Thursday, January 10, 2013

Voter Complaints Reveal Election Day Chaos In Virginia

The Virginia State Board of Elections received dozens of complaints from voters across the Commonwealth about the November elections, suggesting widespread issues beyond just the long lines emblematic of 2012 swing states. Correspondence obtained by ThinkProgress under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act shows voter complaints alleged significant problems including understaffed polls and errors made by poll workers.

The dozens of complaints submitted mostly fell into a few areas:

1) Insufficient equipment and staffing at polling places. Voters in Arlington County, Chesterfield County, Norfolk, and Prince William County complained of long lines and insufficient numbers of poll workers. Virginia State Board of Elections Secretary Donald Palmer told ThinkProgress that while a few jurisdictions shortage of poll workers, lack of equipment was a more widespread problem. “The long lines were the result of people waiting for a voting system. Virginia localities utilize a large number of electronic voting systems (DREs) and there is no way to purchase or acquire new or additional DREs to meet the highest possible demand for voting equipment. Virginia will need to provide resources for localities to transition to paper based voting systems, which will increase overall capacity to meet high numbers of voters and the speed of the voting process.”

2) Confusion among poll workers about the the state’s voter ID laws. While Virginia’s revised voter ID law requires voters to present one form of identification, several voters complained that local election officials improperly demanded too much. In Arlington County, Henrico County, Newport News, Prince William County, Richmond, and Washington County, voters were allegedly asked for multiple forms of ID or had their valid ID rejected (the chief election official in Prince William County assure the state board that the allegation against that county was incorrect). A voter in Chesterfield County claimed that a “large handmade sign on poster paper that listed the forms of identification allowed,” but “neglected to indicate that a current utility bill, bank statement, government check or paycheck indicating the name and address of the voter was acceptable.” Secretary Palmer told ThinkProgress the state conducted multiple voter ID trainings for local election officials and that “there were relatively few complaints from voters on the issue of ID on election day.” He added that the state provides official posters listing acceptable forms of ID and that “it would be a rare case in which a hand-made poster would be permitted inside a polling place,” but promised to look into the matter.

3) Errors by poll workers. Voters in Chesterfield County, Culpeper County, Fairfax County, and Fauquier County alleged that election officials had incorrectly marked them as having already voted, even though they had not yet done so. In two cases, replies from the state board noted that these presumably resulted from “operator errors.” Another voter, in York County, complained that an elections official gave biased instructions to voters. He claimed that a poll worker had called out: “Vote for only one Republican for president, err, I mean, candidate. That is me showing my true colors.” Secretary Palmer noted to ThinkProgress that local electoral board investigations determine “whether the provisional ballot voted was a result of fraud or operator error. Sometimes the error is quickly realized by the poll workers; however, the potential duplicate voting is investigated by the local electoral board.” York County registrar Walt Latham told ThinkProgress than he received only that one complaint and that workers were specifically instructed to avoid offering personal opinions to voters. If the voter correctly heard the poll worker, Latham added, “I apologize for the incident.”

Secretary Palmer also noted that the State Board of Elections has identified several areas for future improvement. “Some are legislative in nature and some are steps that the election community may take to mitigate the changes of inordinate lines,” he said. The board “would also recommend that the Commonwealth fund a grant program for localities over the next four years to finish the transition to paper-based voting systems prior to the 2016 presidential election. Over 90 percent of the Commonwealth uses electronic voting systems (DREs) and the current election code prohibits the purchase and acquisition of additional DRE machines to meet the demand of high volume elections. The DREs have reached the end of their life-span, thus a grant program to transition to paper voting systems would allow localities to increase the number of voting systems and more quickly process voters waiting in line to vote,” he added.

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