back to article The True Confessions of an Election Official

I am a PEO, a Precinct Election Official in Iowa, working on the 2008 General Election. Iowa is the first Caucus in the US Presidential Election. It's considered a bellwether state and provided the first upset victory for Barack Obama. Although I've been working with Information Technology for 25 years, the IT mechanics of our …


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  1. Jeroen Braamhaar
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    If anyone deserves the title "Defender of Democracy" it's people like PEO Pete that enable people to make their own choices about who they want to be governed by.

  2. Xander
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    An amazing insight

    Cheers, Pete :)

  3. Matt Siddall

    Title? What, where?

    Excellent article - it made for an interesting read.

    Might be nice to hear how/if you think things could be improved...

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Just how stressful is voting in the US? Or is it a case of "I'm voting for Oba*KZZZAAPP*McCain?

    Seriously, though, seemed like a good article. Glad to hear of someone enjoying their work!

  5. Sam Liddicott
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    Well done

    Well done.

    And I like your idea of using the prime directives to allow you to cut through conflicting priorities.


  6. Paul McConkey
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    Write more next week

    Great article, write a follow-up next week and let us know how it went today.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Good job both on the article and at work.

  8. Anonymous Coward
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    This is what democracy is

    Hard work to make sure it doesn't go wrong, and there are oh so many places it can go wrong. Tyranny is much, much easier - at least, at start. :-) Good article.

  9. Peter Simpson
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    Well done, PEO Pete!

    As I get ready to go and vote, you remind me of the importance of the act. I cannot thank you enough, even though I'm in MA, for doing *more* than your part to make sure everyone who's eligable to vote, gets to vote.

    Keep up the good work, and sleep soundly tonight, knowing that your work is appreciated.


  10. Jon Smit

    All that faffing around

    And there is still vote rigging on a massive scale in the largest democracy.

  11. Mike Crawshaw
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    More of the same!

    * More of the same comments above - very good article, thoroughly enjoyed.

    * More of the same writer, as suggested, a "round-up" after the fact would be great.

    * More of the same type of people, involved in the process!

    Robocop. Heh. Like it.

  12. Dave Harris Silver badge
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    A true defender of Democracy

    keep up the excellent and vital work.

    Glasses will be raised in your honour tonight.

  13. Matthew
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    Reminds me of 1994

    What a great article. Your passion for democracy shines through!

    Your stories reminded me very much of being a student in South Africa. On 14 April 1994, we had our first multi-racial democratic elections open to all citizens. The queues stretched for kilometers, people came out of their houses to serve drinks to the people waiting.

    Real-politik and reality come crashing in after election day, but those moments shine clear with hope and possibility.

  14. Anonymous Coward
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    My hat off to Pete

    What you do is admirable. Well done. You put the faith back into the farce of what's become of the US election.

  15. Warren

    I hope

    That UK elections are staffed with similarly brilliantly people. And in fact that those like Pete outnumber the prejudiced biddies in the US too.

    And also that Pete can write more for El Reg!

  16. neil hanvey
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    best article ive read on elReg

    very well written. write more!

  17. Dr Chris Thomson
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    Fantasic article

    Its nice to know that some people really do care about the vote.

  18. The Fuzzy Wotnot
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    It's great to read a story from people like this. The history books will have XYZ did such and such with his one or two supporters, but at the end of the day it's hard working grass-roots people that make history, without them movements can't happen.

    Thanks for the peek into a how the elections work.

  19. Paul

    Good on you Pete

    I'm glad to see that someone cares about democracy, and is taking care of those who need help. The idea that someone thinks "just let them mess up the vote if they don't know what they are doing" makes me sick. You give a voice to those who want to change the world, not just to those who have the money, power and education to change the world.

  20. Adrian Jooste
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    Awesome work

    Great to get some insight into the voting system over there. Thanks for putting in the extra time to inform us about what goes down in the weeks running up to a presidential election. It's no wonder there can be discrepancies and miscounts with the amount of work you guys have to get through.

    Take it easy after it's all over, mate. Sounds like you'll need it.

  21. Mike Hebel
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    Kudos to Pete!

    As someone who urges people to vote I can't thank you enough for making so many things happen smoothly behind the scenes.

    I voted with a paper ballot today smoothly and quickly and it's likely thanks to people like you.

    Thank you!

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    A reminder of what America can be

    When I grew up in thte UK in the 60's all Americans seemed to me to be like Pete - honest, friendly, decent, practical and full of common sense. I'm sure that even after Nixon, Reagan, Clinton and the Bushes large chunks of America must still be full of people like him. Hopefully the next election will let these people shine.

    Lovely article Pete and like everybody else here I hope you write a follow up.

  23. Ian Johnston Silver badge
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    What a deeply moving article. Democracy made real.

    Thank you.

  24. Smallbrainfield
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    What an excellent article.

    And what a top bloke, too.

  25. Anonymous Coward

    If McCain wins....

    "I had lots of very young, poor black kids at our ghetto site, they'd march in and declare this was their first time voting and they were here to vote for Obama and nobody else. I'd raise a finger to my lips and go "Shh..." and say "we can't talk politics in here, we're just here for the election," and then I'd look them in the eye and wink. They'd burst into a broad smile, they couldn't believe this old white guy, The Man, was on their side, helping them vote. I'd take extra time to explain how the ballot worked. I hope they become lifetime voters, whatever party they choose."

    WRONG!!!!! I do not even live in the US, but I know that most electronic voting machines DO not register vote for the president when you select straight party ticket. Thanks a lot for losing a vote for Obama, if Iowa uses one of those machines!

  26. Toastan Buttar
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    A Surprise Classic

    When I started reading this article, I didn't realise just how much it would draw me in. Turns out to be one of the most fascinating pieces ever to grace the pages of El Reg. Well done, Pete !

  27. Damn Yank
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    Good article

    I was just there 45 minutes ago... Number 17 in line at 6:14AM. That's quite a turnout in a tiny little village of coal miners and farmers. (and one IT geek)

    Our 'blue hairs' have retired over the years, and a younger (50-ish) crowd of women have taken their place... They'll have a long day ahead of them. Hats off to them.

  28. Anonymous Coward
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    That is all.

  29. Ian Ferguson
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    Fascinating article

    Thanks for taking the time to write it.

  30. Grant
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    keep up the good work and good writing

    good article and good work, keep it up

  31. Will
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    Brilliant stuff

    Heartwarmingly lovely!

  32. Secretgeek
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    Excellent article.

    Thanks Pete. It's good to know that at a fundamental level 'democracy' can and does work.

    I'm currently trogging the streets for 2-3 hours every day getting people to complete their electoral register forms (so they can take part in our own impending circus of fools) and a small compensation is the thought that every person that completes their form is another one that can choose to take part in deciding just how this country is run.

    Sometimes it's difficult to get people to see the power they have and that's why PEO Pete's are needed everywhere that democracy is supposed to be.

  33. Joe

    Zen and the art of voting

    This reminded me very much of Robert Pirsig

  34. Pum
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    Well done Pete and thanx!

    Excellent piece. As this election is for the self appointed "leader of the free world", as a Brit I also have an interest in the process and outcome. I'm glad to see people with principles still doing their bit. Well done and thanx for this highly interesting piece.

  35. Robert Fletcher
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    Another thumbs up

    Fascinating and encouraging article!

  36. Ian

    So let me get this straight... haven't yet found a minute to vote yet you found hours to write a frickin' 3 page article?

    The article was great by the way, but come on, the lack of time to vote whine at the end was... odd to say the least.

  37. Joe Cooper

    Excellent work!

    It reminds me of the line from Gandhi; "Be the change you want to see in the world".

  38. Glen Forde

    Great Stuff

    Now cast your own ballot!

  39. Anonymous Coward
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    @Ian and others

    Pete can only vote at his assigned location and the polls are not open 24 hours a day. He works a full shift helping others vote at other voting locations, then can't make it to his assigned location to vote - then spends hours of time after the polls are closed to write things up and tell us about it.

    Thumbs up for all the folks doing their best to make the elections run smoothly.

  40. John McEchron
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    Thanks from a fellow Iowan

    Pete, I voted last Saturday at the First Avenue Hy-Vee in Iowa City and I thank you for making this election such a breeze with early satellite voting. My regular polling place is at City High School, and for the primaries we had people standing in the hall because there literally was no room left to stand in the cafeteria. If we had not been given the opportunity to vote early I am sure that the lines today would be unbearable.

    I was sure to thank the poll workers when I voted and I thank you as well. Next time I vote I'll be sure to bring along something for you or your fellow PEO's to snack on.

  41. BlueGreen

    One reason why I read the reg; the unexpected

    Well done to Pete for this work, and this splinter of autobiography. Update requested afterwards.

    Well done also to whoever thought to solicit the article.

  42. Mark

    Voting rules

    I realise that the colonies decided to become independent, but they might consider retaining some of our voting rules:

    "could take their absentee ballot to Boss Tweed, mark it in his presence and seal the envelope in front of him, then he could give the payoff and drop it in the mail for the voter"

    In the UK, absentee ballots are cast in advance of the election. Having given your ballot you are still permitted to vote at a polling station, invalidating the absentee vote. I realise that is an imperfect safeguard.

    Another safeguard is perhaps of more relevance in areas where people try to frustrate voter registration. UK voters are required by law to register, although they are not compelled to vote. While we may take that rule for granted, it would be a valuable safeguard in certain parts of the US, where people try to disenfranchise certain voters.

  43. Kurt Guntheroth
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    poll workers ROCK!

    My mother-in-law used to be a poll worker in Seattle. She happened to be a Republican, in a Democrat-leaning area. This made her very valuable, because certain activities had to be supervised by workers affiliated with two different parties (to prevent hanky-panky don'tcha know). She was very proud of how hard the poll workers worked to provide a fair and honest election.

    I love the grand inefficiency of elections. We can determine the outcome with a statistical sample of a few thousand eligible voters, but that's not how we do things. We build an immense machine to run flat out for a single day (yeah, I know about early voting, it's a metaphor), then tear it down. The inefficiency is as necessary as liberty, and as beautiful.

  44. Why
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    Nice One!

    Good job mate !

  45. Skinny
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    Great Article

    Just adding to the list of people who enjoyed this article, very informative, and very well written.

    A follow up would be greatly appreciated.

  46. Alan Fisher


    Pete, I salute you! Without people like you, democracy would grind to a halt under the weight of it's own bureaucratic bulk!

    I'm interested to know though, I suspect you either know Bill Bryson or are him because, well Iowa and the writing style, seems similar; I like it anyway! If you be not he then you should be added to the rolls of praiseworthy and 'famous' Iowans! Keep up the good work and I hope you never need that defibrilator!

  47. J
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    That was great. Thanks a lot for the great article and the even greater work. Top notch stuff.

    And yes, a follow up would be greatly appreciated too. And I'm not even American either, although I do live in VA. :-)

  48. Petrea Mitchell

    Straight party voting

    "WRONG!!!!! I do not even live in the US, but I know that most electronic voting machines DO not register vote for the president when you select straight party ticket."

    What the electronic voting machines do depends on the state laws for straight party voting. In some states, if you select straight party and then mark a preference for one partisan race*, that invalidates the straight party selection and then only your votes in specific races count. In others, the straight party selection is a default for all the partisan races where you don't vote, even if you do express specific preferences in some of them.

    (Full disclosure: I learned this from being paid to proofread a manual for an electronic voting machine a couple times. If you think that pays a lot, consider me a paid lackey of the e-voting industry.)

    *Note for readers outside the US: Adding another layer of complexity, only some of the races on the ballot will allow party endorsements. Generally your city- and county-level offices are nonpartisan elections, and your state and federal ones are partisan (with the notable exception in many states of judicial posts).

  49. Do Not Fold Spindle Mutilate
    Dead Vulture

    Dead voters get to vote?

    Contrary to the article Obama's dead grandmother's advance vote will count. "Kevin Cronin, the Chief Elections Officer, confirmed that Mrs Dunham's absentee ballot, which was received on October 27, would count towards Mr Obama's final tally."

    Great article except for this.

  50. Mike Powers

    Solution to the "straight ticket" confusion

    Just make every voter mark every box. I don't know why they don't do that already, is it really such a hardship to tick "DEM DEM DEM DEM DEM DEM" instead of pulling a single lever?

  51. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Different rules in different places

    One of the more bizarre aspects of an American Election, from the point of view of a European, is the fact the there isn't a standard set of rules. So Obama's dead grandmother would have had her early-ballot pulled if she lived Iowa, but it's counted because she lives in Hawaii. And if she lived in Pennsylvania, she probably wouldn't have been allowed to vote early.

    The same goes for the argument above about whether a "straight party ticket" vote includes the Presidential race - it does in some places, and not in others, apparently.

    Of course, for European wide elections, each European country uses it's own rules, but then there aren't European-wide elections for a single office, just country-wide elections for local representation in a EU-wide parliament.

  52. Petrea Mitchell

    Dead people voting

    "Contrary to the article Obama's dead grandmother's advance vote will count."

    Nothing wrong with the article-- the author's in Iowa, and the grandmother's in Hawaii, where the laws are different.

  53. Matthew Morrison
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    Nice work, Pete.

    Good to know that some people can still find it within themselves to look beyond petty procedural niggles to the overarching principles behind them.

  54. Wayland Sothcott
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    Totally amazing article.

  55. Tim J

    Why weren't you asleep?

    Full respect for doing the job and doing it consciensiously, but I do have to wonder whether it was really wise of you to stay awake all night writing an ever-so slightly self-congratulatory account of what you've been doing on the eve of the actual election day, which you knew would be very hectic and hence would require all the energy you could muster to keep your wits about you in assisting as many people as possible to vote and vote properly.

    Is an exhasted PEO who didn't sleep the night before really good for democracy? A harsh comment perhaps, but one with a point.

  56. Roger Hughes

    @Jon Smit

    "And there is still vote rigging on a massive scale in the largest democracy."

    Although it's probably very interesting, I can't see what relevance the situation in India has to this article...

  57. Doug Southworth

    @ Anonymous Coward

    "WRONG!!!!! I do not even live in the US, but I know that most electronic voting machines DO not register vote for the president when you select straight party ticket. Thanks a lot for losing a vote for Obama, if Iowa uses one of those machines!"

    For the love of CHRIST, if you are not from the US and don't know how anything works over here, then STFU instead of opening your mouth and showing your ignorance. Laws and procedures vary from state to state, and I trust Pete's knowledge of the system IN HIS STATE a hell of a lot more than yours. And next time, if you feel the need to make an uninformed statement, have the courage to put your name on it. People like you are a waste of oxygen.

    Pete, thank you for the well written, informative article. I hope that you will write more in the future!

  58. James Butler

    @Do Not Fold Spindle Mutilate

    In Hawaii, as long as the dead person's name has not yet shown up on the dead people list by election day, the absentee vote will count. In Obama's grandmother's case, she died on Sunday evening and by Tuesday morning her name was not yet included on the dead people list, so her absentee vote counts. The dead people list is pulled from a database maintained by the state coroner's office. It could easily have gone either way, but, for you conspiracy theorists who enjoy kicking around ridiculously irrelevant notions, it is entirely possible that the state coroner's office decided to withhold publication of Obama's grandmother's demise in the list until after the election so that her absentee ballot would count, to honor her wishes. It certainly made no difference to the outcome, and there is no regulation requiring publication to the list within any particular timeframe.

    Great article, Pete.

  59. Do Not Fold Spindle Mutilate

    @James Butler

    Thanks for the well written reply. It makes a lots of sense that the dead people list can be slightly out of date.

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