This morning at 6am, I cast my vote for President of the United States. Our non-American readers may wonder what the actual UX of our voting process is like. I’ll tell you—it’s surprisingly primitive.
Here in my district in downtown Manhattan, the nearest polling place is at an elementary school down the block. The kids have school off today. At 6am, there was little indication that a key function of our democratic process is being enacted within; just a few photocopied signs taped to the closed door that say “VOTE HERE” in English, Spanish and Chinese (representative of this neighborhood’s dominant ethnicities).
Inside, I queued up in a hallway behind six people. A clearly posted sign and icon said “NO PHOTOS,” but that didn’t stop the Millennial girl in front of me from whipping out her smartphone and taking a photo of the crowded room beyond. I’ll describe that room in a moment.
The bottleneck at the end of the hallway is for sorting voters according to their district. Weeks or months before the election, the U.S. government mails voter cards to each registered voter. These cards have your district printed on them.
The voter sorting process is a little more prosaic than it is at Hogwarts. No singing hat, just a towering, stern-faced woman asking if you know your district. Half of those in the queue had their voter cards, and were swiftly sent to one of the many folding plastic desks around the room that had white signs posted on them with district numbers. If you forgot your card at home, as I did, you had to wait in a second queue at a desk near the front of the room.
While waiting in this queue, you have a chance to observe the room, which—at least in New York City—is filled with a wonderful example of American diversity. Just about every race you can think of is represented. The voters were both young and old, while the volunteer staff was predominantly elderly. In terms of gender, males and females were present in roughly equal numbers, and the aforementioned stern-faced woman handling the sorting was, I am 90% sure, transgender.
At this second sorting line, three volunteers look up your address in a series of binders. Surprisingly, I did not have to show my ID, only state my address. They match your address to a district number, then send you to the appropriate district desk. There is an opportunity for confusion here because these desks have two numbers, one for “Election District” and one for “Assembly District.” I overheard a couple of people being told they had mixed the numbers up and were at the wrong desk.
At this district desk, a second group of volunteers look up your name in a binder. I felt bad for the elderly woman doing the looking up at this desk, as she appeared on the verge of senility; though the binder’s pages clearly featured alphabetical tabs along the margins, she had a lot of trouble finding people’s names. The woman in front of me had a last name that began with a “T,” yet the looker-upper began scanning the “V” page, could not find the name, and announced that Mrs. T must be at the wrong desk. She instructed her to go to the front of the room and start over.
Mrs. T patiently flipped through the binder to locate her own name and was finally given a ballot.
Then it was my turn. My last name begins with “N,” and the woman tried to look me up on the “P” page. I politely pointed out the error, and she looked confused and flipped to “L.” Eventually she worked her way through the book and found my name.
Next to each name is a blank signature box, which they ask you to sign. After you sign it, they hand you the ballot, a large white sheet of paper—it feels like it’s two feet long—and a manila folder to enclose it within (presumably for privacy). Then you’re sent to the back of the room, where the voting “booths” are.
I put “booths” in quotes because at this location, the “booth” is just a lectern with a white cardboard privacy shield around it on three sides. They looked like this:
There were about twenty of these in the back of the room, mostly occupied. In the available “booth” that I took, the long red cord that is supposed to be attached to a pen was missing the pen, the ring having being pried open. Unbelievably, I suppose someone had stolen the pen.
I borrowed a pen from one of the district desks and went back to the “booth.” On the inside of the privacy shield are instructions on how to fill the ballots out: Color in the oval next to your candidates’ names, don’t enter multiple votes, how to do a write-in vote, et cetera.
I was surprised at how poor the graphic design of the ballots are, and really regret not sneaking a photo to show you; but as an example, look at this ballot from a past election:
As you can see, it would be easy for someone unfamiliar with the process—like the woman doing the looking-up at the district desk, for instance—to become confused. Let’s say in the ballot above you are voting for Cuomo. You might mistakenly think you are meant to color in each oval next to Cuomo’s name in each row, which would count as multiple votes and your ballot would then be discounted (likely without your knowledge). On the ballot I had this morning, both Presidential candidates were listed multiple times under multiple parties. In my sleepy state, I had to stop myself from coloring in more than one oval per section because the layout was confusing.
With the ballot filled out, you carry it across the room to the scanning machines. This is an LCD screen with a slot on the bottom. It looked like this:
There are no instructions as to how to orient your ballot when inserting it. A woman standing next to the machine saw my confusion and said it didn’t matter how you put it in.
I slid the ballot into the slot, which sucked it in, and expected to see some feedback on the screen repeating my choices. Instead it just said “YOUR VOTE HAS BEEN COUNTED. THANK YOU” and that was it. The woman next to the machine took my manila folder, I suppose they recirculate them.
All told, it took about twelve minutes start to finish. There’s no coffee or donuts, like I’ve seen on some places in the news, this is New York so people are just in and out with no socializing or fuss.
I was surprised that no one ever asked to see my ID; if you are a registered voter and are in the correct book, that’s all you need to be given a ballot. I’m not smart enough to know how this system could or couldn’t be gamed, but I expected something a little more airport-security-like.
If you are an American voter in a different part of the country, I’m very curious to hear what the voting process is like in your neck of the woods. If you live in a different country, I’m twice as curious to know what voting is like over there. Please let us know in the comments below.