Voting Is Already a Mess In Philadelphia

A conversation with election watchdog Zack Stalberg.

Voting in Pennsylvania — and especially in Philadelphia — has the capacity to be a perplexing and intimidating task. To make your Election Day life a bit easier, I checked in with Zack Stalberg, the head of the Committee of Seventy, a non-partisan election watchdog group that will have 800 volunteers on the phones and streets to try to make sure everything is on the up-and-up.

Yesterday, I started hearing complaints that people were getting robocalls indicating that their polling places had changed when they hadn’t. Are you hearing similar things?
There is a whole range of complaints already, and the closer we get, the more they tend to be about misinformation or disinformation. As with any other big election, there are signs of people either innocently making a mistake or really trying to get bad information out there to confuse people.

So how do I know for sure where I have to show up to vote?
Anyone with a doubt can just give us a call at 866-OUR-VOTE. There are other avenues, but your best bet is not the city or the state or any website. Over the course of the day, we’ll have 120 people answering the phones here and another 700 people out on the street. Also here are the correct authorities. We’ll have representatives from the District Attorney’s office and the city’s Law Department.

It seems that all we can do is report bad behavior. It’s hard to stop or prevent.
There’s no way to stop a lot of it. Most of it is anonymous and unattributed. Late last week, there was a lot of stuff having to do with straight ticket voting. It suggested that if you voted for the entire Democratic ticket, you would invalidate your vote for president.

What kinds of polling place problems should people be on the lookout for?
The biggest problems tend to be innocent in nature. The polling places are often understaffed, people haven’t received training in a long time. Most often, the problem we hear about is that someone’s name is not in the registration book. Or there’s campaigning going on too close to the polling place.

How close is too close?
The standard for that in Pennsylvania is stupid. It’s ten feet. That’s pretty close. Campaigners can hand you sample ballots and do political work, but if it’s any closer than ten feet, give us a call.

I’m ashamed to admit that I’m still confused on voter ID. Is someone going to ask me for ID tomorrow or not?
Yes. They are supposed to, because the law is really in effect but it hasn’t been implemented yet. The polling place workers are being instructed to ask for voter ID. If you don’t have it or choose not to show it, they are supposed to let you vote on the machine*.  But you don’t want to get offended if someone asks you. They are supposed to ask you.

Can I check to verify my registration before I show up to vote?
Yes. Call us. We can confirm registration. There was a big backlog of 41,000 unregistered voters that had applied to register, but their forms hadn’t been processed. The City Commissioners in Philadelphia said that they had the problem solved by Friday of last week, but that’s probably not enough time to get your registration card back in the mail. We’re unhappy with the pace at which they attacked this problem.

Will you have monitors actually inside the polling places?
No. You have to be a polling place official or a campaign representative with a poll watcher certificate to be inside. This is another thing about Pennsylvania elections that does not make sense. The representative from the partisan campaign is permitted inside, but the representative of the non-partisan organization is not permitted inside. It’s backwards.

Why can’t this all just be easier?
Elections are handled, for the most part, by ordinary citizens. It’s all pretty fragile. Things can go wrong, and the things that do are often accidental or innocent. My advice is, don’t view everything as a conspiracy, because it’s not. But, if you run into trouble, we are here. Turnout will probably be in the 60 to 65 percent range, which is really high by 2012 standards. When 15 percent show up, it’s no big deal. But when 60 percent show up and there’s confusion over voter ID, well, this can be one big mess.

* Note: While most voters will not be required to show ID, people who are voting for the first time ever or the first time in a new district will have to produce valid ID.