Report: Fairfax needs more poll workers, better technology to avoid election lines

Five months after an Election Day on which some frustrated Northern Virginia voters waited for hours in line before they could cast their ballots, a bipartisan Fairfax County commission released a report Tuesday aimed at ensuring that history doesn’t repeat itself.

The report of the Bipartisan Election Process Improvement Commission largely confirmed what local officials said soon after the 2012 results were in: More voters than expected showed up, and there were not enough voting machines and poll workers on hand to keep the lines moving. Fixing the problems will require better technology, better training and better polling places, it said.

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The commission, which was chaired by former Fairfax County supervisors Katherine Hanley (D) and Stuart Mendelsohn (R), was the brainchild of Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D). She praised the commission Tuesday for identifying “a variety of improvements and efficiencies” in the voting process.

Turnout is always high in presidential-election years, but officials were still surprised by the final tallies, the report found. Ballots were cast by 81 percent of Fairfax voters in November, compared with 32 percent for 2011’s state and local elections and 49 percent for 2010’s congressional contests.

Predictions were especially off the mark in one key department. Because absentee voting rose in 2004 and 2008, officials assumed it would continue to increase in 2012, the report notes. But it didn’t: The number ticked down, leading to more people than expected showing up in person.

Then there was the question of whether Fairfax had enough poll workers, a subject of partisan squabbling. Cameron Quinn, the general registrar, said she had significant trouble recruiting workers. But Democrats said the election officials they nominated were slow to be approved by Quinn and her fellow Republicans, an accusation that the GOP side disputed.

The report did not wade into the partisan debate — the subject of an ongoing lawsuit — but it urged election officials and the two parties to “aggressively recruit” workers who should be paid more in hopes of reducing the number of no-shows.

The report recommended that every precinct switch to electronic poll books and that the county consider upgrading its hardware and software to better track the flow of voters.

Instead of using two different kinds of voting machines, the entire county should switch to one, the report recommended. The county should also create a fund that would pay for upgrading voting equipment. And officials should seek out bigger polling places with more parking and room for lines to form inside rather than outside in bad weather.

The lengthy ballot was also a factor in last year’s delays, so the county “should not schedule multiple bond referenda in presidential election years,” the report said.

Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield), who initially worried that the panel would be used as a partisan tool for Democrats, said he was pleased by the final product. “I think there were a lot of common-sense solutions in there” that will “take a little investment,” Herrity said. “The good news is we’ve got three years to prepare for the next presidential election.”

 
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