A Different Election Day Experience

The first call on Election Day came exactly at 7 AM. The phones would proceed to ring another 82 times before stopping around 5 PM.

Welcome to Election Day HQ at Advancing Justice — ALC.

It’s worth noting that I used to work on political campaigns for a number of years, directly assisting voters in the field and getting out the vote in Nevada, Virginia, Colorado, and California. When I joined Advancing Justice — ALC nearly two years ago, I was delighted to learn about our very substantial poll monitoring program and that I could support them!

With our sister organization Advancing Justice — Los Angeles, we sent over 350 poll monitors to more than 800 voting sites in 16 counties across California, which is the state with the most immigrant voters and the most limited-English proficient (LEP) voters in the country.

Advancing Justice — ALC HQ staffers!

Our poll monitors ensured that voting sites were in compliance with state and federal laws requiring language assistance for limited-English proficient voters as well as access for voters with disabilities, while also working to prevent other barriers to the ballot such as voter harassment and inappropriate and unlawful Voter ID requirements.

My fellow HQ staffers and I fielded calls from volunteers at polling locations as close as down the street from our office and as far as Merced and Fresno.

But no matter where the poll monitors were in California, there were several trends that emerged:

Voting sites had problems informing voters about what languages ballots were available in and what languages poll workers spoke.

In 2017, Advancing Justice — ALC and Advancing Justice — Los Angeles helped to write and pass AB 918, which made California the national leader in providing language assistance to LEP voters and ensuring widespread access to the ballot. This means that California is required by law to ensure that there is translated signage at voting centers, translated facsimile ballots available, and clear signage advertising what languages the poll workers speak.

In practice, our poll monitors ran into confused poll workers who didn’t know much about the translated voting materials that needed to be provided to their communities. There often weren’t bilingual poll workers, or they just didn’t show up. In Orange County, one volunteer even heard a comment from a poll worker about how voters should all be speaking English. We’re sad to say we hear a comment like that about once per election.

Some voting sites weren’t accessible for voters with disabilities, or the accessible voting machines weren’t working.

This year we asked our poll monitors to check how disability-friendly the polling places that they visited were. The answer? In some cases, not very.

One poll monitor called me from Sonoma County to report a polling place that was in a school’s hallway — barely four feet of room to vote in — and when someone did come to vote, there was only about two feet to go around them, not nearly enough room for a wheelchair. After our poll monitor raised this issue to a poll worker, an elections official came and moved the polling place to a larger section of the hallway.

As for the accessible voting machines, many of them weren’t functioning. More than one had to be fully replaced after our volunteers found them sitting in polling places broken or semi-functioning. But that problem wasn’t unique to just the accessible voting machines that serve voters with disabilities. Overall, our poll monitors found that across California, voting machines were in rough shape. Our aging voting infrastructure is at the end of its usable life and is creating inconveniences for voters every election. California’s governor and state legislature need to take investment in elections equipment seriously.

Voters didn’t know the difference between provisional ballots and conditional voter registration — and some times neither did the poll workers.

Conditional Voter Registration (also called same-day voter registration) allows a person to cast a ballot by going to their county elections office after the voter registration deadline, registering to vote that day, and voting conditionally. That ballot will be counted once the elections office has verified that person’s voter registration. This can even be done on Election Day, and for voters in five counties that have adopted the Voter’s Choice Act (Madera, Napa, Nevada, Sacramento, and San Mateo, if you were interested), you can even do it at your vote center!

By contrast, a provisional ballot is cast if your name isn’t on the voter list at your polling place or there is some other issue. You get a special envelope to put your ballot in, and your vote is counted when elections officials confirm that you are already registered in that county and that you didn’t already vote. Sometimes a problem that would require a provisional ballot can be fixed by conditional voter registration. Sometimes it can’t. Where you can do conditional voter registration and where you can do provisional voting are different, and the process for each is different.

The average voter probably doesn’t know the difference between the two. Our volunteers found that some poll workers didn’t know the difference, either. I got several phone calls from poll monitors letting me know that they had to correct poll workers and inform voters themselves of the options that were available to them. Advocates like us and elections officials need to work together to make more clear how the two are different when 2020 rolls around.

So there you have it — the biggest problems that our poll monitors encountered while protecting voters’ rights on Election Day. California has committed to providing voters with all the resources they need to exercise their most fundamental democratic right, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. We’re proud to play a part in that effort and will continue doing all that we can to protect the rights of California voters — because our democracy is better when we all have a chance to make our voices heard.