I Still Can’t Believe It Happened

Today I went to the bank to deposit a check. When I was finished, the teller asked if there was anything else I’d like, and I jokingly said “I wouldn’t mind taking some of that 6″ stack of $50 bills off your hands!” She replied “No freebies today” and we both laughed as I replied “Maybe another day…” and walked away from the window. On the way out I went to the ATM to get some cash. As soon as I had my two $20 bills in my hand, and before the cash door closed, the machine barfed out a 3″ stack of $20 bills! I grabbed the bills, and waited for the machine to spit out my receipt, but it was apparently in a bad way, beeping madly while locked up. So, I took the $$ back in the bank and handed it to the same teller and explained what happened.

There was never any doubt, either before of after, that I would return the cash — it wasn’t mine, I knew where it came from and had the ability to return it to its rightful owner. But the striking thing to me was the fact that not one thought of maybe keeping all or part of the cash occurred to me until *after* I’d already returned it. Naturally, there are cameras on all the ATMs and in the ATM lobby, so if I’d tried to keep any of it, they’d know who took the money. But I didn’t even get close to that line of thought, because it was just automatic that I give it back, and it was done before I had a chance to even consider any other option.

Now, I don’t post this simply to pat myself on the back — instead, I’m expressing my surprise in retrospect that I acted so honestly, and that the thought of taking the $$$ didn’t even cross my mind. Yes, I’ve always thought of myself as an honest person, and would never take the money, but if I’d had to forecast my reaction to this situation, I would have at least *thought* about keeping it.

But that didn’t happen.

My last thought: the ATM model for voting machines (which has almost never been implemented) was perhaps not as good as I used to think it.

New Jersey Ballot Layout Problems

I was not one of the people who ridiculed West Palm Beach voters back in 2000 for being unable to properly read their ballots, but my roommate was. So, he and I were both chagrined to realize after we voted that we’d neglected to completely fill out our ballots. Here’s a pieced-together scan of the sample ballot sent out to all NJ residents before election day:

New Jersey 2008 Sample Ballot

Note the 11 columns of parties at the top, but only 4 offices being voted for (president, senator, representative and “freeholder,” i.e., like a city councilman but in a township, which is what Weehawken actually is). Then down below, there’s all those blocks of red.

It was only when I was showing the sample ballot to my roommate just before we went to vote at 2pm on Election Day (he’d sent in his voter registration a few days below the deadline and hadn’t received either his voter registration card or his sample ballot; I kept nagging him to send it in earlier, but…). Anyway, it was only at that point that I even noticed that the stuff in red was actually something we needed to vote on. We both read the ballot questions and the interpretations, and I decided I’d vote NO on principle to both, since I disapprove of deciding such issues via ballot initiative.

So, we both went off to the polling place two blocks away, and voted. Neither of us had voted with NJ’s voting machines before, and both of us were rather puzzled about how to do it. It’s not obvious that the X’s next to the names on the ballot in front of you are actually buttons that you push that light up. Anyway, I figured it out and voted for the four offices at the top, and then recorded my vote. My roommate admitted he’d gone through the same puzzlement trying to figure it out, and cursed me for having refused assistance when asked by the poll worker (“Oh, no! I’m sure I can figure it out! Hah Hah!”).

In any event, both of us simply spaced out on voting on the ballot measures. Indeed, a friend who is a lawyer (she’s also a brilliant viol player, and plays in my viol consort) admitted she, too, had failed to vote on these.

I wondered how many people statewide had failed to vote. Well, it turns out the the numbers for these two ballot questions were only about 2/3s of the total who voted for President, so I suspect the three of us were not alone in failing to understand.

This is bad design. If you’re going to have a huge space between one part of the ballot and the other part and you’re going to print part of what you’re voting for in BLACK and part of it in RED, then you need big arrows pointing down saying “Vote on these questions, too! –>>”.

Or so it seems to me.

Early Voting Long Lines?

One thing that has puzzled me is exactly why there were long lines for early voting two weeks before the election. If you didn’t have early voting, everyone would be voting on a single day. With early voting, you’ve got 10-12 days where the polls are open, so, theoretically, you’d be dividing up the voters into groups 10-12 times smaller than you’d have on election day.

So, why the long lines?

Say, for instance, you assume that 50% of voters will vote early. You’d need 50% as many polling place hours as you’d have on Election Day (assuming the same number of voting booths and poll workers). If, for instance, your county has 100 polling places, you’d need 50 of them, assuming you had one day of early voting. If you had 10 days of early voting, theoretically, you could get by with 5 early-voting polling places.

Obviously, that’s not going to work, because you’d still have places where more people showed up than expected. So, you might distribute your voting booths more thinly. If, for instance, at your 100 polling places on Election Day you would have 1000 voting booths, you might want to provide, say, 250 voting booths on each of the early voting days. You could do this by spreading them 10 each at 25 polling places, for instance.

If you did that, one expect that, given the law of averages, you might have a few polling places where on some days too many people showed up at once to prevent lines, but surely you oughtn’t have dozens of polling places with long lines on multiple days, as seemed to be the case from the news reports.

So, what’s up? Did the news media pick a few early voting sites with long lines and keep running the same video over and over again? Or did boards of election simply massively underprovision their early voting sites?

If it’s the latter, then why was that? It’s not like early voting was brand new — there was a lot of it in previous election cycles. Maybe the people running our local elections are just stupid. Or maybe they just aren’t trained adequately.

So far, I’ve seen no one try to explain it, except by saying “higher turnout than expected.” How could turnout be so high that it causes long lines at may early voting sites day after day? And then that there’d still be long lines on Election Day?

Something doesn’t add up.