(last updated 10/13/2020)
Are you inclined to be an election watcher? Yes you can from your computer or phone as long as this 2020 General Election is still underway. We will post a list of links to opportunities to watch online right here. Here are two to start with:
Denver Colorado Elections Department – streams through YouTube 6 windows combined into a single stream showing 6 places in the central count facility. This view is best used to know that election process is underway that could be watched in person with the correct credentials and if the local officials have enough socially distanced space. This view isn’t one I would call a substitute for in-person election watching:
For a perhaps more fulfilling experience you may want to sign up with Orange County California Elections Department for their set of streams that are assigned to individual stations for signature verification and ballot duplication. The page linked below contains a link for an online schedule to help you to know when to watch and a link to a form to sign up (in advance) as an online observer (assuming you are not in Orange County already and able to visit in person):
What follows is a page of short stories from experiences of credentialed watcher Harvie Branscomb of https://electionquality.com who can be emailed at harvie at electionquality.com if you have questions or comments.
This page is still under revision – please come back for the improvements. There are currently 36 stories on this page:
hand held cell phone video as security camera
Observation may lead to better conformance to law.- It might remind local officials that they need to create video documentation of the central count operation. In one remote county I visited the clerk asked a staff member to stand and record the goings on in the election office because the installed video surveillance system was known to be out of order.
election judges go on break (while watcher waits for approval for entry)
Scheduling decisions might be affected by an appearance to observe. On several occasions I have been asked to wait for the clerk (the DEO) to personally escort me into the facility only to find that the election workers are going on break about the time that my access is provided.
have to visit a separate building just to get a credential to watch miles away
Sometimes the process to activate the credential to watch is difficult. I know a county where access is denied at the central count facility until the watcher visits the clerk’s office miles away to have the official appointment form turned into a stamped credential. This extra step may not be required by law but may be unavoidable according to local policy.
stopped from taking notes
An extreme case of watcher obstruction is being told that you cannot take notes. The explanation given was that the regulation prevents taking down voter specific data and since the official cannot tell what is in the notes, therefore no notes may be taken. In case of eligibility challenges, it may be necessary to take down a note about voter identity in order to be able to make a challenge. Laws preventing the collecting of evidence are problematic for observers.
roped off area at edge of giant warehouse assigned to watchers
On at least one occasion I have been told that the chairs behind ropes at the edge of the warehouse delineate the location where the watcher may stay- far from the evidence. Some counties have glass separating the watchers from the watched and this generally makes understanding difficult when sound cannot be heard and the distance to the evidence is, again, too far.
camera over every signature verification workstation
In one county I have seen monitors used adjacent to the one seen by election workers on which a camera image of what the worker is holding is displayed. This represents a positive attempt to provide adequate visual access for observation without interfering with the election worker. Some examples of this have worked well but many are not practical or well thought out.
signature verification managed by scanner/sorter software may show several signature pairs – both confusing and advantageous
How many signature comparison pairs are simultaneously presented on the screen of the verifier system (if there is a screen) matters. Unbelievably, the number 4 pairs of reference and sample is very common. Of course that kind of packed presentation makes the watching each verification step close to impossible unless there is a team of two and they are discussing the signaure by name. The presentation of multiple pairs may also make it easy for the verifying judge to skip over a comparison and just let the ballot go to count by default. Some systems actually require some individual mouse click action to cause the each signature to be placed in the challenge column but many such systems default to approve. One ironic benefit of seeing several side by side envelope signatures is the opportunity to see if the same person signed two adjacent envelopes. This is not uncommon and I entered a challenge on a pair of ballot envelopes in the recent primary election. It was clear to me that the same person signed the affidavit on two different envelopes. Of course that becomes visible only by chance and only if more than one comparison is on the screen at one time and the two similar signatures appear next to each other. Often the layout of the verification screen is not ideal – often the reference signature is to the side of the sample whereas above and below is much better for comparison of individual characters in the signature.
followup to audit discrepancy
I watched the audit in a county where individual tracking numbers were being printed onto some batches of ballots after tabulation and before audit sample acquisition.Only batches where the audit sample was near the center of the batch of 100 were being imprinted (with a second pass through the tabulation scanner, but using different software. At the end of the audit selection capture process the audit software reported a discrepancy in the audited contest. The state Election Director who was also observing announced that it was highly likely that a mistake was made in interpretation by the audit board (who were of course listening). He quoted a rather high figure for expected error rate of human interpretation. Then he guided the process of followup to determine the explanation for the discrepancy. The cast vote record for the discrepancy ballot sheet was obtained and compared to the audited ballot that was once again retrieved by counting back from the end of the batch. The CVR matched the paper ballot except for the discrepancy in one contest. This particular ballot sheet had not been imprinted because it was at sequence 94 meaning usually 6 from the end of the batch and hence easy to count back to. The Election Director concluded that a tabulation error had taken place and texted to his colleagues at the SOS. When the set off CVRs were checked later it was realized that the selected sheet was in the final batch in the election, in which there were less than 100 ballots. By chance, the ballot found by counting back 6 ballots was not only the same style as the sheet intended for audit, but it was also voted exactly the same as the audited ballot sheet (including the vote that create an apparent discrepancy). The key learning points to this educational story are: 1) do not assume that error is caused by human error; 2) do not assume that all batches are the same length; 3) do not have a system for ballot identification that is used sometimes but not others; 4) do not let the wrong person supervise the protocol for the investigation; 5) always check all the facts- do not depend on someone else’s impression of reality.
second signature verification judge yields to the one with the mouse
In a relatively small county without an automated onscreen signature verification process two election workers sit near a terminal but only one has the mouse and the preferred position in front of the screen. The second member of the team is physically disadvantaged by position and relegated to silently watching the proceeding approvals. In this situation only one member of the team is likely to be contributing to the decision because the other member will have to interrupt the first to contribute. In this case one of the election judges becomes more like an observer – who feels unstated pressure not to intercede. Ideally, team decisions will be made in a manner that provides equal contribution and equal control over the mechanism of recording the decision. Once two people are already attempting to do signature verification in front of a screen and holding a paper envelope, there is rarely enough space for a third observer to get close enough to see the evidence. It is often the case that resolutions and window sizes are such that the original imagery is not using as much of the screen space as it could.
report about identifiable ballots to SOS unsuccessful
You may have seen an improper process and even have evidence of it (and that is particularly hard to come by) and still be unable to catch attention of the appropriate official to obtain a remedy. Even if the Secretary of State visits your town on a listening tour you may be unable to cause the Secretary to believe your story. While watching the folding and stuffing of paper ballots into envelopes as part of discovery for an election related litigation, I observed that the number on the stub of the ballot and the number printed on the ballot had a relationship of a difference of a simple number. The inevitable conclusion is that the ballot is systematically identifiable contrary to law. When I attempted to describe this observation to the Secretary in a public setting he simply refused to believe that my observation was correct.
Clerk refuses to let me hand a document to canvass board
An observer in the right place at the right time may collect useful suggestions for improvements but these may be difficult to convey to the appropriate authority. One time I wrote up an analysis of election procedures I observed and attempted to hand copies to the canvass board prior to a public meeting. The election official prevented my hand delivery claiming that it would be a violation o the rule against electioneering. He said my alternative would be to go outside the 150 foot perimeter from the edge of the building.
In a related incident the county election official was having a conversation with the lawyer from the Secretary of State’s office in his election facility. I walked over to listen and the official told me that I had no right to listen to the conversation. The SOS lawyer intervened and informed the official that I had a right to listen. The official then ended the conversation and walked away.
Official prevented watcher from recording a public meeting of the canvass board
The official also presiding over the public canvass board meeting refused to allow me to record audio or video of the public meeting. The rules for “watchers” in Colorado prevents the use of recording equipment, and on that basis he enforced the obstacle to transparency. Sometimes an accredited observer who has signed an oath not to record may find if useful to ask another member of the public to make a recording – or even ask the official themselves to do it.
Releasing election information early?
Watchers have also been accused of releasing election results that were obtained from posted copies on the door of a polling place after poll closure. Colorado’s regulation calls for watchers not to reveal vote counts until the polls have closed and the official has announced the results. This creates a conflict that could result in an absurd and very unpleasant situation.
Accused of stealing election documents
I have seen a watcher accused of stealing documents that were copies distributed to the canvass board- documents that are not originals and are not subject to privacy considerations. Even in the context of a public meeting observers may find actions that would make sense in any other situation will get them into trouble.
Windows on the outside of the building can be useful
Some election offices have windows into the counting rooms while others do not. The windows can help you learn if there is activity going – and that is even easier at night when lights on in the building might mean someone is there. On the other hand it may only be lit in order to satisy the video surveillance requirements. It is not uncommon for staff to come in at odd hours to perform election process that should be observable but no one may be aware they are there without taking a look.
Windows inside the counting facility may be useful
Occasional election buildings are built with a maximum amount of glass between public corridors and the central counting rooms. This glass is good for checking what is going on, but not for verification of process. It is always better to be close to the action and close enough to hear the conversations.
Use a cell phone in central count facility?
I have been prevented from using a cell phone as a timer to time signature verification decisions presumably because the cell phone is capable of recording and might be used surreptitiously. In Colorado counties may choose whether cell phones may be carried into election facilities for use to text or time for example. In no case may cell phones be used to communicate by voice. Obstruction of use of cell phone may hinder watcher coordination especially when only one watcher representing a campaign can be present at one time.
Being watched is uncomfortable
Election workers being observed tend to be sensitive. They know that opinions differ about what constitutes a comparison match. In rare cases this pressure leads to bizarre and irrational behavior such as speeding at a breakneck rate through signature samples without any consideration for the merit of the signature. Or it may be that signature verifiers are using only a portion of the screen real estate to make the experience more private. Election workers are often unhappy about being watched. The best situation is when staff or supervisor election judges are already watching and the workers recognize that the people looking over their shoulders are part of the team needed to achieve integrity.
Occasionally something really bad happens and it is hard to notice it
In a particularly problematic election, observers including myself did not notice that stub numbers that identify voters were also printed on face of ballot by mistake at the printer. Meanwhile supervisors off the opening process required election judges to create secrecy sleeves when the voter failed to include one. That made the central count look as if as if privacy was being scrupulously maintained when in reality it was not at all. Subsequent to the admission of the problem by the official (an hour after the last remedy by a recount had passed) the ballot records were sealed and redacted images were created to remove the identifying number.
Why watch in person if there is video surveillance?
Video of election central count facilities often turns out to be not working or inaccessible or costly to access. Then once you have obtained the video it is extremely difficult to watch to find anything because of the vast amount of data. It is useful really only if you already know when something happened.
Open records requests are not the same as election watching/observation
In states with special credentials for observation there is often much better access to election data than what is available through open records request. In some cases it makes sense to use records requests in addition. Some jurisdictions will post all previous results of open records requests online so that anyone can benefit.This is an excellent best practice. The only downside is that the first requester will be required to foot the entire bill (if any) for the release. State law often specifies the rate at which you may be charged for the process required to produce records. Check the election or district web site to see if helpful information is available.
An unusual watchable casting scenario for a remote voting election
In one small Colorado county voters who fill out mail ballots at home get the advantage of dropping the voted ballot into the hands of an election judge in the election headquarters who immediately looks up and checks the signature while the voter waits. This means the cure process will never become a risk for these voters who can be confident that the votes they marked will be tabulated.
In the same county where in-person signature verification is taking place the unattended drop box is not next to the door of election headquarters but around the back. Voters who approach the door with a voted ballot will likely go inside to have it processed by the election judges so the ballot will not be subject to remote signature verification and possible cure process.
What if you see hackers bristling with antennas?
Another thing to watch for – mysterious equipment such as wifi antennas in strange places such as in a backpack on some person wandering around. This could be people sniffing for ways to infect the election equipment, or it could be contractors checking to see if the wifi networks are secure. It may be hard to tell the difference.
Layout of personal data on registration screens may matter
During signature verification poorly laid out screens may reveal to you and the election worker what might be considered private personally identifiable information (PII) of a voter. In order to facilitate access for observation one county placed post-it notes over the screens of the signature verifiers strategically placed so that the PII would not be visible to anyone. A jurisdiction less interested in transparency might choose to prevent the observer from seeing the screen at all. Registration database screens should be designed specifically for verification and adjudication purposes and the PII should not be visible at all – just the name and signature of the presumed eligible voter.
Sometimes surprises happen- hypocrisy, irony abound
one of the more interesting and informative experiences watching occurred as a result of a challenge to a signature approval that I initiated. I watched a verifier on first tier conclude that two very different signatures deserved to be approved as eligible for counting. I jotted down the voter ID number and asked how to initiate the challenge. i was given a form to fill out and did so. I also asked for permission to track the followup to my challenge. I was told that I could meet with the County Clerk and Recorder (of a large county) so that she and I could discuss the case. We both saw the sample signature image and the various reference signatures available on the database. She quickly decided without any further consultation with me that the signature did not match the reference and telephoned to the counting room to divert the envelope to the cure process. Further followup would require knowledge of the outcome off the cure process. The Clerk voluntarily informed me that the person whose name was on the ballot did not cure and did call to complain. What I learned from the experience was first- to feel better about my judgement call on signatures and second to doubt the legality of the partisan Clerk making the decision over the eligibility of ballots. Later I learned that the involvement of the Registrar in California is standard practice. These things vary state by state and office by office sometimes.
Watching is surprisingly rarely boring – can be a rewarding experience
In a small county rarely visited and perhaps where no one has been observing elections I encountered a central count that took place around a conference table – all temporary citizen election judges just as you would have seen at a precinct polling place. I was told by the Clerk that she would not be interfering with the counting process. Here is what I saw: The ballot were stacked at one position around the table. The first person pointed a bar code reader at an envelope,looked up the reference signature(s) and performed signature verification. then handed the envelope to the person to her right. That person separated the envelopes into two piles, A-K and L-Z. The two piles were then each passed to a third and forth election judge each of whom held a large paper pollbook. The voter’s name was looked up and checked off before handing the still sealed envelope to the fifth judge, the supervisor who then slit open and removed the ballot sheets individually, flattening them in close proximity to the name on the envelope.
Suffice it to say I had not seen central count performed as an exact analog to a precinct polling place until that experience. I decided to share my thoughts with the team upon agreement of the supervisor. I suggested that while it was admirable that they had a paper backup for the statewide voter registration database, they needn’t have created that pollbook record at the time of opening, and furthermore the presence of open envelopes amounted to enough back up for giving the voters credit for voting later on. They were very appreciative of the advice I gave and I do not know if they were able to update their formula for later elections. I have not been back.
A different kind of surprise – a written complaint from the DEO to the SOS complaining of watching irregularities
One large county clerk decided to override the implied consent of his staff and wrote up an affidavit accusing me of violation of the watcher regulations. The affidavit included personal testimony of staff witnesses who had monitored and facilitated my visit to the tightly secured underground central count room. What really happened was I signed in to visit, waited for an escort and was taken through several security doors and down to a corridor separated from the action by glass barriers. The intention was to confine watcher access to this corridor but I was aware that little can be experienced from that corridor and to “witness and verify every step in the conduct of elections” I would need to see the operators of various devices and handlers of ballot sheets and envelopes and receive answers to questions posed to the responsible staff members. i advised my escort of my intentions and she agreeably led me into the counting area where I consulted with the managing technical staff member. Not long after the an official of higher authority interrupted my conversation to inform me that county policy was for watchers to pose all questions only on a prepared form to be submitted for later response. Realizing that this was an obstructive policy and the staff member was willing to answer questions i proceeded to ask and was then escorted out of the facility. So sometimes surprises aren’t the good ones. Watching elections is a troubling but rewarding sport.
Adjudication/resolution: write-in same as marked vote, clerk personally adjudicates
Watching during adjudication/resolution is important – the interpretation of voter intent can be confusing when technology and regulation and common sense come into conflict. An example is when a voter writes-in a candidate name that is the same as a marked vote.The system may indicate this as an overvote and the regulation may or may not have covered this situation. In one instance I observed the election judges could not decide how to report the resulting vote into the cast vote record and they asked the clerk to resolve the question. I watched the clerk decide that the two filled in targets clearly represented an overvote as the machine reported. Instead of adding my voice to the discussion, and as that would have been contrary to rule, I simply left the room and called the political party “war room” to have the party lawyers contact the clerk. Often as time goes by it becomes too difficult to revise the interpretation of the vote and it may be necessary to make the argument for correction yourself but ideally not to the person who has just made the problematic judgement call. Sometimes there is no supervisor to report to because the supervisor is involved. Timing for reporting errors is crucial especially during the eligibility check. Once a ballot envelope is opened it should be impossible to remove the ballot sheet inside from the sheets going to count and so the decision to count becomes irrevocable almost immediately.
clerk sends entire election database to vendor to unlock the security lock on formatting memory cards
Sometimes the most risky actions are barely perceptible and may only be known because someone shares the facts. Since clerks (registrars) are not likely to offer to be under watcher oversight at all times, they may act in ways that risk error in the election. I was told my County Clerk and recorder that she sent an entire election database electronically to Dominion to unlock an intentional security lock that prevents the programming of new memory cards after an election has begun. The transfer of the election configuration (including stored records of votes) outside the confines of the election office subjected it to incalculable risk. And the transfer is something that could take place without much physical manifestation. A memory stick removed from the EMS and placed into an internet connected machine is all that is required. I would not have seen that act or known the significance if the clerk herself had not told me.
clerk edits election results multiple times to account for double tabulated batch
In some instances it is just the DEO alone who might benefit from observers. In typical operation of an Election Management System there is a time following an exceptional circumstance when corrections of the results have to be made if a correctable error was detected by officials, such an accidental repeated tabulation of a batch. In one case it was discovered in a post election review of batch counts that an unexpected number of ballot sheets was tabulated. Extensive research was done by the DEO to understand the discrepancy. She concluded that a tabulated batch intended to be put away had been tabulated again after it had been mistakenly placed on a table containing untabulated batches. If batch counts are unequal it is easier to detect and correct for this kind of problem. The DEO in this instance had to correct the results for each contest choice on each contest by editing in an inconvenient voting system interface. This can be a painstaking and error prone procedure where the DEO in this instance was glad to have a second set of eyes on the screen to prevent errors.
Toner transfer leads to invisible overvotes and incorrect tabulation
If the voting system uses digital lithography (eg. a thermally bonded toner process instead of ink) it is possible for the ballot sheets to be produced by error in a manner that will cause mysterious if not devastating problems. Observers of a not particularly important election with several contests of vote-for-three among a field of six or more candidates noted a larger than usual rate of overvoting after about half the ballots were tabulated. Cursory examination of the tabulated sheets did not reveal the reason for the overvote detection by the scanner. Later it was learned that only after a sheet had been sent through the mail were toner particles transferred from across the fold on the ballot to create an unintended and almost invisible mark. (For clarity this instance did not occur at the fold, where dirt often causes an unintended mark detection.) It was believed that the pressure of the mail sorting process caused the ballot to insert evidence of a vote (and occasionally an overvote) where none was intended. This problem was not discovered by the LAT because the ballots in the LAT were not folded or compressed by the sorting machinery. The transfer apparently took place because of inadequate bonding of the toner by the vendor (actually Diebold at the time). The reason why the problem was very difficult to find is that most of the unintended marks were in undervoted positions and did not create an exception signal to officials. Only if the extra mark was located in an unvoted position of a fully voted contest would the error be flagged as an overvote. Otherwise it would simply be counted (incorrectly). The amount of toner particles needed to create the situation was close to invisible. This reminds us that the evidence for a major flaw in an election may be very slight and almost imperceptible. An observer needs to be able to read the teal leaves sometimes to recognize the evidence that is created by a correctable error.
Voting system can be used to review ballot images at speed
Sometimes but maybe rarely there is an opportunity for a watcher to have access to election evidence directly from an interaction with the tabulator or EMS after ballots are tabulated but before final certification (when watching generally ends). The unique environment of an ongoing election often offers special statutory watcher access. In Colorado Revised Statutes the access for credentialed watchers is to “witness and verify every step in the conduct of elections”. Because of this broad statutory access I have been given the opportunity to review election data by a sympathetic and transparency supportive clerk and recorder to check the ballot images for every ballot containing a narrow margin contest. The losing candidate had contacted me to gain confidence that the recount he or she was allowed to pay for would not likely change the outcome. I asked the DEO to examine the ballot images to help with that decision. The value to the DEO is increased confidence and avoidance of an unnecessary election process.
The already tabulated ballot images were present on disk and were technically readily accessible on the tabulator or EMS screen (depending on the voting system). In my experience it was possible to review the images of marks that produced votes in the contest to get a strong impression about the chance that a machine or hand recount (depending on the rules) could possibly change the outcome. The DEO in my case had already used this function. And any DEO is likely to be inclined similarly if access to ballot images is available to them. If there is a chance of a change in outcome, the DEO is the first who would like to know, and they already have the statutory authority to investigate.
What I am explaining here is that the DEO may also agree to be watched while reviewing a narrow margin election. That opportunity to watch may be even more appropriate for the interested parties (campaigns) and the canvass board who certify who will want to observe. If they do a watcher is very likely able to join. In an exceptional case a watcher might find themselves permitted to guide the stepping from ballot to ballot. Note that this can be either trivially set up or quite difficult depending on the ease of use of the interface to view the images on the voting system and the geographical layout of the contest that may depend on ballot style. If the location of the contest within the style changes then ideally the images will be viewed after sorting by district style so that all the same positioned contest marks on the images are in the same place in sequence within a style. The image will preferably be zoomed in to that location. Under ideal conditions it may be possible to view thousands of ballots an hour checking for marks that may have been misinterpreted and not yet adjudicated. Note that the Clear Ballot system is designed to perform this kind of review for this very reason and no special setup is needed. In many jurisdictions the watcher is limited to seeing only what an official has made the choice to see, but there is a possibility the watcher can influence (with very carefully voiced suggestions to the appropriate supervisor) what evidence is looked at such as during a canvass process.
card system for challenging signatures
After the Colorado SOS appointed a committee to discuss election watching a system for challenging at signature verification was proposed and implemented in a few counties. I was a part of the committee and also able to experience the opportunity to challenge using the system. The reason for a special protocol was the fear that signature verification would slow down due to watcher challenges and watchers might attempt a denial of service attack on the election using the signature challenge.
The proposed system involved a set of pre-printed cards each with a space to fill out a voter ID, and name of challenged voter and other details. The watcher was given 10 of these cards and instructed that no more than 10 could be used in an hour. When the watcher sees evidence meriting a challenge he or she is to place the card on the table in front of the verifying worker(s) to indicate a need to stop to record the voter ID. The intention was to prevent excessive interference through challenges and to control how many watchers were assigned to the signature verification area. The system was discontinued in most of the test counties probably due to lack of use. Watching of signature verification is actually harder than doing signature verification that itself is very hard – a difficult judgement call with significant effect on the electorate.
watched mistake in audit tabulation
Key times to watch are when judgement calls are being made and when ballots and votes are being counted and also when envelopes are being opened. The important judgement calls occur when determining eligibility via signature comparison and adjudicating imperfect voter marks. Another event where mistakes are often made is in remaking or “duplicating” problematic ballot sheets. I have had the experience of seeing incorrect duplication and incorrect hand tabulation of ballots during audits. Because of the prohibition against reporting to the worker or interfering with the worker and when the supervisor is involved in the work, it may take time before you as watcher find an appropriate moment to report. This extra time may allow you to see if the error is found by any existing error check built into the process. Often I find that I embody the only substantive error check as an accredited observer or watcher. It is very common that I detect an error at each watching experience- sometimes just an omission of a best practice, other times errors that do affect the results.
former clerk asked me to watch current clerk (all key staff replaced)
You can guess that your reputation as an effective watcher has been accredited when a former county clerk calls and asks if you are watching the officials at the county they once worked for. It may take years of visits and hours of conversations to achieve this kind of respect and familiarity. But it is worth the effort to get there.
two staff operate Agilis envelope sorter on weekend – discovered by chance
On a whim I decided to visit the huge election warehouse facility in a large county. I stood at the door and rang the bell. One of the election staff managers I know greeted me and let me in. He and one other staff member were running the Agilis envelope scanner sorter – a process that gives voters credit for voting and sorts the envelopes into batches for opening. This was a step in the conduct of election that couldn’t have been predicted to occur on Sunday when no one else was there – and the story reminds me of the importance of knowing the schedule for election processing so that watchers can be accommodated.
In conclusion, you may find your photo printed into thousands of copies of a newspapers. It might not be the photo you would choose. Quite possibly it could be strategically chosen out of a video to be the least complimentary photo of yourself you have ever seen. Just a day in the life of an experienced watcher/observer.