Virginia election problems: Large turnout, new law factors in long poll lines

Armstrong Elementary, Reston, VA . Election Day morning. Photo: John Gonzalez/WJLA

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - A monster turnout for a fiercely contested presidential election in the swing state of Virginia, confusion over a new voter ID law and staff shortages contributed to hours spent waiting in long lines at several polling places on Election Day.

Election officials and groups whose volunteers monitored precincts for fraud or efforts to impede voters say some of the backups were unavoidable, but others could have been mitigated if not prevented.

People waited in the cold for nearly four hours at some locations after polls closed at 7 p.m. Tuesday, with reports that some gave up and went home.

The law allows those in line when polls close to vote, and the longest known wait was a the River Oaks precinct in the Washington, D.C., exurb of Prince William County, where general registrar Betty Weimer said the last voter finished around 10:45 p.m.

"It was a combination of factors. The turnout was large as it is for presidential elections, though it was down just a little from 2008. There weren't such long lines in all precincts. Some people had a lot of questions and that slowed things down some," Weimer said.

Fears proved unfounded that the new voter ID law in force for the first time would generate enormous numbers of provisional ballots cast by people who failed to bring acceptable forms of identification to the polls and leave the outcome of a close race in limbo for days.

But unreasonably long waits are, in themselves, a form of voter suppression, voter protection advocates contend.

In Prince William, a major Virginia bellwether locality, only 22 provisional ballots were cast out of 180,000 on Tuesday, Weimer said.

Statewide, the State Board of Election reported a total of 6,646 as of Wednesday afternoon with only 366 attributable to the new law.

But confusion over acceptable forms of ID and time overwhelmed election officers needed to check them, residency information not updated by people who had recently moved, discrepancies between how names are spelled on ID and in poll books created bottlenecks at busy precincts, Weimer and other registrars said.

At the Dr. Clarence V. Cuffee Community Center in Chesapeake, reports of persistent long lines before the precinct even opened at 6 a.m. and delays lasting hours attracted the attention of Lara Cole from the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights under the Law.

"I saw lines going out the door and around the block," said Cole, an Arlington-based staff attorney for the organization.

She said the two election workers using electronic poll books Tuesday morning to check voters were inundated, and that local officials should have anticipated it this year after long lines for the presidential election four years earlier, still the largest number of voters ever to cast ballots ever in Virginia.

"There should have been some understanding about what to do with this sort of turnout," Cole said.

Chesapeake's general registrar, Al Spradlin, said the Cuffee Center is one of the largest of the city's 64 precincts, and many of its residents move often without remembering to update voter registration address information. When addresses on poll books conflict with those on the identification, those voters have to take extra time to fill out change-of-address forms and submit them to election officers before they can vote.

"So a process that normally takes 20 to 30 seconds is now stretched out into something that takes 2½ to 3½ minutes," he said, creating a bottleneck at the electronic poll books while voting booths open and waiting.

Normally, he said, two election officers using computerized poll books to verify a voter's registration could easily handle 1,500 to 3,000 voters. But because of the crush, he began dispatching additional electronic poll books to the Cuffee Center on Tuesday afternoon and, by 5:30, had increased the number from two to seven, including five full-time staff most familiar with the technology to aid the volunteers.

Weimer said the challenge now is to find out why the long lines developed and keep it from happening again in the 2016 presidential election, when Virginia and Prince William are again expected to be an electoral battleground.