered with.”

Aquila says she gets that people have passion and concerns, but she’s noticed an uptick in conflict incidents during the past two election cycles and it saddens her. “It saddens me because I know that we are doing the best job for all of them. It’s not about sides. It’s about following the law, doing the right thing and by the law, to make sure your vote is secure and that nobody gets to go out of their square.”

Tracey Bowles day job is as Washoe County Public Guardian. Back in April, when it became clear that increases in turnout for the primaries and low turnout of poll workers and volunteers could leave the process shorthanded, the County Manager put out a call for county employees to lend a hand. “It just takes a lot of people to process the type of election that we are running now,” says Bowles.

“I had seen the request. I had considered it, but I was also always in jobs where I felt probably too busy to do it. Like I just have too much going on. This time when we were asked, there were a couple of things that impacted my decision. One, and I think elections are really important, and I think it’s really important for people to participate in that process. As a department head, it was important for me to not only get people from my department to participate but also, I’m not the type of person that’s going to ask my staff to do something that I’m not going to do. So, I thought it was really important that I personally volunteered, that I went down there and did that work so I could speak to others about it and hopefully convince a few other people in my department to do it with me.”

She was tasked with numerous jobs related to processing mail-in ballots. “You know, just organizing the actual ballots themselves. There’s a machine that does a lot of that, but it’s not perfect. And so it takes a human eye to ensure that it is properly sorted. So I did that.”

 She did signature verification and ballot extraction, taking the ballot out of the envelope and making sure that it was not chewed up, ripped, torn, or covered in food, which she says happens… kind of frequently. “I think a lot of people probably sit down and fill out their mail-in ballots around the dinner or breakfast table because I definitely had ballots with ketchup, mustard, or syrup on there!”

The process, she says, gave her increased understanding and confidence in the system. “So there’s that extraction process. And there’s a lot of counting. Every time you get something, you know exactly how many pieces you’re getting, you have to verify that those exact same pieces going in the right box and that you’re counting the envelopes, making sure that the exact same number of envelopes match the exact same number of ballots.“ 

Voting was orderly and peaceful at Reno High School. Citizens cast votes in the gym on November 3, 2020 – photo: Brian Bahouth/the Ally

Asked what she learned from her first-time experience, Tracey says, “Volunteering to help with our election process is the best way to learn… to educate yourself about the process to alleviate anxieties that you may have. I think that too many people either don’t care about it, and you know, don’t know how much work really goes into running an election, or they have a lot of fear around it. That causes them to not engage or engage in a way that’s not really helpful for the rest of, you know, the society. So, I think getting involved is a great idea. I think it helps to educate us all on how to be engaged citizens.”

Colleen Wallace Barnum manages operations for the county park system, and she also answered the volunteer call, but back in 2008 during another poll worker shortage. “Once I started doing it, I just got hooked. I felt like it was part of my civic duty. I thought it was a really good process. I enjoyed learning about it.” She volunteers every chance she gets.

She has managerial duties. “we make sure that the intake specialists and all of the folks that are at the site have their equipment, have their supplies and we oversee the voting machines. We make sure that the voting machines are working properly.”

About those machines, does she have any concerns? “I don’t. I will say that it has changed over the years. We started with a different type of machine back in 2008. These newer machines are a bit easier to use. But there are many, many checks and balances in terms of how votes are cast… I feel very confident and secure that the election is being run well. I think the county has done a good job in terms of making sure that we’ve got double and triple checks on everything.”

In the final analysis, Wallace Barnum says, “It’s okay to question things. I think it absolutely is well within your right, you know, to make sure that you’re feeling good about what you’re doing. I think getting involved is part of that. And once you sort of learn some of those processes, I think you could probably feel a lot better about it. I got involved in 2008 and ever since then, I’ve been engaged in it, and happy to, you know, be a part of that team. I think getting involved and understanding the process is a good way to understand what it takes to do it and do it well.”


Steve Funk is an experienced print and broadcast journalist, development manager, award-winning community builder, and communicator who has lived in Reno/Tahoe for more than 50 years. As a podcast and radio show host, Steve’s passion for the Silver State and its communities, economy, and politics drove his career and the content of his Grow Nevada Team‘casts on NBC Radio and writings in the Northern Nevada Business Weekly and Boomer magazines. His leadership has charted development for both non-profit and commercial enterprises in Northern Nevada. In 2012 AAF Reno awarded Steve Community Builder of the Year. When Steve has time, he devotes much of it to his love of making music with his wife and friends, volunteering, and exploring the outdoors with family.


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