Playing the Voting Game

December 9th, 2009 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

elections badgeDid anyone else take civics classes? …read elections mailings? …even listen to TV voting tips?

Yesterday’s puzzlement at Boston polls was the huge percentage of voters who had no concept of how a primary works. Each unenrolled (independent or undeclared in other states’ lingo) voter got to choose one of the three ballots for the special election primary yesterday. With half the state unenrolled in any political party, that was a lot of choices.

Amusingly, the Libertarian party got a ballot without a listed candidate. Their committee picked a candidate without bothering with conventions, membership input and those messy details. Yet, they had enough presence in previous elections for a ballot. In this case, it was blank, requiring smudging the write-in oval and then doing that deed. The recommended candidate from the LAMA site was Joe Kennedy, no relation to the late Sen. Ted Kennedy’s family.

How Many: In Boston, out of 67,025 votes tallied, 53 were Libertarian write-ins.

At my poll in Hyde Park, voter after voter with U beside their name instead of R or D insisted their were independents and should not have to choose Democratic, Republican or Libertarian ballots. Many asked with passion, “Why should I have to tell you who I’m voting for?!”

Of course, we sticklers had the answer. In a general election, you can vote for any party’s candidate. In a primary, you are narrowing the field for a given party. Unenrolled voters can do that at primary voting for any one party with a ballot. Like other enrolled voters, they cannot do that for all parties simultaneously.

Most of the objecting Us were 40 or older. They certainly had participated in primaries numerous times before. All of us working the poll were surprised and amused at how widespread the confusion was. In fact, in my clerk’s book that goes back to the city Election Department, I asked whether this suggested a need for more voter education on this matter before the next primary.

A typical dialog would be:

Inspector: You are unenrolled. Which ballot would you like, Democratic, Republican or Libertarian?

Voter: I’m an independent.

Inspector: Yes and you have the choice of any of the three ballots.  Would you like, Democratic, Republican or Libertarian?

Voter: (angrily) I don’t have to tell you who I’m voting for!

Inspector: That’s true, but you do have to decide for today’s primary which party ballot you want.

Voter: (raising voice) No, I’m an independent!

With some voters. this continued for several iterations. Some were placated when they examined all three ballots and almost invariably were happy with the Democratic one. Many asked how they could revert to independent as they called it after voting a ballot. They were unaware that the ballots were not associated with their names and usually they needed to hear twice that they remained unenrolled on the list unless they filled in and returned a voter registration card affiliating with a party.

The pride so many U voters showed in claiming to be independents was stereotypical New England. Hedging your bets is also more generally American.  Yet, the primary process should not seem so esoteric to so many.

Yesterday, everyone eventually got it. Some had tostand to the side of the check-in table to keep from blocking the queue while they examined all three ballots. In the end though, everyone chose one of the three ballots.

No doubt they’ll feel better voting in the January 19th special election final. Everyone will get the single ballot with the Democratic and Republican candidates listed and an oval/space for write-in option.

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16 Responses

  1. Burzmali says:

    In the past, taking a ballot for a specific party during the primary automatically changed your affiliation to that party, requiring that you submit a voter registration form to revert to independent. Hence the question from older voters.

  2. Harrumpher says:

    Fair comment. The legislature increased party-affiliation flexibility two or three years ago, dropping the requirement to re-declare as unenrolled. Of course, going way back, they still had to pick one ballot. This confusion may become even more common as MA voters seemly slowly but steadily dropping party registration.

  3. Ross Levanto says:


    First off, thank you for your service in the capacity as a clerk. Second, I wanted to ask you for more detail on one point you make above.

    If an unenrolled voter votes on primary day, they are *not* registered that day in the party representing the ballot they choose? I am a registered Democrat, but I often give advice to unerolled voters. I tell them they need to declare a party in the voting booth but can then unenroll on the way out. I take it this advice is inaccurate? If so, let me know. And thank you.

    By the way– the other advice I give is this– talk to the warden or clerk in the voting area and tell them what you want to do. Their job is to allow you to vote, and they are happy to help!


  4. Ross Levanto says:

    oops– just read the other comments. Apologies for my repeat comment. To be clear– picking a ballot on primary day does *NOT* register a voter in that party?

  5. Harrumpher says:

    That’s the way it has worked going back several years. Voters have to change from U to party by returning an updated registration card (available at polling places, election departments, and online []).

    The people trapped in the primary are those with one party who want to vote for a candidate of another. They can’t get the other ballot on the spot. Their only option for that primary to do that is blowing off their party ballot’s candidates and doing a write-in. The write-in option is on all types of ballots.

  6. Mada says:

    This still is not clear to me. If you are an independent, also known as unenrolled, and pick a ballot during a primary election, do you then become a member of that party? To return to your unenrolled status, do you have to fill out a form?

  7. robinite says:

    To be fair, I was momentarily confused b/c the poll worker asked me to “Declare” a party, which gave the impression that I would go from U to party-specific.

  8. Harrumpher says:

    Mada, that used to be the case — pick a party ballot during an election and you were affiliated with that party until you filled in a card to become independent as it was called or unenrolled as it has been for several years. No more.

    An unenrolled voter does have to choose a party ballot during a primary by law, but remains unenrolled. Poll workers write down the letter of the party beside the name, but that is only for accounting. When the polls close, the books at the check-in and check-out tables must have identical counts. The clerk book has to have counts (by party in the case of a primary) that exactly match the totals of scanned ballots, plus write-in ones, absentees and so forth.

    When you pick the primary party ballot, nothing changes in your voter status.

  9. Harrumpher says:

    robinite, that was in the WABAC machine, an atavism. You used to have to “declare” in a primary, back when that affiliated you with the party unless you subsequently filled in the card to return to unaffiliated (independent/unenrolled).

    That inspector should have asked you to choose a party for that primary ballot. There’s no more declaring.

    Likewise, some inspectors at my poll were befuddling voters with imprecision. Some would see the U when it was there turn with the voter list book and say, “You are undecided.” Understandably, the voter would not know what that meant. Eventually, they all realized the real term of “unenrolled” came with less baggage.

  10. Uncle says:

    Sounds like some of the poll workers need as much re-education as the voters.

  11. Been There and Done That says:

    Similar experiences here.

    For clarity sake…

    There are preliminary elections (like the September one for Mayor), primary elections (one that narrows people within a political party) and a general election (the final vote after either.)

    Preliminary elections don’t have party affiliations. These are usually municipal elections.

    In the *old days* in a primary election you had to declare a party which in effect would register you with that party. To remain indepndent (aka “unenrolled”) you needed to fill out a card and turn it in upon leaving, or mail it back.

    Under current policy and law, if you are unenrolled (aka independent) you remain so and you don’t have to do anything to retain that status. In a primary you must choose which ballot (essentially choosing a party) but you remain an independent (aka unenrolled) without the need to fill out any forms.

    As to Uncle’s comments, all poll workers receive a 2 hour training session before they can work at the polls, and then they are only started as an “inspector” and under the tuteledge of the precinct clerk and warden – the people in charge. It is then up to them to assure that the inspectors get it right. Sometimes an inspector may not make the cut and not be invited back. It happens.

    Also, before every election there are training sessions for both new and experienced poll workers. People can attend these sessions for refresher courses. There are numerous sessiosn held at City Hall and around the city.

    Also in all polling places sample ballots are always posted. There are 2 sets – one at “eye level” and one at under 48 inches for people in wheelchairs. You can direct people to the sample ballots to decide who they plan on voting for and then they can request that party’s ballot.

    I had to do that for a few people.

    While there was no Libertarian candidate, there was a ballot for write ins. In a past election that party established a 5% or better showing in an election (I think it was Sec of State) thus assuring that party would be included in primaries from now on.

    At a general election (aka the final election) you can vote for anyone you want of course and there si no need for declaring or choosing a party. You did that in the primary.

    In essence, almost anyone can vote.

    If you show up at a polling place and you are not listed in the directory someone will check your address against a street directory. Occasionally people arrive at a polling location but find they are at the wrong poll. They are sent to the right place from there.

    Otherwise if you have a valid ID and can show residency at that address you will be given a provisional ballot. These are counted after the fact after the elections department validates the ID and residency materials are correct. A provisional ballot will counted if validated but not processed by the automated machinery on voting day. That is done by the election department.

    Occasionally a “challenge ballot” is issued. This is when someone challenges the right to vote is at hand. The same thing happens as above, a challenge ballot is issued and is only counted after all personal data is validated, i.e. they are the person they say they are, a citizen, etc.

    Occasionally someone may show up as “inactive” because they have not voted in several years or failed to return the city residency survey that usually goes out in January each year. To assure that this person is not deceased, a person may be asked for ID. That can be a drivers license or something as simple as a utility bill.

    Most people think poll workers sit there all day and just check people in and out. Whet they don’t see is the set up an hour before polls open at 7 AM, the constant checking and rechecking of numbers against the machines and log books, record keeping – a secretary logs everything that happens within the premesis – and assuring that everyone that wants to vote has that opportunity. The workers then stay as much as 1-2 hours after the polls close at 8 PM to assure that all of the documentation is accurate, they all sign off as legal witnesses subject to court summons, and assuring that all ballots are locked and sealed for the return trip to city hall.

    We get 2 breaks, one each for lunch and dinner but if it’s busy as was the case during the presidential election, you get a sanwich on the fly.

    By the way… the pay scale is a little over minimum wage.

    Signed… Been There and Done that

  12. Harrumpher says:

    To Uncle’s comment, there’s a wide range of abilities and attention spans of poll workers. Some get it all. Some have a partial understanding of the principles and process. Some conflate old and new procedures and terms.

    At my poll, I produce a binder with the training materials, two-sided, with tabs for the concepts. Most of the inspectors refer to it repeatedly for the oddments, like provisional ballots and what to do with an I (inactive voter). Amusingly enough, the training has contradictory information about whether one or two forms are required in those cases.

    Many of the old hands use the old, confusing technology despite the training and what the warden and clerk tell them. It’s not always the voter who is the one confused.

  13. Jay & Jasper says:

    I guess there is a difference between a city like Boston and the small town where I vote. In the old days when I was an independent, I’d usually vote in the Democrat primary. At checkout they had a card for you to change your status. If you forgot to sign the card Mary G the town erk would send you a note asking if you forgot to fill out the card. I do enjoy small towns. We had a 26% turnout. We still have not figure out who the 76 that voted for Jack E. Robison. I did not tell them that my 89 year old mother accidently voted for him on her absentee ballot. Shades of 2000 Florida!

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