When the campaign speeches, television commercials and opinion polls have run their course, there is still the ultimate step to be taken to consummate the free exercise of American representative democracy: Casting and counting the votes.

Most participants in the process tend to regard their few minutes behind the voting machine curtain as anticlimactic and take it for granted. While they're more likely than not at other times to consider their single vote as just a drop in a statistical ocean, when they're actually doing it they somehow realize it's important and want their ballot choices duly registered.

In recent years, there has been increasing concern over whether that will happen. There is mounting evidence that the system may be getting overwhelmed.

What happened in Florida in the weeks after the 2000 presidential election provided ample evidence that is not too remote a possibility -- not because free election has become outmoded, but because of seemingly decreased ability to cope with the mechanics of conducting one.

Delaware has never had to contend with hanging punchcard chads and officials here are completely satisfied that current concerns about the competence of some of the voting machines used elsewhere don't apply to the ones used here.

But that is not to say that the state is immune from the more fundamental problem looming over elections departments all over the nation. With more and more people on the voter rolls as the two-year general elections cycles roll around, there are fewer and fewer people willing to offer their services to accommodate those voters.

"It certainly is a concern, but we're in pretty good shape. It's not a crisis -- yet," said Barbara Lippincott, elections unit manager in the state Department of Elections for New Castle County.

The polls, she said, will be fully staffed come 7 a.m. on Sept. 11 for the Democrat and Republican primary elections and on Nov. 2 for the general election.

However, it will not take a great deal of perception on either day to recognize that the people who check voter identification and operate the machines are, on average, older than the people they serve. The department hasn't determined by how much, but Lippincott said it is safe to say that the average age of poll workers is somewhere around the mid-70s, about what it reportedly is nationally.

"What I do know," she added, "we have quite a few who are in their 80s and have been with us for many years."

For the first time this year, there will be a sort of counterbalance. With a change in state law, the department has been able to recruit teenagers and has done so through the schools. There will be about 60 high schoolers, as young as 16, scattered among polling places in the county for the primary and as many as 100 in November. Each one will have come with what amount to a recommendation by their school principal as well as parental consent.

She said that, as a group, the young people have demonstrated both enthusiasm and a recognition of the responsibility they're undertaking. "We expect and hope this will get them interested in voting as well as working in future years," she said.

There is one traditional election-clerk job some of them won't be able to do. Last step in the poll-opening procedure is to have one of the workers actually cast his or her vote to make sure the machine is operative. Sixteen- and 17-year-olds not eligible to vote.

Lippincott cautioned against anyone jumping to conclusions when, on primary day, they find their election district combined with another one at the polling place. That does cut down on the number of workers needed to staff that poll, but the principal reason for combining the county's 306 election districts into 230 polls, she said, is to cut down on the number of machines that have to be delivered and collected.

Still, she acknowledged, there is difficulty recruiting workers. That shows up most pointedly in getting the requisite number of workers of the proper political persuasion. "We don't need more Democrats in the city of Wilmington, but we'd like to be able to find more Republicans. That's reversed when it comes to looking for Democrats in Greenville and Hockessin," he said.

Election law requires that there be a Democrat and a Republican judge of election at each polling place and that there be an even number of Democrat and Republican inspectors over the county. The clerks also must be divided between the major parties although the law has been changed to permit persons registered as independent or otherwise, or not registered, to also hold those positions.

Strictly speaking, the workers are not volunteers. They're paid, but at rates which fall well short of minimum wage for putting in an uninterrupted 14-plus-hour day -- from 6 a.m. until however long it takes after the poll closes at 8 p.m. to retrieve the vote tallies and close and seal the machines. They also are required to attend two-hour training sessions before election days.

Everyone did get a $15 raise for this year. Inspectors now pull down $220, judges $180 and clerks $150. Clerks assigned to deliver the cartridge containing the electronic version of the vote tally to the department's vote-counting stations get an extra $15 for doing so.

Literally, just about anybody can be a poll worker. Lippincott said the department is making a particular effort to convince companies to 'contribute' workers by allowing employees who sign up to have paid time off to work the polls without having to cut into their vacation or leave time.

What most people don't realize is that the law allows the department -- and the inspector of election, who is the boss at each polling place, on voting days -- to impress workers. They can be summoned, just as people are summoned for jury duty. An inspector could actually order someone showing up to vote when the poll opens to remain there the rest of the day.

Realizing that such strict application of the law would certainly raise a degree of unhappiness -- to put it mildly -- the department's policy is apply the same rule it instructs poll workers to apply in their other decision making: Use common sense.

"In a situation like that, an inspector could certainly ask for volunteers, but there's really not a need to go beyond that. A poll could operate one [worker] short, or the department could shift people around if it had to," Lippincott explained. "We would only draft [workers] in a major emergency." That hasn't happened any time within recent memory, if it ever happened.

One source of workers, which actually is provided for in the law, has all but dried up. Each major party is supposed to supply a list of eight potential workers in every election district. "The last time we got a list was for the general election in 2000. It was from one party and had four names. That's not four names per polling place, but four names for the entire county," she said.

As for machine reliability, Lippincott said that, unlike other jurisdictions where electronic 'touch-screen' are raising concerns, Delaware's machines, which have been in used since the mid-1990s, are not of the same breed.

"They may seem like they're 'touch-screen', but what you're actually doing when you touch it is pushing a button," she explained.

Some voters are still confused about the need to push the green panel at the bottom of the machine after making their candidate selections. Those who leave the machine without doing so can easily be instructed to return and do so. Those who think it should be done after each candidate selection end up voting for just one person on the ballot.

There also is a 'paper trail' created. In addition to the electronic cartridge retrieved from the machine and used to tally votes quickly, there are results printed on paper tapes taken out. And the sealed machines retain the original data until the election has been fully certified and the machines are cleared.

"The only problem we've had has been in a few cases where [poll workers] incorrectly entered the count from absentee ballots," she said. "That was human error and can be corrected."

So far, she added, there have been, literally, no machine errors.

Posted on August 20, 2004

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