An Informal Guide for Election Observers in Harris County

Prof. Dan Wallach, Department of Computer Science, Rice University
November 1, 2004

I'm meeting this evening with some local citizens who plan to be election observers, so I thought I'd try to work out a list of "unusual" things that they should be looking for. Remember, the job of an observer is exactly that, to observe. You're not there to say "ah hah!" if you think you caught something wrong. Simply make a note of it in as much detail as you can. Don't be confrontational. Take meticulous notes. Note the precise time next to everything you write down. Write down exactly where you were and exactly what you saw. Later on, we can go through your notes and the notes of other observers to see if we detect any patterns of inappropriate behavior and/or malfunctioning equipment.

There are many different things that an observer can watch. Some observers might focus on average voter wait times at different times of the day. Other observers might focus on the behavior of poll workers. Still others might focus on the behavior of political partisans (e.g., whether they respect the minimum distance rules from the polls or whether they interfere with voters as they arrive). No one observer can cover everything that might be worth observing. Likewise, this guide is not intended to be a comprehensive list of all the possible things that might be observed. I can't help you prioritize your time for where and how you focus your energies, but I can at least explain some of the non-obvious electronic voting issues that are worthy of scrutiny.

Voter registration / sign-in at the polling place

In Harris County, we have a new electronic registration system that replaced the traditional printed poll books. I know they used it for early voting, but I don't know whether it will be used on November 2. They're just generic Dell PCs running Windows and connected to a network. The only application running on them is Internet Explorer. (I couldn't see whether there's a single web server on the premises, or whether each machine is running its own internal server, but each machine clearly had an Ethernet cable plugged into it.) Poll workers type in the details on a given voter (in particular, a seven-digit voter ID number), and then the machine prints out a small sticker with the voter's name. They place the sticker on a big sheet of paper and the voter signs it. (My pharmacy uses a similar procedure whenever I pick up a prescription.) Once this authentication procedure is complete, they give the voter another piece of paper with the access code that they need to use the voting machine.


Obviously, you must respect the privacy of voters, but there are plenty of things worth observing:

Tabulation / Canvassing

At the end of the day, all of the votes get tabulated so the winners can be announced. Voting machines, JBCs, and/or voting records (memory cards and printouts of vote totals) are going to be brought into the tabulation facility. You can expect vast amounts of boredom punctuated by occasionally interesting events. Here are some things you should look for as an election observer:

This is only a start, but it hopefully gives you a good idea of what might be "interesting" from a security perspective when you're observing the election. Unfortunately, I've had to make a number of educated guesses about election policies and procedures. The details aren't written down anywhere that I've been able to see them. If you see manuals that explain these sorts of procedures, ask if you can have a copy and read the manual during the dull points. If you observe any behavior that deviates from the stated policies and procedures in the manual, that's definitely worth writing down. Just remember that it's not your role to call a foul. Write it all down and we'll sort everything out later, if it's necessary.

Where to Report Problems

So, you think you found something anomalous and you're wondering what to do? A non-partisan group called Election Protection (1-866-OUR-VOTE) is trying to collect as much evidence as it can about voting irregularities. If you're not sure whether you need to call them or not, think about the severity of the problem. If, for example, a voting machine was accidentally unplugged, the battery died, and they've got nine other machines working just fine, then you probably don't need to make a call. If all of the machines go out in the space of ten minutes because none of them were plugged in, then you should whip out your cel phone and make the call right away.

Dan Wallach, CS Department, Rice University
Last modified: Mon 01-Nov-2004 17:05