Fairfax County approves commission to examine Election Day problems


Virginia residents wait in line to vote at the Penderbrook Community Center in Fairfax. (JIM LO SCALZO/EPA)
November 20, 2012

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to create a special commission to examine problems on Election Day, namely long lines that forced some voters to wait hours to cast their ballots.

“The fact that so many people came out to exercise their right to vote is a good thing,” said Chairman Sharon Bulova (D), who proposed the commission. “That so many people had to wait in long lines for several hours was not. We’ll never know how many people gave up.”

The commission’s mandate will be to study a range of issues suspected of contributing to the lines — from equipment and staffing shortages to reports of poorly trained poll workers — and to return with findings and recommendations.

Two former county supervisors, Kate Hanley and Stu Mendelsohn, have agreed to co-chair the commission, Bulova said. Other members will be appointed by the current supervisors, the county Republican and Democratic parties, and outside groups such as the county chamber of commerce and the League of Women Voters.

They’ll begin their work in January, with recommendations expected by May.

While long lines were reported across the region on Election Day, the waits seemed especially protracted in Fairfax and Prince William counties. Some Fairfax voters didn’t have to wait at all, but others endured lines that snaked around buildings. Some left without casting a ballot.

Even though polls closed at 7 p.m., those in line by then were allowed to cast ballots. The last vote in the county was recorded at 10:30 p.m.

Among other problems, elections officials have blamed a shortage of poll workers, not enough touch-screen voting machines and a high turnout of 80.5 percent, compared with 78.7 percent in the previous presidential election.

The Fairfax County Democratic Committee has alleged that waiting times were longer in heavily Democratic precincts and that some of the poll workers it supplied were prevented from serving.

The Democrats also sued the county and state the week before the election over what they called an illegal attempt by Republicans to restrict party elections observers.

The county’s general registrar, who runs the elections office under the guidance of the three-member Fairfax County Electoral Board, is a longtime Republican activist. Republicans also control the electoral board, with two of the three members, because the GOP holds the governorship.

Even though he voted for the measure, supervisor Pat S. Herrity (R-Springfield) said he worries that Democrats on the commission with ties to the county party might use the process to “do discovery work that could be used against the county” in the lawsuit.

He also expressed concern that establishing the commission might create the impression that problems were worse this year than during the 2008 presidential election, which Herrity said he doesn’t believe is true.

Supervisor John C. Cook (R-Braddock) agreed, saying that while there were issues, he thinks the election went relatively well.

“We had a clean election, and not every place can say that,” Cook said.

But some Democrats on the board disagreed.

John W. Foust (D-Dranesville) said that for some voters, such as those with children to pick up or jobs with inflexible hours, a two- or three-hour wait equates to a denial of their right to vote. He said he was especially concerned about reports of many absentee voters not getting their ballots.

“There were really serious issues with this election,” Foust said. “This isn’t just policy, it’s implementation.”

Catherine M. Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) and Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee) agreed that the problems seemed to go beyond normal hiccups and were indicative of poor preparation.

In response to Republicans’ concerns, Bulova said the commission will conduct a review, not an audit or an investigation, and said that county elections officials are in agreement with the approach.

“They stand ready to work with us,” she said.

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