“What the heck is a poll tape and why is it so important?”

Groups are looking for volunteers to photo/video poll tapes across the country.

Updated Nov. 1, 2020 Revision of participating organizations.

This isn’t such a huge issue for us here in Ventura County. Not only are we doing a mail-in election because of the pandemic, in-person voters are using paper ballots that get placed into ballot boxes, just like in your 6th grade election for class president. (But that doesn’t mean you can’t help other precincts…)

Other CA counties do have poll tapes, and states are still using machines proven to cause serious problems. How serious?
Gore vs. Bush serious. Kemp vs. Abrams serious.

Bennie Smith, a financial software developer in Shelby County, Tennessee, which includes Memphis, was contacted by a candidate after losing an election they felt they should have won in their majority Black and Democratic district. However, for years, the winning candidates were overwhelmingly white and Republican. Who was electing these people?

These confounding results were the source of numerous lawsuits. Bennie, though well-versed in computer programming, did something old-school to solve this mismatched mystery. He photographed the poll tapes from a high-density precinct and compared them to the results from the Elections office. There was a 40% difference. After a judicial ruling and the “retirement” of the elections official involved, the winning candidates finally reflected the actual votes…

(Oh, and Bennie is now an elections commissioner.) How do these kinds of shenanigans occur? Well, it appears to be a feature, not a bug.

OMG! – This is crazy. How can I help?

  • I live in an area with all mail-in elections and/or no poll tapes…
    • If you have the skills to find election results posted online and match the numbers with the numbers on poll tapes, you can help with this — even if there are no poll tapes posted in your community. Contact any of these groups to volunteer to help with analysis, which will happen after the election: 
  • I, or my friends and family, living in an area whose polling places produce poll tapes.
    • How do I (or a friend/family member) become volunteer photographers? Sign up with one of these groups.

I’m ready to be a volunteer photographer!

Before Election Day:

  • Follow the instructions of the group you’re with. If you’re starting your own group, or doing this on your own, your can use these tips. Do as much as you can. At the very least, have your state’s statute with you.
  • Email your local election official to politely inform [him/her] that you or your election integrity volunteer group will be photographing poll tapes, which is an activity guaranteed by state statute, and which will also help [him/her] assure the public of the accuracy and security of the election. (Find your local official here.)
    • Include a copy of your state’s statute regarding this activity in your email. Your election official may or may not be familiar with the statute, but they will assuredly be annoyed if you make them look it up.
      • (Find yours here. All election access statutes here and here.
      • State laws regarding recording here.
      • Guidelines for avoiding legal trouble here.
    • Request that [he/she] inform all the precinct inspectors to cooperate with your volunteers, who will either
      • arrive no more than 10 minutes before the poll closes to photograph the poll tape copy as soon as it’s removed from voting machines
      • arrive after the poll closes. Volunteers will photograph the tapes, which should be accessibly fastened to the door of the polling place.
      • In either case, assure [him/her] that volunteers will not interfere with of the precinct’s closing processes.

Getting ready

  • Locate all your district’s polling places. If you’re working with a group, divvy them up. If there are too many for you to get to before the polls close, go to the ones in the densest areas first, or places that have historically had contentious outcomes.

Election Day!

  • Get to the polling place no more than 10 minutes before they close.
  • Introduce yourself to the precinct inspector and explain what you’re doing. Wear a name card lanyard around your neck, or a badge, if you can and neutral clothing. Give them a copy of your state’s statute to read and keep. Print it out in large type if you can. Then stand out of the way until after closing time. Do not interact with voters.
  • Ask the inspector to let you start photographing the extra poll tape copies as soon as they are removed from the machines. While you may have tables or walls to use in regular room lighting, don’t get in the way of their poll closing activities. You may not finish before they’re ready to leave, and then you’ll need to take your process outside, while they lock up.
  • Ask the inspector if you can help place the tapes outside as you finish with them. At polling places we ran, we were told to tape the top of the tape to the exterior door with painters tape, and roll up the tape and rubberband it.
  • If the polling place is already closed up, the polling tapes may not be posted flat nor be well lit. Poll tapes are often posted near the main entrance, but sometimes taped behind windows. There may be more than one. Look around for any poll tapes that may have fallen or been blownaway by wind.
  • You can check with the election office as to how many poll tapes should be there and compare that with what you found.

Best Practices for photographing tapes:

  • Decide if you’d rather do still photos or videos of the tapes.
  • Practice making still photos or videos on this practice tape for videographers.
  • Bring a friend and a flashlight in case the illumination at the site isn’t strong enough for clear photos, painters tape with very light stick (DO NOT DAMAGE A TAPE! NO CUTTING OR TEARING!) and rubber bands, in case the election official wants them all rolled up when you’re done.
  • Keep your camera parallel to the polling tape. This can be quite a challenge if the tape reaches the ground, but do the best you can! Your partner can pull up the tape and hold it still for you, or you can painter-tape it to the door or wall.
  • Make sure the photo of the top of the tape, with all the polling place information is clear. Try to get the tape to fill your screen, so the information is as large and clear as it can be.

Try to center each contest within a shot with identifiable overlap between each image as you work your way down. Here’s the presidential contest with parts of both the precinct count from above and the senatorial contest below.

  • Go ahead and make your own recording of polling tapes even if you see or suspect someone else may already have done so. Independent recordings help corroborate each other.

Finish off your night with reporting:

I’m much more interested in elections now than I expected to be. Where are my people?

Join the Scrutineers at Scrutineers.org. Membership is $1.99, to ward off trolls. Totally worth it.

What can happen if no one’s watching? Oh, you mean like before Bennie Smith got involved?

This video is from Black Box Voting, founded in 2003, which is a nonpartisan investigative reporting and public education organization for elections.

The independence of Black Box Voting comes from support through citizen donations — always needed and very much appreciated! Please take a moment to become a patron by setting up a much-needed monthly sponsorship — or make a very important single donation: Click HERE.

You may be wondering what the term “black box” means. A “black box” system is non-transparent; its functions are hidden from the public. Elections, of course, should not be black box systems.

Influential reporting by Black Box Voting is referenced worldwide. Here is a link to a free copy of the book, Black Box Voting: HERE. Author Bev Harris became known for groundbreaking work on electronic voting machines, which can remove transparency of the vote count; other important reporting pertains to voter lists, election chain of custody, transparency problems with absentee voting, election industry corporate governance, and financial accountability in elections. 

Opaque, non-transparent voting can afflict voter lists, poll lists, vote counting and chain of custody; political finance can also be “black box.” The road to better transparency begins with knowledge and public, grassroots dedication. I am glad you are here!

Bev Harris

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