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Thursday, June 20

Gapers Block

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Congratulations on your assignment to serve as a judge of election at the February 27, 2007 Municipal General Election. This letter will serve as your notice to attend a mandatory training class. You will receive an extra $50 for attending this class... In order to familiarize new judges with the voting equipment and procedures, it is crucial that each new judge of election is trained prior to the election.

"Pardon me, Ma'am. I'm here for the off-track betting."
"That's moved to Jackson, Sir. We're doing election judge training."
"So it ain't here no more?"
"No sir. If you want, you can take the elevator back down."
"Naw. I think I'll linger."

Like one out of every five people I am likely to smell today, this man reeks of bad wine. He's probably cold, so we let him wander around for a few minutes, before leaving on his own. Working in the landmark Page Brothers building, adjacent to the iconic Chicago Theater on State Street, is surprisingly depressing. The few years the building spent as an Off Track Betting parlor really took their toll on the place. The carpet is green and stained. It is that sickly shade of green that always seems to associate itself with gambling and heartbreak. There's a matching green faux-marble trim traveling the length of the room that looks neither like the plastic it's made of or the marble it's supposed to resemble. Big windows open up to the State and Lake El station, and the constant flow of people coming and going really makes you feel like you're stuck.

This is the end of my journey learning the ins and outs of Illinois' new voting machines, during which I've traveled across the city training election judges. At Polonia Banquet Hall in Bridgeport, I dealt with cranky old Poles who looked like they never learned to set their VCRs. On a basketball court at Truman College, I worked with halfway house rejects and a surprising number of off-kilter goths who prefer not to hold down regular jobs. At Columbus Park's lovely Refectory at Jackson and Central, I worked with driven, well-dressed activist types determined to run their local elections without any outside funny business. And now Downtown, I've got an average mix of the elderly and impoverished, neither exceptionally old nor exceptionally poor. It kind of feels like a recap of everything I've seen thus far.

It's a misnomer to call just one of the voting machines electronic. In reality, one machine uses a touchscreen and another, the so-called paper ballot, uses an optical scanner. In the last election, judges generally tried to steer voters away from the touchscreen. Officially, this is because only one person at a time can use the machine. A common misperception is that the touch screens have been added to ease the transition from paper to electronic ballots, which seems inevitable, but in reality each precinct has one touchscreen machine because that is the minimum required by the Help America Vote Act of 2002. Unofficially, however, a lot of judges in the last election refused to set up or allow access to these machines out of fear that they would fuck up royally. Hopefully, none of these judges were my students.

If you want to use the touchscreen, you'll have to ask your election judge for it specifically. They will then activate a card with a chip on the back that you will insert into the machine. You are given the option to vote in English, Spanish or Chinese. If you are unable to read any of these languages, you are allowed to have a translator present with you. To vote for a candidate, touch the box next to the candidate's name. To change your vote, touch the box again. It is impossible to overvote on this machine. There are no hole-punches, no chads, and thus no fear of leaving them pregnant or dangled. There is a zoom function for the visually impaired, an audio program for the blind, a stylus for those whose fingers are too plump to touch just one box at a time, and a sip-and-puff straw setup for those who lack personal mobility. To write in a candidate, choose the bottom box and a mock-up computer keypad will pop up. If you do not spell the candidate's name as it generally appears, it is up to the judges' discretion whether or not to accept this vote. When you are finished with a page, press "Next." After the last page, you will arrive at the review screen. All offices left blank will show up in red. All offices voted on will appear in black. To return to any of the offices, touch the screen. To continue, press "Next." A printed record of your votes will cycle through the printer. This is an official ballot, and your last chance for review. It is also a verifiable paper trail. If you press "Make Changes," it will void the ballot and take you back to the review screen. If you press "Cast Ballot," it will do just that.

The new machines, manufactured by Sequoia, are perfect for Chicago politics. Just using them, you can tell that Sequoia was the lowest bidder. After a few weeks, the card activator starts getting weird error messages and stops reading the results from the ballot scanner, the lid stops closing on the touchscreen, the machines reset out of sync with one another, and the printers start to jam. At the same time, none of the machines have fucked up in a way where you can't tell it's happening, and even though they may not get the job done quickly, they'll get it done right (eventually). This is a big deal, especially when stacked up against their biggest competitor.

Last month, Ross Kincaid had some keys cut, based on a picture on Diebold's website. He then successfully used these keys to open up each of Diebold's voting machines. Realizing the possibility for mischief, Sequoia decided not to use the kind of keys that can be cut at the local Five and Dime. More importantly, Sequoia has announced that their computers don't use a commercially available operating system (as opposed to Diebold's machines, which use a Microsoft OS).

This is not entirely true, though. While Sequoia's machines use a proprietary operating system, they still rely heavily on Microsoft-based components. A few years ago, just before the 2004 presidential election, some important pieces of code were found available on an ftp site. The theory was that this code could be exploited and a virus could be installed on one of Sequoia's touchscreen machines, that could take control of the vote compiler. Sequoia's defense is that such a breach would be easily noticed, as the tabulated votes would be so out of sync with the machine's paper record. To successfully rig an election, hackers would have to attack dozens if not hundreds of voting machines so subtly that no one would notice that they were hacked. Remember in the movie Office Space, the analogy that Ron Livingston's character made, about stealing a single penny from a billion Take-A-Penny, Leave-A-Penny trays to become a millionaire? It would be something like that, and I'm not talking about ousting a president or a mayor here, just an alderman. As it stands, electronic voting accounts for well under 5 percent of the votes that will be cast in this election. Thus, there is no reason to fear that the Daley regime will corrupt the machine to steer the election in its favor. The stakes are too high, the work is too hard, and the returns per precinct would be too slim. Similarly, Da Mare doesn't have to lose any sleep worrying that leftist hacktivists will rig the election for a big upset.

Even though it's unlikely that the machines will be tampered with, chances are something is gonna fuck up. Just like the political structure of the Windy City, Sequoia's voting machines are deeply flawed, shoddily made and completely susceptible to human error. At the same time, they are made with so many failsafes that even an army of idiots couldn't screw them up enough to hurt the election, the same way that decades of City Hall corruption hasn't stopped the city from running smoothly, if slowly. The roads get salted, the garbage gets picked up and the votes get counted. Each machine has a paper record of not just the successful ballots but the unsuccessful ones too, so nothing gets left unaccounted for. The paper ballots are backed up by digital files and the digital ballots are backed up by paper. The files are saved onto a cartridge and a thumbdrive, respectively. At the end of the day, these files are consolidated and the results are transmitted to election central. If consolidation fails, then the cartridge and thumbdrive are manually uploaded, and if one or both of them have somehow been erased, then there's still the paper ballot to check against.

"For $52 million, I expect to have better results here than in Baghdad."

The day after the last election, Tony Peraica raised a big stink about corruption delaying the results of his contested race with Todd Stroger for Cook County Board President. The fact of the matter was that the results did come late, not because of corruption but because less than 60 percent of the votes initially transmitted. There are a number of reasons for this. The simplest is that a lot of polling places are housed in old schools and churches, with thick walls of made of steel and concrete and that the signal just can't escape. The answer that is probably most embarrassing to Sequoia is that the machines don't work well. As I've said before, it only takes a few weeks worth of use before the machines start to act as if they've got gremlins or poltergeists working inside them. The answer that's most embarrassing to the city is that the judges are incompetent.

Looking out at my class feels like looking out into the world Bill O'Reilly must see every morning, just before he starts hate-mongering: there are giggling groups of pregnant teens, platinum grilled gentlemen with thugged-out pictures of Gumby and The Pillsbury Doughboy on their hoodies, and every variety of wino, crackhead, geriatric and English-as-a-not-even-close-to-second language citizen, and the people that aren't some sort of ghetto caricature are all cranky old fogies who seem to be mad at the world for changing. I'm probably being a little too hard on the judges, but it's confirmation bias. When I regularly expect to work with shitty judges, and I regularly get shitty judges, then maybe I start to overlook the rest, the ones who see their job as important and help my day go by smoother. As I said, the majority of the judges I train are very old or very poor. That doesn't make them bad judges, that's just the general demographics.

So why are the demographics what they are? And why do I have so much to complain about? Election judges are paid $100 to work on election day from five in the morning until at least seven at night, usually later. That's 14 hours, seven-twelfths of a day. These people are only given $7.14 per hour, about 75 cents over minimum wage, per hour to deal with every single asshole in a neighborhood, if they aren't kept overtime. At that pay rate, it's really hard to find honest, qualified people to get the job done. So why doesn't the city raise the pay? It probably won't surprise you to learn that it's more complicated than that. The amount that judges are paid is not decided at the city or county level, but by the state, and most of the state doesn't have the same problems as Chicago. So if our election judges got paid more, so would every election judge, meaning the state would be throwing millions of dollars into Niles, Galena and Zion to fix problems they don't have. Outside of that, there are a lot of election judges, over ten thousand in Chicago alone, accounting for well over a million dollars an election. It's not an easy buck, and even if you had every civic-minded person in the city (people like the judges I worked with on the West Side, who really truly believe in making the election run smoothly), you're still going to have empty slots and all you're gonna get to fill them is people who have nothing better to do. On election morning, you're still going to be recruiting at bus stations and homeless shelters, just like the city is going to do on Tuesday.


About the Author(s)

ELR is a writer and election judge in Chicago.

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