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Will Virginia Polling Places Be Overwhelmed?

Every election cycle around this time, the conspiracy theorists and extremists from both ends of the spectrum start crying foul about frauds and mess-ups to come. True to form, we're already hearing all manner of hysteria from the left about blacks being disenfranchised and from the right about blacks being paid to register to vote.

Despite the chaos of the 2000 election, however, the vast majority of elections in this country come off without a hitch, and as government agencies go, elections boards tend to be just about the most corruption-free of all.

But that doesn't mean we aren't likely to see some difficulties next month, mainly stemming from the apparent fact that turnout is going to be strong, and in some places, unusually so.

Now comes a report from a District-based civil rights organization arguing that Virginia is especially likely to suffer from Election Day problems such as overwhelmed polling places, and that the areas most likely to be hit with such confusion and disorder are parts of the state with heavy black populations.

The Advancement Project, which bases its work on the idea that the country is still suffering from "structural racism," surveyed election day preparedness in seven battleground states and concluded that Virginia is one of three states (with Pennsylvania and Ohio) where there are insufficient poll workers recruited to handle the expected crowds and where voting machines have been misallocated (with a disproportionately insufficient number in urban areas with large black populations).

Comparing registration statistics with the number of poll workers and voting machines allotted to a particular precinct, the researchers found that in Alexandria, for example, there are 26 percent more voters per poll worker in precincts that are one quarter to one half minority than in precincts with low minority populations. In Richmond, to give another example, there are 20 percent more voters per voting machine in high minority areas than in low minority precincts.

The state Board of Elections didn't deny the discrepancy, but said that local elections officials are working to accommodate the expected crush of voters. And the state has acknowledged that it is still short about 1,600 poll workers, especially in fast-growing locales such as Loudoun County.

It's worth noting that many polling places are overwhelmed every four years, as presidential elections routinely draw massively larger turnouts than the state and local elections in off years.
With some Virginia officials anticipating turnout as high as 85 percent this year--a number that is simply hard to believe given that it's a miracle anytime more than half of registered voters actually show up to vote--the queues may indeed be daunting.

And this is a good time to thank those thousands of people who volunteer to take a long day off from work to man the polls--the pay, which runs $100 to $200, is hardly much of an incentive, so these are people who are doing their civic duty for the good of the rest of us. It's also a good time--though you'd better hurry---to sign up to do your part and help alleviate the crush at the polls while making certain that tempers remain calm and people enjoy their participation in democracy. I spent a good chunk of the last couple of presidential election days wandering around with poll workers, and I can report that with the exception of a few hotheads, almost everyone comes to the polls with good cheer, and despite the long lines, most folks are decent to the poll workers.

There's still time to sign up (in most places, you must attend a short training session before Election Day, so now is the time to get started.) If you live in Fairfax County, click here or call 703-324-4735. In Montgomery County, call 240-777-8533 or click here. In Prince George's County, call 301-430-8053 or click here. In the District, call 202-727-2525 or click here. In other jurisdictions, contact your local board of elections.

By Marc Fisher |  October 13, 2008; 8:37 AM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Mr. Fisher, it is very offensive to call persons of African American heritage, "blacks" in the manner that you have written. An acceptable term if you are using descriptors would be "black people", because that is correct. Blacks this and Blacks that is not good at all. Just an FYI. Thanks.

Posted by: Rev JD | October 13, 2008 9:48 AM

Vote absentee -- takes very little time and assures that you don't have to worry about traffic, lines, and the other what-ifs of life.

Posted by: Hobbit Mom | October 13, 2008 10:26 AM

This column would have been more informative if you had actually checked with the Alexandria registrar's office to see what shortages of workers and/or equipment they have and how they're planning to manage what is likely to be an historic turnout. As it is, you're spotlighting someone else's issue based on no new reporting.

Posted by: cjohnson1 | October 13, 2008 11:20 AM

Democratic voter turnout is going to be massive. I plan to take the day off to ensure I am able to vote. I wasn't able to vote in the primary because of the terrible ice storm that closed I-95. I didn't get home from work until 10 pm and I sure can't let that happen again.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 13, 2008 12:12 PM

I have no fear of long waits in my "majority-minority" precinct. The majority of my neighbors aren't legal and I've never had to wait more than two minutes to vote in this precinct. I think Arlington has finally caught on this year and moved resources to other precincts with much longer lines (I hope!).

Posted by: Columbia Pike | October 13, 2008 12:29 PM

As an election judge (the Maryland BOE term for poll worker), I can tell you that the only times we aren't greeted with gratitude for our efforts are 1) when we ask self-important doinks to stop jabbering and turn off their cell phones (after they've missed the dozen signs saying "NO CELL PHONE USE ALLOWED ANYWHERE IN POLLING AREA"), and 2) when, in the primaries, we had to tell unaffiliated voters that they couldn't vote in either primary, just for the nonpartisan parts like ballot questions or initiatives. At least in the case of #2 we could sympathize with them.

Posted by: The Cosmic Avenger | October 13, 2008 12:50 PM

Why is it that whenever you refer to Virginia, you're really referring to [Northern] Virginia, or in rare cases, the Richmond area? You do know that there's a whole lot more to the state, right?

Posted by: Bruce | October 13, 2008 2:05 PM

In your first graf you write that claims of minority disenfrachisement are "hysteria", but you go on to cite a credible report that Virginia is unprepared for the election--especially in heavily minority precincts. Cut the false equivalence and wake up! There is no analogy between false claims of "voter fraud" from the GOP and legitimate worries about disenfranchisement from people who have reason to fear.

Posted by: Dan Miller | October 13, 2008 2:18 PM

First, in Virginia you must have a reason for not being able to get to the polls on election day in order to vote by absentee ballot. There is no early voting such as they have in Colorado and other states.
Second, the ballot in Fairfax County, for example, is quite simple this year. You vote on 4 items: President, U.S. Senate, U. S. Congress and a Fairfax County Park Bond referendum. So, it shouldn't take individual voters long to complete their ballots.
Third, Fairfax County, in addition to the electronic voting booths, will also have available as an alternative paper ballots that are optically scanned and then saved. This should allow more people to vote at the same time in each polling place.

Posted by: John | October 13, 2008 2:23 PM

Posted by: Mike | October 14, 2008 3:15 AM

It is wrong to call Blacks "Black". They are to be called "Mastuh" since the "Messiah" is running for President. This si exactly what causes problems in the US. Blacks and other minorities take themselves too seriously. There will be rampant voter fraud in this election as the Blacks try to steal America.

Posted by: Joe Bloise | October 14, 2008 3:39 AM

Sow the wind and reap the whirlwind!

Posted by: Stick | October 14, 2008 7:46 AM

Thanks, Joe Bloise, for reminding us that people like you still really do exist and really do need to be watched out for.

If this isn't a reason for normal, rational people (of all races and political parties) to vote, especially in Virginia, I don't know what is.

Posted by: Rick | October 14, 2008 9:10 AM

1. In Virginia, absentee balloting may lead to your vote not counting, but you can pre-vote, in Fairfax County, at any supervisory government office, and that vote will be counted on election day.
2. The new voting procedures in Virginia, encourage voters to make a paper ballot which they, the voter, will feed into a scanner. The mechanics of the process may create problems.
3. My son went to poll training in Virginia. Rude is the mildest epithet he can come up with to describe the trainers.

Posted by: John Dickert | October 14, 2008 9:16 AM

" I have no fear of long waits in my "majority-minority" precinct. The majority of my neighbors aren't legal and I've never had to wait more than two minutes to vote in this precinct. I think Arlington has finally caught on this year and moved resources to other precincts with much longer lines (I hope!)."

Posted by: Columbia Pike | October 13, 2008 12:29 PM

Just a word of advice from the son of an immigrant. My dad came here legally and had his Permanent Residence aka Green Card for many years before becoming a full citizen. Permanent Residents cannot vote, yet they're not "illegal" as per your post. I know a lot of people in the "minority-majority" section of Arlington you speak of and they have their Green Card. They're legal residents, they just cannot vote as they're not citizens.

Posted by: Rafael | October 14, 2008 9:36 AM

I've only recently worked inside on election day. (I normally handed out literature outside.) If the primary was any indication, there will be LOTS of new voters. While this is wonderful, they may be a bit slower than more experienced voters. In addition, this is a hotly contested race. (In 2004, there were long lines outside my polling place from when it opened until 9 or 10 a.m. Very unusual.) I suspect that it will be much easier to vote, say, after 9:00 a.m. If you can do that, it would be a real help at the polling place.

Posted by: Fairfax | October 14, 2008 9:50 AM

Bruce- The reason why the Post is more concerned with Northern Virginia than the rest of the state is because the Post is circulated in the Washington metro area which does not include Virginia Beach, Roanoke, etc. If you want read local news about those areas buy a newspaper from one of those cities. Duh.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 14, 2008 9:51 AM

I'm really surprised by this article, which is either based on old reporting (using an article from Sept. 1) or has Election officials saying one thing and doing another.

I say this because I went to the Virginia State Board of Elections website and they say: "Thanks to the overwhelming support from volunteers, corporations, public officials and media outlets, we have recruited thousands of individuals to serve as Officers of Election. We have reached our goal of having a sufficient number of Officers in each locality."

Mr. Fisher, I think you should revisit and revise your article based on this information.

Posted by: Neighbor | October 14, 2008 9:54 AM

This may be a tangential point, but isn't it about time we did away with the quaint "First Tuesday in November" tradition? Most European countries have their elections on Sunday and the polls are open until late in the evening. Having an election on a weekday most folks are going to want to hit the polls before or after work, and given the fact that in most states they close at 7-8 pm these isn't that much time. As a result when we get a turnout of about 60% like last-time (a figure that would be embarrassingly low in Europe) there is turmoil. I also think the weekday poll is biased toward better educated, professional people, who have much more freedom to step out during the day to vote than, say, a domestic or fast-food worker.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 14, 2008 11:33 AM

My polling place in central Arlington always had long waits in recent years. One year (2000 or 2004), I waited over two hours. The Post has never shown any interest in reporting on these delays, presumably out of political considerations.

Posted by: Tom T. | October 14, 2008 12:11 PM

The good part about the opti-scan ballots is that you don't need a voting booth to complete them. In other words, more people can get through the polling place in a shorter amount of time than they would if you need to use the touchscreen.

Posted by: Rob63 | October 14, 2008 12:19 PM

While generally speaking, most precints do not experience major delays, those precints that do tend to be centered in urban, majority-minority districts. For instance, in 2004 in some Ohio communities, voters had to wait in line several HOURS to cast their ballot. I am guessing this will even be more widespread in 2008 based on the higher voter turnout expected. The fact that you call this "hysteria", while in fact the data shows otherwise, is really insulting.

Posted by: EMB | October 14, 2008 12:56 PM


Posted by: jake | October 14, 2008 2:42 PM

I am planning to vote this week in Arlington. VA law only requires that you are working+commuting for 11 out of the 13 hours the polls are open. I meet that requirement. But there are also many other reasons why can state that you will be unable to make it to the polls on election day.

My precinct is the largest by far in Arlington. Over 5000 registered voters according to the stats I looked up after the primary. I would guess that number is even higher now. The next largest precinct had about 3000 registered voters. I had to wait in line for at least 90 minutes to vote in the primary. Many people who were in line left without voting. During the 2004 election the line was out the door and way around the block. That was another wait of at least an 90 minutes. Yet Arlington refuses to split this precinct into smaller chunks. We live in a densely populated area (Ballston) with lots of politically aware people who actually show up to vote. The county needs to create more polling places with shorter waits.

Posted by: Glenn | October 14, 2008 2:47 PM

Now that ACORN has spread to Virginia, they are signing up as many voters without borders as Mark Warner can manage and the voter registration is already over whelmed.

Gerry Connolly is helping out all he can by hiring illegal alien translators on Fairfac tax dollars to help ACORN recruit other illegals in exchange for the 30000 illegal votes - make that 120,000 illegal votes because the ACORN illegals will register four times in for different districts then vote four times in four different districts.

Connolly and Warner and their confederates at ACORN have no scruples - they should fit very nicely within the pit of the current Congress.

Barnie and Nancy are going to love Connoly's plan - he bought 10 foreclosed dilapidated houses for $10 million. Wait till he gets a hold of the federal budget.

Posted by: tom jefferson | October 14, 2008 3:05 PM

Voting day should be a national holiday. Make sure everyone who wants to vote does it stress free.

Posted by: moe | October 14, 2008 3:07 PM

It would be really smart of those groups or individuals--often public employees--who have election day off to volunteer as poll workers, election judges, etc. This would be particularly true for teachers who may not have children at home who need supervision on their day off. What a wonderful to say "Thank you" to the citizens who pay their salaries. Also, because of their teaching abilities, they could be very helpful to those needing help or instruction at the polling places.
I am surprised that no teachers' organizations have stepped forward with such a suggestion or recruitment effort. If they have, they missed the boat on publicizing their efforts.

Posted by: jmsbh | October 14, 2008 3:36 PM

Too late for this year, perhaps, but please, please let's move to plain old "early voting" (meaning "no-fault" absentee voting in advance). The advantage is simple. For every person who votes early, the lines are one person shorter on Election Day.

While that dream is not going to be realized this time, it is true that many people in Virginia actually can "vote early" (technically, absentee in advance). There is a laundry list of reasons that allow you to vote absentee, either by mail-in ballot or on an actual machine. But you do have to fit one of those reasons -- most of us probably do, but some don't. It would just be easier to say that you can vote ahead of time in some defined period and we don't care what your reason is.

By the way, as others have noted, at least in northern Virginia (and I think throughout the state), absentee ballots are counted on Election Day. That means that all votes are counted the same way and make the same difference.

Posted by: Fairfax Voter | October 14, 2008 5:41 PM

You're right "jake", this country would be SO much better off being run by ignorant, close minded fools that can't type nor spell such as yourself.

Posted by: mudbug | October 14, 2008 6:07 PM

"It is wrong to call Blacks "Black". They are to be called "Mastuh" since the "Messiah" is running for President. This si exactly what causes problems in the US. Blacks and other minorities take themselves too seriously. There will be rampant voter fraud in this election as the Blacks try to steal America."

Bask and revel in the stupidity, soak up its' rays and glory with unadultered joy....

I salute you, sir. Stupidly.

Posted by: Joe'sBlackLoveChild | October 14, 2008 7:43 PM

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