Pennsylvania’s Lessons: Prepare for Election Day

Posted April 25, 2008 at 4:32pm

Last Tuesday, 3.1 million people successfully voted in Pennsylvania. This was not by accident. Rather, it took careful planning on the part of election administrators, commitment from voting rights advocates and collaboration between the two groups. There were a few glitches, and it is always a concern when a duly registered voter experiences problems at the polls. However, Pennsylvanians experienced few problems, thanks to election officials who prepared for a high turnout and established a rapid response infrastructure.

Let me put all of this in perspective.

Forty percent of Pennsylvania’s 8 million registered voters showed up at the polls; that was twice the turnout from the 2004 primary. Approximately 50,000 citizens staffed 8,472 polling places in 67 counties covering 44,820 square miles. Ten different voting systems are used in Pennsylvania, and there were at least 4,298 machines in operation from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Voting is a human exercise, and all of these component parts were coordinated by hardworking human beings.

Under the Help America Vote Act of 2002, states are mandated to improve the administration of federal elections. Pennsylvania has stepped up to the plate. On Tuesday morning, I visited the Philadelphia Voter Registration Division and three polling places. The Voter Registration Division is responsible for Election Day operations and was prepared for the projected high turnout. The division adjusted its plans from lessons learned in other states during primary elections this year.

I also stopped by the offices of the Committee of 70, which is a 104- year-old nonprofit organization dedicated to fair elections and clean government in Philadelphia. I observed and received a briefing about the committee’s Election Day oversight program, which operates a hotline to field voter questions and solve potential problems at the polls.

The Committee of 70 and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law joined forces to dispatch 800 volunteers citywide to resolve potential issues. The volunteers were trained to understand Pennsylvania election law and to work in partnership with the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office and the Philadelphia City Solicitor’s Office, in the event of any serious Election Day complaints. Such collaboration is a useful model for jurisdictions across the country.

At midday, I traveled to Dauphin County (Harrisburg) to meet with county officials responsible for conducting elections and to observe polling places. While vastly different from Philadelphia, this county also was ready for high voter turnout. In preparing for the primary, the county had to find a new site for one of its polling places, which is but one of the many challenges regularly facing officials.

Parents and school officials previously expressed concerns about security and safety in the use of schools as polling places. The county resolved the issue by using a new firehouse as the location for two polling places. The county is fortunate to have access to a large building that is fully accessible to persons with disabilities and easily accommodated two polling locations. Philadelphia, on the other hand, faces an ongoing major challenge to find fully accessible buildings.

At the end of the day, I met with Secretary of the Commonwealth Pedro Cortés to receive a briefing of the day’s events. The election command center at the secretary’s office, which included a voter hotline operation, was effectively organized and extremely well run. Media inquires and public concerns were addressed quickly, preventing the dissemination of false information and ensuring that the public was fully informed.

Even before meeting with Cortés, I received briefings throughout the day on occasional problems experienced at the polls. By all accounts, election officials and poll workers throughout Pennsylvania had a fairly rapid response capability to resolve the issues.

There were polling places that did not open on time because of the late arrival of either the polling place judge of elections or perhaps other poll workers required by law. Central command officials responded immediately to correct the problem. I was told about one instance where the machines were not operational at 7 a.m. because they had not been turned on. The situation was remedied quickly by poll workers who retraced their steps to find the problem. In such cases, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission emphasizes the value of a check list for poll workers that provides step-by-step procedures for opening, operating and closing the polls.

Some of Philadelphia’s voter check-in procedures could be modified to provide for a more expedited process to reduce wait time, especially in anticipation of high turnout in November. That responsibility rests with the polling place judge of elections, who is elected by the voters and independently operates his polling place.

The necessity for well-trained poll workers cannot be overemphasized. Polling place operations rest almost entirely in the hands of these temporary workers. They volunteer their time to work 16-hour days for minimal compensation to provide valuable service to their communities. They deserve the best training and work environment that can be provided by election administrators. In turn, polling place officials owe it to their constituencies to attend training sessions on a regular basis to keep current with best practices in polling place operations.

Voter hotlines reported receiving hundreds of calls, with most callers seeking basic information. Voters cannot and should not be expected to know or remember all of the changes that take place, often from year to year. Voter hotlines and Web-based voter information portals provide a valuable and much-needed service. Some of the hotlines are operated by state or local government offices and others by community groups. A voter should be able to call as often as necessary and expect to receive timely and accurate information. I am not alarmed when I hear that thousands of people call hotlines the day before or on Election Day to verify their registration status and the location of their polling place. It does not reflect negatively on election officials or voters.

Pennsylvania has received $13.6 million in HAVA funds to improve the administration of federal elections and will receive an additional $4.9 million. The state has shared 70 percent of the funds with its counties to help pay the costs for federal elections. This funding has helped Pennsylvania improve services to its voters.

Advocates and election officials, separately and in partnership, kept accurately trained eyes on their constituencies to anticipate, plan, identify and resolve problems. Pennsylvanians showed through actions that our imperfect system of democracy can be steadily improved with commitment and dedication. The collaborative, proactive approach Pennsylvania applied to its primary is one that I hope all of us will adopt to prepare for the record number of voters who will make their voices heard in November.

Gracia Hillman is a commissioner for the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.