Back-stage tour of election headquarters: numbers tell the story

Ten days before the high-stakes 2018 midterm election in Missouri, Eric Fey, St Louis County’s director of elections, led a group of high-schoolers on a back-stage tour of election headquarters. Three months from now, he’ll be in the warehouse, overseeing the de-tangling and re-rolling of miles of orange extension cords used to power up the Nov. 6 election. The highs of making big-news elections work, and the lows of post-election mop-up are the bookends of a job that few voters understand.

Correction: Fey is actually co-director of St. Louis County’s Board of Elections, and that’s important to know. He’s a Democrat. The other co-director is Rick Stream, a Republican. In St. Louis County, we get two directors, because, by Missouri law, all election administration has to be bi-partisan. Every function requires a Republican and a Democrat: You need an R and a D to open the door to the tabulation room. You need an R and a D to approve every absentee ballot. You need an R and a D to check voters’ IDs at every polling place.

“The only thing you can do here by yourself is go to the bathroom,” says Fey. “Everything else requires a bi-partisan team.”

In the world of election administration in the US, that’s unusual. Across the US, 70 percent of election officials are, themselves, elected, and there’s no requirement for party balance—which can lead to doubt about independence and fairness. “The person counting the votes is, him or herself, on the ballot,” comments Fey. “That doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world.”

That’s just one of the intriguing tidbits Fey shared during the two-hour tour that took us into places most people never get to see: the areas where election workers process voter registration cards, verify signatures on petitions, respond to requests for absentee ballots, sort out mailed-in ballots, electronically count the votes, and service voting machines—among myriad other election-critical tasks.

During the tour, Fey reeled off some key statistics that offer insight into the scope of the St. Louis County election operation. Here’s an annotated rundown:

Polling places in St. Louis County: 411  [The largest election district in Missouri]

Registered voters in St. Louis County:  750,000

Active voters in St. Louis County:  650,000

Workers employed on Election Day:  3,500

The election board is constantly recruiting election day workers—begging, really. The hours are terrible—5 am to 7 pm or later, depending on how things go. The pay is lousy — $125, which covers a separate two-hour training session plus the 14+ hour day. And it’s all one shift.

Election Day payroll:  $600,000  [The largest line item in the election board’s budget]

Petition signatures verified in 2018:  approximately 400,000

The 2018 midterm ballot in St. Louis County includes 4 amendments to the Missouri constitution, 3 statewide propositions, one countywide proposition, and  7 amendments to the St. Louis County charter. It’s the longest ballot ever produced in Missouri history, Fey noted. [His office, though not responsible for the wording on the ballot, had to negotiate with various sponsoring groups to edit the propositions, because, as originally written, they wouldn’t all fit on one piece of 8 1/2 x 19″ paper, which is the largest size that can be read by optical scanners.]

For every petition initiative, county election workers had to review each signature—to verify that the signer was a registered voter in St. Louis County and the signature matched—within reason—their original voter registration.

Early voting days in Missouri:  0

Missouri is one of just 13 states that do not allow early voting, notes Fey. Ninety-percent of voters cast their ballots on Election Day, putting a lot of pressure on Fey’s operation all in a single, 14-hour day.

The only “early voting” option is to vote absentee, either by mail or in person at headquarters or at a satellite location, if the jurisdiction opts to have one.  You have to provide a reason for voting absentee. Disability, being an election worker, or being outside of the voting jurisdiction on Election Day are acceptable reasons, so many people just say they’re going to be out of town. They are not required to show proof. “Our rules make liars out of a lot of voters,” says Fey.

In the cavernous, bare-bones warehouse that looks spookily like a set from “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Fey showed our tour the election-day equipment he manages, and explained the limitations of what he has to work with:

Touch-screen voting machines:  1,800

Optical-scanner voting machines:  500

St. Louis County uses touch-screen machines purchased in 2005, at a cost of $10 million. Fey noted that the technology is 20+ years old. The machines operate on the now-antique Windows XP, which is no longer supported. Replacing broken touch-screen machines is not possible, because a) they are no longer manufactured by the supplier, ES&S, and there is no additional inventory. Only about six companies make voting machines in the US, and they haven’t been interested in maintaining their older models as they roll out newer ones.  “It’s a racket,” says Fey; and b) You can’t fill in, incrementally, with newer machines, because they won’t work with Windows XP, which is also the operating system for the equipment that counts the votes.

Also, you can’t borrow replacement machines from other Missouri jurisdictions, because many don’t use this model: In Missouri, each county election board is its own fiefdom. There are no statewide standards for voting equipment, so each county decides, independently of others, which equipment to buy and from which vendor. [On the plus side, notes Fey, it could be argued that this decentralization of the voting process is a positive—a fortuitous defense against widespread tampering.]

A few years ago, Fey learned that the voting district in in Troy, MO experienced an equipment disaster, when the roof of their warehouse caved in in a rainstorm, soaking all of their ES & S voting machines. The district’s insurance policy covered the purchase of new equipment. Fey took in the salvageable machines and cannibalized them for spare parts.

“The dirty secret in election administration is that we hope for a crisis—but not here,” quips Fey. He further explains that the hanging-chad debacle in Florida, during the 2000 presidential election, created a national electoral nightmare—which, in turn, resulted in Congressional legislation and federal funding for more advanced voting equipment. Although Fey is constantly asking for money for better technology, the state legislature and the county council just won’t come up with the funds, citing other, more pressing priorities. As an aside, Fey notes that rural jurisdictions have found it easier to upgrade their equipment, because they need fewer machines, so the overall cost is less.

“Our only hope is that money falls from the sky again, as it did after 2000,” says Fey.

So, with all of this creaky equipment, how does Fey know that votes are being recorded properly?

“We conduct a Logic and Accuracy test,” he explains. “We ‘vote’ on every machine in the warehouse, before they are sent out to polling places. This mock ‘vote’ has a pre-determined pattern that we can check for accuracy. This Thursday—five days before the election—is test day.”

Electronic poll books:  1,200

These i-Pad type tablets recently replaced the cumbersome, paper tomes that contained the names, addresses and precincts of all registered voters in St. Louis County. Election workers had to paw through hundreds of pages to find each voter as they came in to the polling place. Electronic poll books are a good-news, advanced technology update for Fey’s domain that are streamlining voter check-in. But a recent court fight over voter ID forced Fey’s IT department to reprogram the electronic poll books to match the new ruling [details, if you’re interested, here.] “We’re reprogramming 10 days before the election,” says Fey. “It’s a nightmare.”

Metal transport cases for Election Days supplies:  400+

These institutional-gray, banged up cases—an average-sized person could fit inside — look like they’ve been around for 50 years. Election workers stock them with all the standard paper forms and ancillary equipment [chargers, extension cords, pencils, pens, signs, forms and even American flags] needed at every polling place. It takes six days to deliver all of them. It takes three months—as noted before—to untangle the extension cords, clean out leftover materials and trash, and restock them for the next cycle.

“If you’re wondering what the heck we all do after the election, this is a big part of it,” says Fey.

election heaquarters
Tabulation room: St. Louis County Election HQ

Another stop on our tour was the tabulation room, where the actual votes are counted. Fey says that 98 percent of ballots in the US are counted electronically—as is also the case in St. Louis County. While some voting-rights purists wish that ballots were counted by hand, so that they cannot be electronically hacked, Fey contends that hand-counting itself can be subject to cheating, too.

Fey assured us that his tabulation machines are tamper-resistant, because they are not networked together [they are “air-gapped”] and are not linked to the internet. Nor are the electronic voting machines at polling places linked to each other or to the internet. Each voting machine records its votes separately from all others and stores the votes on a separate storage device. Election supervisors deliver the storage devices—in addition to paper votes recorded on optical scanners—to the tabulation room, where they are catalogued and entered into the tabulation machines.  Results are posted to the internet using what Fey calls a “sneaker net.” Wearing his election day sneakers, he walks the tabulated results to another room, where they are posted to the internet for public viewing.

At the end of our tour, Fey invited the high-school students to participate in an innovative, election-day internship program: While you must be 18 to be an election official, students 16 and older can work at polling places, timing the vote and conducting exit surveys to assess voters’ experiences of the process. Interns can be paid either in community-service hours or in real dollars [$120].  Nearly half of the 25 students on the tour took application forms—an encouraging sign about the next generation of voters.

The big stress test for Fey’s operation will, of course, come on November 6. I came away with the impression that with Fey in charge—equipped with his attitude of openness, fairness, bi-partisanship and transparency—we’re in good hands around here. But I’ll still be staffing a shift outside a polling place, as an Election Protection volunteer.