Pulling Back the Curtain on Voting in Philadelphia
In case you haven’t heard, we’ve got an election coming up next week. Tuesday, November 8th to be specific! Whether you’re a super-voter who votes twice a year without exception, or a newbie making your way to the polls for the first time, here are eight important facts about voting in Philadelphia from Philly Set Go board member and elected poll worker, Joe Sirbak.
1. Where’s my polling place?
The short answer is that you can find your polling place by visiting the City Commissioners’ website here. Polling places are organized by ward and division. Philadelphia is divided into 66 wards, with most wards containing 20-30 divisions. While it is possible for more than one division to use a single polling site, ideally each division has its own polling site. You can do the math, but the typical division encompasses a few square blocks and includes in the ballpark of 500-1,200 voters. This means that many Philadelphia voters can walk to their polling place and will be voting alongside their immediate neighbors.
2. Partisans at the gate?
Voters coming from states with stricter limits on electioneering are sometimes taken aback by the seeming gauntlet of partisans attempting to influence their vote directly outside of a polling place. Throughout election day, committee people from the major political parties, paid and volunteer representatives from individual campaigns, and anyone else who feels like spending the day expressing an opinion, are allowed to engage in electioneering (such as distributing campaign literature and sample ballots and soliciting voters to vote a particular way) so long as they remain at least 10 feet away from the entrance to the room in which the voting machines are located and do not block access to the polling place.
At the request of political parties or individual campaigns, the City Commissioners’ Office, which oversees voting in Philadelphia, also may certify poll watchers. Certified partisan poll watchers are allowed in the polling place to observe the poll workers doing their job. (See below to read the responsibilities of a poll worker.)
Additionally, poll watchers may challenge the eligibility of individual voters. Such poll watchers, while partisan, may not engage in electioneering within the actual polling place, which includes wearing clothing or insignia supporting a particular candidate or party.
3. So who are poll workers and what do they operate?
Poll workers, not to be confused with poll watchers, run a polling place, check-in voters, and operate the voting machines. They are elected to do so every four years. The chief poll worker is the Judge of Elections. There is also a Majority Inspector (from the majority party in that division), Minority Inspector (from the minority party in that division), Clerk, and Machine Inspector. At my polling site, we are fortunate to have all the positions filled. Many divisions, however, have persistent vacancies that are filled through “curbside elections” on the morning of the election, which in practice means that the first individuals present at the polling site (frequently recruited by committee people from a political party) are responsible for choosing the poll workers.
Poll workers swear an oath to faithfully fulfill their duties at the beginning of the morning. We take that oath seriously and the duty to follow the rules and conduct the election fairly takes clear precedence over any poll worker’s private political preferences. If you’ve ever found it curious to see a Bible at the voter check-in table (I’ve been asked before), a Bible is included in the election materials distributed to each division to facilitate taking the oath.
With the polls open from 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., and accounting for the time necessary to set up and break down the voting machines, your poll workers are spending a full 14-hour day at the polling site. So be kind to us – it’s a long day! Finally, if you would like to become a poll worker, the next election is in 2017. Too many positions throughout the city are currently vacant, so next year is your chance to actually run in and win an election, likely unopposed! You’ll make $95-100 per day (plus $30 for attending refresher training before each election) and perform an important civic duty. For me, the best part of being a poll worker is getting to meet new people and chat with most of my neighbors in one place twice a year. For more information on becoming a poll worker, click here.
4. What happens if I don’t like some of the remaining candidates?
Are there races for offices in which you don’t want to vote for the nominee? Well, you can write-in your favorite candidate. However, to do so, DO NOT WRITE ON THE BALLOT ITSELF. Every year, we have a voter, or a few, who writes their write-in votes on the laminated face of ballot. The poll workers will erase your writing (or, if that’s impossible, cover it with white tape) and your write-in vote won’t even count. Instead, to correctly cast a write-in vote, press the number next to the write-in option (just as if you were voting for “write in”). As soon as you do, you’ll see a red square button above the ballot start to blink. Lift the tab next to the blinking square button and write in your vote on the exposed roll of paper. Then simply lower the tab to conceal your vote. If you have any questions, or just need a pen, feel free to pop your head out from the curtain and the poll worker manning the machines will be happy to assist.
5. Can they do that?!?!?!
Q: I saw an elderly voter being assisted in the voting booth. Is that legit?
A: Yes, voters may sign an official request for assistance, which allows the voter to be assisted by anyone they choose, other than their employer, union, or the Judge of Elections. Once a voter requests assistance, they are allowed assistance in all future elections without completing a separate request each time. The voting machines can actually fold forward to accommodate voters in wheelchairs and audio keypad/headphone devices allow visually impaired voters to vote, even if they cannot see the ballot. In most cases, though, voters who cannot access or operate the voting machine on their own rely on assistance. Relatives or caretakers also frequently provide assistance.
Q: I saw a poll worker reach under the curtain and press something after a voter left. That can’t be allowed, right?
A: Sometimes, a voter will finish marking their selections and depart the polling place without pressing the big green “VOTE” button that locks in their vote. With the machine in that state, the voter’s vote is not counted and the machine cannot be set for the next voter. Accordingly, poll workers are trained to press the green “VOTE” button for the voter that failed to do so. In doing so, however, poll workers are instructed to reach under the curtain, so as to not see the voter’s selections.
Q: A parent took a small child into the voting booth and the child pressed the green “VOTE” button before the parent made any selections. Can the poll workers reset the machine so that the parent can cast an actual vote?
A: NOPE. Once a voter votes, even by accident, the voter is done. The poll worker has no way of verifying that the parent didn’t actually make any selections. Plus, if a voter is permitted to cast a second vote, the number of votes won’t match the number of voters who signed the book. I’m not going to break my oath and risk going to jail because you accidentally blanked your vote. If I see you going into the booth with a small child, though, I’ll remind you to be especially careful.
6. Do I need to bring ID?
Due to much-publicized controversies over voter ID laws in some states, I’ve seen well intentioned but mistaken voters step out of line and come to the defense of another voter being asked for ID. While Pennsylvania voters are not generally required to present ID to vote, voters who are voting in the division for the first time since registering at a new address must present one form of identification. In addition to drivers’ licenses and passports, poll workers will accept student or employee IDs, bank statements, paychecks, government checks, utility bills, firearm permits, and other forms of identification. Even if a new voter is unable to produce any form of identification, he or she still may vote using a provisional ballot. In reality, because divisions are so geographically compact in most of Philadelphia, poll workers usually know most of the voters in the division personally and the risk of someone casting a ballot on behalf of someone else is negligible.
7. What’s that I heard about Justin Timberlake and selfies?
JT recently made news by sharing a photo of him casting his ballot on social media during early voting in Tennessee. This prompted a discussion of the legality of posting selfies from inside the voting booth. In Pennsylvania, as in much of the country, the law is unclear, mainly because prosecutions are so rare. Think laws addressing polling place photos/videos are out of step with younger, share-everything voters? Perhaps they play a role in fostering democracy by ensuring that our secret ballot system retains the essential element of secrecy, so that your employer, union, or spouse can’t demand to see proof of how you voted? Whatever the wisdom of the law, you’re unlikely to be prosecuted, but if you do choose to snap away, the Pennsylvania Department of State emphasizes that you make sure not to photograph other voters and wait until after you have left the polling place before posting that selfie on social media.
8. Who won?
After the poll workers close the polls, they post the results from the division on the door of the polling place (the results from each machine are posted separately, so you may need to do some addition). And since your polling place is probably only a few blocks from your home, there’s nothing stopping you from walking over there and being the first to know how your division voted! These results will match those retained by the Judge of Elections and Minority Inspector and the results handed off to the police at the end of the evening for official tabulation. Then, rock election night like a true politico by getting the comprehensive Philadelphia election results at the Philadelphia City Commissioners' website. There, you can see which divisions have and haven’t yet reported and how your division compares to other divisions throughout the city.
Election Day is this Tuesday, November 8th! The presidency isn't the only office on the November 8th ballot. You will also see choices for state and federal offices, including PA legislative, US Senate, and US Congressional offices. You will also see proposed amendment to the state constitution. Need a summary of the full slate of offices at stake? Click here.
Again, this November 8th –– vote!
Photo Source: New York Observer