Quite possibly my last in-person ballot for a long time

Most parts of the state of Washington have switched to all-mail voting. No more standing in line at the polling place and casting your vote in person. This is certainly a convenience, but to me, it dilutes the voting experience.

Part of the experience is the sense that you're part of a process, and standing in a room full of voters certainly drives that point home. You may come from all walks of life, but you all have one thing in common: You all want to vote.

Also concerning to me is the loss of the guaranteed secret ballot in a mail-in election. With a mail-in ballot, you have the problem that an overbearing family member can dictate how the rest of the family shall vote, and can even oversee the process as the rest of the family members dutifully fill in the dots, then seal and sign the envelope. A family member who wants to cast a vote differently really has no chance. But with an in-person election, the voter goes into a voting booth, and nobody is permitted to go in with that person (with a few exceptions). You know that the vote cast is the voter's true intentions. The overbearing family member has no way of confirming that the vote was cast according to his or her orders.

(Actually, in my voting district, that's not really true with in-person voting even today. We don't use pull-the-lever voting booths; we use fill-in-the-dots forms, and after filling in the dots, you take your ballot from the voting booth to the scanner. During that walk, the overbearing family member can inspect your ballot to make sure you filled it out "correctly".)

My voting district is scheduled to switch to all-mail voting next year, and this morning, I stood in line for what is quite possibly the last time. The poll worker for my precinct is a nice Chinese woman. She used to try to speak Mandarin with me whenever I came in, and I would respond with a few set phrases before explaining, "不會說." (Getting the sentence wrong helps drive the point home.) Now she recognizes me and knows better.

I noted, "Lots of people here today."

She replied, "Yeah, really busy. More people here now than we used to get all day." She may have been exaggerating, but it was definitely more crowded than it usually is.

I forgot to say good-bye to her as I left. We may never see each other again.

(Raymond predicts that the comments will be taken over people discussing electronic voting.)

Comments (52)
  1. vince says:

    Here in NY we are the last state to still have the lever-based machines.  I think this is the last election for them.

    Maybe that’s for the best though.  I was casting a write-in vote, and the election judges acted like no one had ever done that before, and said "let us know if it works".  Not very confidence-boosting.

  2. Joe Dietz says:

    We’ve been doing this in Oregon for years.  I’ve never heard anybody complaining about secrecy being a problem.

    Yes, in theory overbearing family members could vote twice by helping out the rest of the family, but that isn’t exactly the same thing as a machine politics election either.  I’ve never heard of either thing occurring in Oregon, though naturally I’m sure both do occur.

    Like all election systems, there are some trade offs.  Oregon has consistently seen higher voter turn-out, especially noticeable in the off season local elections.  Nobody looses votes to diebold and friends, and nobody fails to vote due to long lines, having to go to work etc.  As well the cost of conducting and election is quite minimal.

  3. George Jansen says:

    No one has ever imagined that I know Chinese, but what precisely is it I should say to show that I don’t?

    In Maryland one used to have a sleeve or envelope that covered the punch-card ballots, all but the top, as one carried them from the booth to the collection box. In the District of Columbia, the ballot, about the size of a placemat, goes naked to the scanner; but I hope that the officials would intervene if somebody tried to look over another voter’s ballot. Shouldn’t they do that anywhere?

    An op-ed piece in one of the eastern papers recently made the same case for the civic experience of going to the polls, by the way.

  4. Sunil Joshi says:

    In the United Kingdom, you mark a cross with a pencil in the required box, then fold the ballot paper before carrying it back to the urn. Ballots are generally counted by hand (and very quickly normally the full results are released the same night – the limiting factor is how quickly the ballot boxes can be brought back to the counting office)

    Even in those elections where we use electronic voting (because we are using PR or something) we still just mark a cross and the computer scans it.

  5. Stephen Jones says:

    As has been said the British follow the same system they have had for a hundred years or longer, nobody complains, it can’t easily be fiddled except by extreme violence or corruption, and it produces results quickly.

    The American system seems to show the national obsession with gimmickry.

  6. Andre says:

    In Brazil we use voting machines for many years now – you just type the candidate(s) number on a numeric keypad – it’s photo appears and then you confirm your vote (you can also vote on a non-existing candidate or cast a "blank" vote, those votes are not counted).

    Before the voting machines the results could take a few days to be known, nowadays its a matter of hours.

  7. frymaster says:

    I dunno, the scanning system at the last scottish parliament election was fairly gimmickry :P

    though because it’s based on pencil-cross-paper, there was an easy fallback.  And of course, with proportional representation, there’s a LOT more data to be captured, so I can understand why they trialed that

  8. It says:

    In Italy you vote crossing an option on a paper, and you MUST fold it before exiting the booth and putting it in a sealed box. The procedure is very monitored, and in the past elections we had people sentenced for taking pictures of the vote using camera phones while in their booth (you risk prison).

    Still even with this harsh laws and strict voting mechanism we have a broad problem of people buying/selling votes.

  9. Adam V says:

    No one has ever imagined that I know Chinese, but what precisely is it I should say to show that I don’t?

    "I don’t speak Chinese" ?

  10. Duke of New York says:

    The best thing about the old mechanical machines was the big lever you had to swing at the end. It was like a lever of political power that cleaned away corruption (in theory, of course).

  11. 365blog says:

    I don’t have that ‘overbearing’ thang going on but I enjoy being able to research ever issue at my leisure before I mail in the form. I can’t count the number of times I’d arrive to the long lines at the voting place and found items on the voting sheet that where NOT in my voter’s pamphlet. What was that about? It was very annoying.

  12. Neil (SM) says:

    Adam V: :-) Funniest thing I’ve read all day!

    So I’m waiting for someone to explain what Raymond’s Chinese phrase meant, and how it was wrong.  Babelfish was of little use, I think…

    [It means “(I) can’t speak” (language implied). The verb more specifically means “can’t” in the sense of “haven’t learned how” as opposed to “I have a speech impediment or learning disability”. -Raymond]
  13. Wolf Logan says:

    @Neil (SM):

    Windows Live Translator yields "(I) wouldn’t say that" as a translation for 不會說. Is that the intended meaning? I wouldn’t say that.

  14. Google Translate reports "不會說" as "Will not say." For a moment, I thought it was an error message from the translation code.

  15. jcs says:

    Given that the US postal system occasionally loses mail, I would not feel comfortable entrusting my ballot to it.

  16. Josh says:

    I would say that the biggest difference between the American voting system and the British (and Canadian) voting system, is that in Britain and Canada, only one ‘X’ is needed per voter – you vote for the party you want and that’s it.  There’s no ability to vote separately for president (prime minister), house members and senate members.  There are no extra resolutions to vote on.

    Counting the ballots becomes a simple matter of sorting into piles, which can be done quickly and efficiently.  It’s a trade-off between speed and simplicity of voting, and the level of detail allowed.

  17. Canuck says:

    In regards to Stephen Jones comment on the efficiency of the British system, the U.S. also throw in a number of additional items to vote for, beyond electing a leader, into the ballot. I’m not sure how things are done on the other side of the pond, but that may explain the need to embrace gimmicks.

    Of mild amusement to Canadians, who have been inundated with U.S. media coverage on the election for over a year now, we just had an election announced and completed within about a month. Less people and one issue to vote for.

  18. Anonymous Voter says:

    One guy filled out his wife’s mail-in ballot without her knowledge, then later announced that it was ready for her to sign.  She cured him of that malady, but I suspect the problem is widespread.

  19. Richard G says:

    Mail-in ballots have other security problems.  They make the accuracy of the voter registration process much more important.

    If someone registers a few thousand made-up people then they still have the problem of sending a few thousand people to the polling place to cast their votes; if those are mail-in ballots, then they merely have to collect the post and fill in the paperwork.

    In a recent election in Birmingham (England’s second city), there were a number of convictions for a very systematic election fraud.  Campaign workers would follow the postman as he delivered the ballot papers, knock on the door and then ask if the voter wanted to vote for their candidate.  If the answer was yes, then they took the ballot paper away.  The police eventually busted a community centre where thousands of ballot papers were piled up being filled in and cast en bloc.

  20. OJ says:

    In Norway, you’re handed an envelope when registering with the official.  Each party has their own ticket (separate piece of paper) which are found inside the booths.  You put a ticket in your envelope and carry it to the sealed box.

  21. Gabe says:

    For those who think the US voting problems would be solved with putting an X in a box, please explain how that would work in America. The ballot in my precinct had 39 things to vote on. There were judges, state leaders, county positions, congressmen, sheriff, state issues, and a number of other things.

  22. Joy says:

    When I lived in Oregon I heard a story from a friend.  When mail-in voting became law, the pastor at her very conservative church quoted scripture about wives being obedient to their husbands. He then instructed all the fathers/husbands to mark the ballots of their voting-aged family members, and this is exactly what most of them did.  The benefits of postal voting are definitely not worth the costs.  

  23. Michael Stum says:

    Results are in, Voting Machines Elect One Of Their Own As President:


    Sorry, could not resist :-)

    I would miss paper ballots, i just think that high quality democratic elections can only exist in absolute anonymity. Just you and the Ballot. But then again, my own home country is at the moment trying to get rid of democracy, so I should not be cynical. As long as enough people (>66%) vote, democracy wins.

  24. Don GLover says:

    I am not in favor of the mail in balloting. My trust level in the postal service is very low. My experience tells me there is more likelihood of a failure in delivery of my ballot than a failure in the elections process.

  25. John Gardner says:

    Yeah, i used to love voting in person.  In SnoCo now where its all by mail and the licky stuff on the envelope makes me gag.

    back in 2000 i remember distinctly voting in Federal Way.  I voted at about 9am before i went to work, and distinctly remember pressing my ballot into the ballot scanning machine and seeing the number of votes cast in that couple hours go from 7 to 8.

    That was sad!  But at least i got coffee and a cookie to go with my "i voted" sticker.

  26. zach says:

    I wanted to go to the polls, since this is my first election (turned 18 last month), but I was sent a mail-in ballot by mistake. Mail-in voters obviously can’t go to the polls. I could have cleared up the issue with the county clerk’s office, but it was too much hassle. Oh well. So much for my first "I Voted!" sticker.

  27. Leo Davidson says:


    While not as many things as (some) US elections — we don’t vote for things like the sheriff or equivalent — when we have elections in the UK we vote for more than just the local member of parliament.

    (We don’t vote for the prime minister directly. The leader of whichever party gets the most MPs becomes the PM.)

    There are also local elections for who runs the council. Elections of European Union representatives. In London and some other cities we get to elect the mayor.

    We can also have referendum questions on specific issues although I can’t remember the last time we actually were. Possible not since I became old enough to vote.

    @Wolf Logan:

    I don’t see how the size of the country or number of people makes any difference. Each state can do things in parallel and it’s trivial to transmit the tallied information and add it up. Plus, with more people you have more people to count the votes and organise things in each place.

  28. Potential solution (1) to the overbearing family member issue:

    Day X: ballot arrives.  Tell family member "I’ll fill it out later."

    Day Y: fill it out, sign it, and drop it in a ballot box.

    Day Z: Tell family member "oh, I already filled it out."

    Potential solution (2) to the overbearing family member issue:

    Move.  Don’t tell overbearing family member.

  29. Larry Hosken says:

    Admittedly, it’s unfortunate that an overbearing family member might affect your vote. But consider: there might also be helpful people who are willing to buy your vote.  Back before the USA had secret ballots, it was common for candidates to give gifts to their supporters to "get out the vote."  George Washington gave out booze during his campaign.  Wouldn’t you feel better about voting if you knew that you could show your ballot to a Concerned Citizen and maybe get rewarded with some tasty licorice?  Campaigns spend a lot of money on TV advertising.  If only they had some way to buy your vote directly, they could cut out the middleman: it would be win-win.

  30. Kyralessa says:

    Do overbearing family members do this in your family, Raymond?

    If I had a nickel for every "*I’ll* manage it OK, but *those [imaginary] people* won’t" argument I’ve ever heard…

  31. Wolf Logan says:

    @Stephen Jones:

    The population of the US is approximately five times the population of the entirety of Great Britain, with a population density almost one-tenth. There are fifty-odd different sets of voting regulations in effect across that area. I’m not sure the the American voting system shows an obsession with gimmickry as much as it shows the effect of a radically different practical reality.

    On the other hand, *I’m* pretty obsessed with gimmickry, so maybe it all balances out.

  32. > If I had a nickel for every "*I’ll* manage it OK, but *those [imaginary] people* won’t" argument I’ve ever heard…

    The point is not so much to protect other people from being coerced by family members, but to protect OURSELVES from ending up with a government that was only elected because "overbearing" people managed to coerce voters who would otherwise have voted otherwise.

  33. Shao Voon says:

    Raymond Chen can’t speak Mandarin/Chinese? In Singapore, we call those Chinese who cannot speak Chinese "people who eat potatoes" in dialect to refer to those Westernized Chinese and the Chinese who can speak Chinese would be the "people who eat rice" though this phrase is used. Today, I still cannot imagine why there are many Chinese, in Singapore, who cannot speak Chinese where you are living in a country(Singapore) which you can hear people speaking Chinese everywhere.

  34. Shao Voon says:

    不會說 means different things when used in different contexts. In Raymond’s situation, it simply means he cannot speak Chinese. I also use 不會說 when some elderly Chinese speaks to me in some Chinese dialects which I cannot understand.

  35. MZL says:

    In Sweden (as in Norway) the voting procedure consists of putting the appropriate paper (containing the name of the party you want to vote for) in a special envelope and sealing it behind a screen. The envelope can then be taken out from behind the screen and put in a box under the control of a voting official. Voting early is handled at various locations that can provide the same service (screen, appropriate papers, envelopes, locked boxes, election official), typically postal offices, libraries, and embassies.

    The problem of votes being bought or coerced is taken seriously in the design of this system; the ability to lie about what vote one cast is essential.

  36. Xepol says:

    Ah, the convenience.

    Think of all the time and effort it will save in stealing elections with zero public oversight in the process!

  37. SCB says:

    IIRC, the UK postal service prides itself on only losing 1 million mail items per year!

  38. James says:

    Here in Australia voting is compulsory and everyone over 18 must vote or face a fine (not sure how much it is anymore). Votes are counted by hand at the polling station and then the ballots are sent to a central office for storage and recounting (if a result is contested). Results are usually available a few hours after the polls close (although we’ve only got less than 1/10th the eligible voting population of the US). On the ballot paper you have the option of selecting a party (in which case they can effectively cast your vote) or going through and selecting each of the candidates on the senate ballot and 1-X in the House of Reps ballot. You can postal vote, but its not made super easy or encouraged!

  39. ERock says:

    I generally tell my overbearing family members to shove it. Elections season usually brings out political fights between us all… we all make up by Thanksgiving, though.

  40. mvadu says:

    In India for the last two major elections (we have one in every 5 years) we used EVM (Electronic Voting Machine). This gives privacy, security (which may not be that critical here in US, in India we still need to care about politicians tampering the ballots).

    Few even suggested using of similar machines in US (2004 article http://www.slate.com/id/2107388) y’day some one even suggested using web for casting votes, when we can file tax, claim healthcare, apply for credit cards using web why can’t elect precedent.

  41. nathan_works says:

    All this and no one pointed out the post-secret postcard where someone admits to steaming open the vote-by-mail (absentee) ballots and trashing the ones the submitted didn’t agree with ? (dealt with an office setting and CA’s prop 8). Was last week, so can’t dig up a link easily.

    I’m sure that person feels they were doing right, but to me, that’s go directly to jail wrong.

  42. tsrblke says:

    In my State we switched to Scantron style machines, and they give you this awkward piece of cardboard to bring your ballot to the machine in.  The top hangs out so it can be fed into the machine without anyone seeing it.  Well sort of, the top votes on the back of the ballot hang out so that the paper can "catch" properly on the machine to be pulled in.  It was clearly designed for less issues. (i.e. no 2 page ballots).

    In theory I suppose someone could come up and try to make you show them the paper, but if anyone approaches you the election judges tend to get a little nervous/angry and since one of them at my polling place (my neighbor) used to be high ranking FBI and I’m told quite the crack shot, I’d never try.

  43. David Brooks says:

    Raymond, it may have been your last in-person experience, but it was my first (since the 1979 UK General Election, anyway). Finally downloading the citizenship forms over 2 years ago led to yesterday’s moment, and it was like going to church for the first time. I’m sorry it’s ending, not for technical reasons but for the sense of being one with the community.

    Our voting place is small, but it mostly serves us old farts from the 55+ community nearby, and we went just after 10am, no lines. One election judge showed me how to feed the ballot into the scanner, and admitted as how he should have stood 10 feet back so he couldn’t spy my marks. But 10 feet back would have put him in the next room.

    Really, though, in practice, even with a X-in-the-box vote and a "paper trail" how could you actually verify your vote was recorded correctly, and why would you ask the question in the first place?

  44. Gabe says:

    tsrblke: My ballot was like that, and it was the two sides of one sheet of paper and the front of a second sheet of paper. The sheets had to be fed in separately.

  45. Brian K says:

    I would just like to say that I like waiting for election day and voting at the polling site. Our even had a concession trailer. It was like a carnival with the camps from the two parties (sorry, no libertarians) I don’t even like to vote early. Voting on the day adds to the excitement of a day long in coming.

  46. Cheong says:

    Wolf and Paul: Language translator are known to behave poorly when the sentence is short and taken out of context.

    The translation to "wouldn’t" for "不會" is done by mis-interpreting it as negative form of "將會"(will/would be). The correct interpretation here is simply "會"(can/could).

  47. Brian says:

    Another risk to the mail-in ballots: on the PostSecret website, someone in California mailed in a secret wherein they indicated that they steamed open absentee/mail-in voting envelopes and threw away all the ones that voted for Prop 8.  I’m not sure at all in what capacity this person works, but the fact that this can be done at all (although it is of course illegal) is chilling.  The fact that it was apparently done is even worse.

    There’s also the stories about people being sent multiple ballots from different states, as they’d managed to register in both places.  There would be no auditing between the states, so effectively they could vote twice.

  48. David Pritchard says:

    I think secret ballots are a serious issue. "The overbearing family member" can often take the form of a parent or partner who believes, for whatever reason, that you vote the same way he/she does. A secret ballot allows you, in the privacy of the polling booth, to vote however you want. I really don’t trust all-postal voting at all.

    Question: why are there queues for voting in the United States? Is that common? Are there just fewer polling stations? Is it because of the limited number of voting machines?

  49. AndyB says:

    "For those who think the US voting problems would be solved with putting an X in a box, please explain how that would work in America. The ballot in my precinct had 39 things to vote on. There were judges, state leaders, county positions, congressmen, sheriff, state issues, and a number of other things."

    Well. With lots of boxes and 39 Xs, obviously.

    Alternatively, have less stuff to vote on at any one time.

  50. They started vote-by-mail here in Colorado this year.  But – and here’s the trick – you’re not actually *required* to mail it back; you may also drop it off in person at any polling place in your county.

    The variety of fraud I was pondering someone doing was following the postman and stealing the *blank* ballots.

  51. They started vote-by-mail here in Colorado this year.  But – and here’s the trick – you’re not actually *required* to mail it back; you may also drop it off in person at any polling place in your county.

    The variety of fraud I was pondering someone doing was following the postman and stealing the *blank* ballots.

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