This Election Day, I was in a new polling place in a largely rural township in Central New Jersey. Elections out here are usually sedate affairs, with friends and neighbors chatting, and the same poll workers year after year. Almost boring. Except when a local election heats up. This year, the election hotspot was the 2 seats on the Township Committee. Here’s the background. The township is the center of a long-running dispute over a general aviation airport which might – or might not – want to expand. It’s probably cost both sides millions in land studies, lawyers, and campaign sign. The election should have been easy: there were only 2 candidates on the ballot from one party. None from the other. No nominations by petition. But there was the usual write-in option. And the losers in the June primary were running a write-in campaign. Here’s the other twist. We still vote on old full-face electronic voting systems. So “write-in” really means “type-in” on a clunky, modal interface. That makes a write-in campaign doubly daunting. The candidates need to not only get the word out, but make sure their supporters know how to cast their votes. And, of course, it takes more time than just touching a few buttons for candidates on the ballot.
The election department was ready. We had extra machines to handle any overflow caused by the longer voting times. We were warned to make sure campaign literature was out of sight. And we had more information available about how to use the voting machines. We also had poll watchers in every district, campaigners outside the polling place perimeter, and Township police checking in at every polling place.
For the poll workers this meant figuring out how to make sure people knew how to cast a write-in vote without making our offer of instruction sound like a partisan statement. At my table, we settled on asking if anyone “needed any information about how to use the voting system” and using the Senate race to illustrate the steps to cast a write-in vote. It meant explaining to baffled voters that the postcard they were holding was campaign literature and had to be kept out of sight until they were in the voting booth. The most common reply to our request was “but I need it to vote.”