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.