Virginistan: Problems Begin to Appear with Early Voting in Key State

In Virginia, one of the key swing states in the election, it has been well known for months that there would be a likely record turn out. However, early voting problems are being reported across the state. Much like Ohio in 2004, people are reporting what appears to be a knowing failure to properly staff election offices to accommodate the crowds, forcing people to either leave or wait for hours. I personally witnessed the problem this weekend.

Because I will be out of town covering legal aspects of the election, I had to vote early in McLean, Virginia. Fairfax County is viewed as Obama’s only hope to win the state. If there is a big turnout in Fairfax, he hopes to overcome the deep red voting patterns in other parts of the state. Moreover, election officials knew that both campaigns were encouraging people to vote early and that record of numbers of people were registering. Finally, I have learned that there have been two to three hour lines at these offices for a week. Yet, no one wanted to remove the obvious problem causing the bottleneck in this critical country. Why? Whether it is staffing or technical problems, the county could have removed the barriers by the second day for problems, but chose not to.

I arrived at 10 am to vote with the kids and found a line wrapping around the McLean Government Center. It took almost three hours to vote. The reason? The county put in only two telephone lines to clear every early voter. So, thousands of people were funneled into a room where they discovered two overworked volunteers calling a central number for each and every voter. I asked who was responsible for the obvious lack of resources and I was told that it was the county officials who only allowed for two phone lines to be running in the election office. One of the officials rolled her eyes and said that it was obvious from the start that the two lines would not be able to accommodate the expected numbers but the county officials would only approve two lines for the expected thousands of people who would come for early voting.

No one in their right mind would believe that such a system could handle these numbers. It raises very troubling questions. At best, it is a case of truly moronic planning. At worst, it is willful blindness bordering on voter suppression. I saw dozens of people (including many elderly people) simply leave after an hour. I also saw elderly people struggling to remain standing. We assisted a couple of elderly voters in finding a chair that could be moved with them and held their place in line as it snaked back and forth in a hallway. One World War II marine veteran with two canes said that he felt he was back in combat.

It reminded me of the problems that I saw covering the legal issues for CBS in 2004 where officials expressed surprise when voters were left waiting for hours due to few machines or insufficient staff. These officials have limited duties, but this is one of the most basic: to guarantee that people can vote easily and promptly. This is the most important period for these officials and they have already failed miserably to shoulder their responsibilities. Notably, this was not a problem of unverifiable voters. Every single voter went through the same process. Once you made it into the room, you were told to sit down and wait for your name to be called after your name was confirmed on one of the two lines. It was like a scene out of some former Soviet republic as thousands waited for antiquated systems to record their votes. However, this was Virginistan.

What is equally alarming is that NPR and other new outlets are carrying warnings from election officials for voters to expect very long lines on election day, here and here and here and here. A recent report shows that critical states are unprepared for the expected number of voters on election day. In Georgia, there is a proposal to allow voters to vote through the weekend because officials are so unprepared for the vote turnout.

Why? After both 2000 and 2004, Congress gave millions and millions to the states to avoid these problems. Did these officials just learn about this election or the unprecedented interest in its outcome? Why do they constantly sound like some teenagers throwing a prom party and being surprised when most of their class shows up only to find a single six-pack and bag of chips?

Once again, this is one of the most basic demands of state and municipal officials. It appears that officials have once again failed to order sufficient machines or hire sufficient staff to allow people to vote without jeopardizing their work or abandoning their families. I hear voters openly stressing whether they can afford to vote because of these delays. To make matters worse, election officials have succeeded with many voters in convincing them that this is simply the norm and not the result of obvious negligence. We should not treat long delay like it is complaining about the weather — somehow out of our control. These lines are the result of decision made by officials, who either intentionally or negligently underestimated the resources needed for the election. Since the shortage of machines was reported weeks ago, if not months ago, it hardly seem accidental. My question is where did all that money go if we are still waiting in line for hours and choosing between our jobs and our desire to vote.

Obama’s suggestion of a national holiday for voting may be the wrong way to address this problem. The problem is not that voters are not willing to give hours to vote but that officials are requiring such a commitment. Politicians constantly complain that average citizens in this country are not voting in the same numbers as other nations. However, even after 2000 and 2004, these same officials have done little to make it reasonably simple to vote.

In the short term, what concerns me is that the many people who walked away in frustration may not vote. They obviously were trying to vote early for a reason. The result is the loss of those votes for McCain or Obama due to either intentional or reckless failures on the part of Fairfax County. Even if these phones are due to the two parties challenging every single voter, election officials failed to create a system to allow for more speedy verification by limiting a major election place (for the entire county and three congressional districts) to two outside phone lines.

This is now a national problem as discussed here and here.

23 thoughts on “Virginistan: Problems Begin to Appear with Early Voting in Key State”

  1. Good question, JT. In the meantime…


    Truthout Original
    Greg Palast and Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: “Steal Back Your Vote!”

    Tuesday 14 October 2008

    by: Sari Gelzer, t r u t h o u t | Report

  2. Rafflaw:

    I tried to find out why each voters was called in for verification. My impression was to ensure that they did not vote by mail or that every voter was being challenged by the Obama and McCain camps (both explanations were given by different people at the government center). I heard today that there were six-hour lines in California. What does it take to get fired as an election official in these states?

  3. @ ET: “Additionally…isn’t it time that Election Day be made a Federal and State holiday nationwide?”


    Given some of our current holidays, I think your suggestion would be 1 of the 4 most important and productive holidays of all along with the Memorial, Veterans, and Independence Day Holidays.

    Thanksgiving Day is a joke and since we have 2 holidays in November, TD should be changed to the Election Day Holiday earlier in the month.

    As a former federal employee, we Do Not need another nonproductive holiday off! Many federal employees are unproductive enough with another excuse to slack off.

  4. I like the Oregon method and I do not understand why that or an email voting process can’t be utilized. It would be so much more efficient and cost effective. My only question is how do they handle large numbers of votes in a short period of time? Are the voting letters read by a computer? And can the system handle the volume in a national election with many larger states votes? I believe that this upcoming Congress should look into the mail in voting process.

  5. How about Oregon the whole state votes entirely by mail!

    – – – –

    Absolutely! It’s convenient, verifiable, efficient and timely. The rest of the U.S could learn a lot – and disenfranchise fewer voters – by adopting the Oregon model.

    It is just reprehensible that there are hours-long voting processes in what professes to be the model for Western democracy.

    Additionally…isn’t it time that Election Day be made a Federal and State holiday nationwide?

  6. Prof. Turley:

    I’m so sad/sorry to hear what you and other voters (especially the elderly or disabled) have had to endure in order to vote.

    THANK-YOU for all the good work you have done and continue to do pursuing JUSTICE FOR ALL!

    How about Oregon the whole state votes entirely by mail!

  7. Prof. Turley,
    I forgot to ask you earlier why the county needed phone lines to “clear” every early voter? Is this normal? Why have the voter registration lists if every voter has to pass a phone call inspection? I have never voted early before and my wife didn’t experience the phone call requirement here in Illinois when she voted early.

  8. I heard this idea on the npr program, “On the Media”. It seems like one way to stop some of the cheating.

    Photo Finish
    October 31, 2008

    On election day, whether you pull the lever, touch the screen or punch the card you always pull the curtain. But a number of people this year are advocating you make your vote more public by photographing it and uploading it to the web. David Ardia of Harvard’s Citizen Media Law Project explains why this year your vote should be worth a thousand words.

    For more information on recording your vote, please visit:
    Download MP3 |

  9. Completely off topic, JT

    The Da Vinci Code is on TNT now (8-11pm)
    and again at 11pm-2am

  10. Prof. Turley,
    If we had not experience this same problem in 2004 and 2006, I might agree that there was a chance that what you experienced was gross negligence. In ight of the problems that you reported along with people in Georgia waiting in line for 10 hours to vote early, it is easy to repeat what has already been said. The Republicans are continuing their nation wide vote supression tactics and until and unless we get Obama into office, this will only get worse. I implore anyone who is in line, do not leave. This election is too important. I will be voting on Tuesday in a very Republican county so I will make sure that I get there early in order that I can still make it to work. There is absolutely no excuse for these kind of delays after what we have already experience since 2000.

  11. Ditto, here, LEO.

    I can get probably to the polls on Election Day, but given how important this election is, chose to request an Absentee Ballot weeks ago and personally deliver it.

    The earliest thoughtful prediction regarding encryption technology
    was that it could be readily applied to voting.

    Like you, I find it amazing we’re not there – yet!

    There is still something to be said for showing up, standing in line, and sharing the mutual experience of voting with your fellow community members. And people would do it willing if it were not made so unpleasant.

    I agree with JT. If that was my experience, and the poll worker was rolling her eyes at me, a Constitutional law professor, I would
    be making a stink – early.

    Those elderly people who could not stand, for hours, should not have been simply allowed to leave without having had some reasonable accommodation made for their return at another time.

    In Fairfax Country? That’s despicable!

  12. Helen,

    You can get a vote-by-mail ballot just as I did. I most likely reside in a much more rural area than where you live.

    Let’s all work together following this election to ensure that there are no voting irregularities whatsoever again in a Nation where registration and other problems are currently commonplace.

  13. JT, here’s a ‘scoop’ for you and my fellow turlees…


    October 30, 2008
    The Crotchety Spoilsport Gets Results!

    Ben and Jerry’s announces: “On the evening of November 4th, from 5 — 8 pm, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream Scoop Shops will be giving away free scoops across the nation. ‘Originally, we planned to give free scoops away just to those who voted. We found out afterwards that certain laws may not allow it. So instead we’re celebrating our election with a national party,” said Walt Freese, Chief Euphoria Officer of the Vermont based ice-cream maker. ‘Democracy never tasted so sweet,’ added Freese summing up the effort. ”

    My work is done.

    Oh wait. My r.a., just pointed me to this Krispy Kreme giveaway.

    Posted by Rick Hasen at October 30, 2008 02:50 PM

  14. It is not fair that Democrats who tend to dominate in urban areas are allowed to have almost 2 weeks of early voting. The suburbs and rural areas who tend to vote Republicans only have one day to vote, thus imagine if there was bad weather or the like on that one day.

  15. Voting is *the* keystone and/or the principal pillar of our Democracy. As a 60-something-year-old man, I have seen voter apathy as the norm. I am astonishingly gratified to see the meaning behind those long voting lines whilst concurrently distraught by the reasons for those lines.

    The only means by which voting irregularities are going to change after this election is to enlist the support of Constitutional scholars such as Professor Turley et al. to revamp the election process, given that voting is at the very core of preserving our Constitution. The Constitution’s failure is guaranteed when voting rights are suppressed by any means whatsoever, intentional or otherwise.

  16. This is precisely why the Obama campaign urged folks to vote early. Voter roll discrepencies, inadequate voting machines and/or poorly trained or insufficient numbers of poll workers, etc. were contemplated to be either tactics to suppress turnout or glaring examples of incompetence which can be corrected–some hopefully before the official Election Day.

  17. If what I saw was not intentional, it was gross negligence. Someone should be investigated or fired.

  18. I know I can’t out-macinate the cheneybush people, I’m just certain there will be trouble during and after this election. Therefore I cannot think of a more important time for every citizen of this nation to hold true to their conscience. It can’t be my party or my candidate, right or wrong. We have gone 8 years without the rule of law. There is only one way to recover it and that is to hold on to an honest intellect and an honest heart, no matter what.

    I’m glad to know that many lawyers and other citizens have mobilized to get people to the polls and to record instances of “irregularities” and such actions as JT mentioned above.

    It doesn’t matter if it’s the Democrats or the Republicans doing something they shouldn’t. We cannot cede our conscience to either candidate or it truly won’t matter who is elected. The accountablity of elected officials to the people is paramount to a democracy. Please hold true to this for the sake of this nation.

  19. I understand the concern some people have with computer/electronic voting (possible manipulation); however, I suggest that the only practical solution, especially given the younger generations’ computer literacy, is voting online over the Internet.

    Look at all we do online:

    • Pay bills
    • Pay taxes
    • Trade multiple millions of dollars in the stock market
    • Critical confidential online banking
    • And many others

    Therefore, voting online seems an obvious solution. We could each have a unique encrypted ID and receive a receipt of our vote. Fraud is no more likely with voting than it is with other legal and confidential transactions we current conduct online in the 21st century.

    For those who did not have access to a computer at home, there are computers available at libraries and other public venues and the timeframe for voting could easily be spread over a long period.

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