Robert McCartney
Robert McCartney
Columnist

Democrats complain GOP contributed to long waits to vote in Fairfax

Jim Lo Scalzo/EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY - Fairfax County residents wait in line outside the Penderbrook Community Center to vote in the 2012 election.

When long lines forced some Fairfax voters to wait until 10:30 p.m. to cast their ballots on Election Day, county elections chief Cameron Quinn said the delays arose partly because she had had huge problems recruiting poll workers.

That explanation enraged some Fairfax Democrats. They complained that they’d proposed appointments of hundreds of elections officials whom Quinn and others in the Republican-controlled Fairfax elections apparatus had failed to approve in time.

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It might be a coincidence. Hans von Spakovsky, the GOP-appointed vice chairman of the Fairfax Electoral Board, said the board approved “every single individual” who filled out the necessary paperwork.

But, sad to say, it’s also possible the GOP appointees laid the groundwork for such delays to occur. They might have hoped the long lines would discourage voting in the county that is the Democrats’ most important electoral bastion, by far, in a major swing state.

It didn’t make any difference, of course. President Obama carried Virginia and the electoral college by sufficiently wide margins that hardly anyone was bothering afterward about whether the elections procedures were pure.

We might not be so lucky next time. That’s why Fairfax needs to do a thorough review of why so many people had to wait hours to vote, and figure out how to prevent such problems from recurring.

Sharon Bulova (D), chairman of the County Board of Supervisors, has proposed a bipartisan commission to do such an investigation. That study should include an aggressive look at whether the GOP’s political interest in a low Fairfax turnout contributed to the Election Day problems.

Fairfax Electoral Board Chairman Seth T. Stark wants an inquiry, as well. He is a Democrat and holds the board’s top office but is politically outnumbered by the two Republican appointees on the board. The GOP controls the board this year because the governor is a Republican.

“I think the board as a whole needs to investigate the process by which elections officials are approved and dispatched to the polls in order to ensure fair and equitable elections in Fairfax County,” Stark said.

The news in Virginia wasn’t all bad for the cause of fair elections. In particular, few problems were reported with the state’s new, Republican-backed voter identification law. I and others had been concerned the law might be manipulated to disenfranchise minorities and other Democratic constituencies. I’m happy to report those fears were not borne out.

Also, in Fairfax, there’s no question that two nonpartisan factors — high turnout and long ballots — helped create the lengthy waits at the polls.

But Quinn, who is a Republican and has the title of Fairfax general registrar, also cited the shortage of elections officials as a major cause of the delays. She told The Washington Post that she had 250 fewer poll workers than in 2008, and this year, nearly 28,000 more people showed up to vote. Her comments drew retorts from some Democrats that Quinn’s office and the Electoral Board had dragged their feet for months about approving elections officials nominated by the Democrats.

“They were throwing up every possible roadblock to us getting our people appointed,” said John W. Farrell, the Fairfax Democrats’ general counsel.

Both parties nominate elections officials to work at the polls. They must be approved first by the Elections Office, headed by Quinn, and then by the county’s three-member Electoral Board. Then they undergo several hours of training, which can happen the weekend before the election.

By the week before the election, Quinn’s office had not acted on Democratic nominations of about 250 elections officials, Farrell said. The office cited a lack of paperwork or other shortcomings that Farrell said had not caused such delays in previous elections.

Moreover, at the same time, 140 Democratic-nominated officials had been approved by Quinn’s office and were ready to get the okay from the Electoral Board. But the two GOP-appointed members of the three-member board chose not to hold a meeting as scheduled on the Friday before the election. They did so over Stark’s objections.

Von Spakovsky said the meeting was called off at the request of senior staff, who had lost two days of preparation time because county offices were closed for Hurricane Sandy. He said the Democrats’ complaints were “much ado about nothing.”

Quinn was unavailable to comment for this column because of illness, Fairfax County spokeswoman Merni Fitzgerald said. Fitzgerald said many of the names submitted by the Democratic Party, when contacted by Elections Office staff, failed to follow up or failed to attend training.

“Every year, we assume that hundreds of submitted names will drop off the list for various reasons, which is why we always try to recruit as many persons as possible,” Fitzgerald said.

If such an appetite exists, however, then why wasn’t there more urgency about getting nearly 400 Democratic-nominated officials approved to work before Election Day? Fitzgerald said the office was short by as many as 500 of what was needed.

In another curious twist, according to initial assignments by Quinn’s office, Republican electoral officials outnumbered Democrats at 55 precincts in Fairfax. State law says the numbers are supposed to be equal “if practicable.”

The Democrats complained about that in court on the day before the election, but the judge said it was too late to do anything about it. Republicans, meanwhile, said they were outnumbered in more precincts than the Democrats.

For the sake of legitimacy, let’s make sure these kinds of problems get sorted out well in advance the next time around.

 
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