When the Rev. Sandra K. James arrived to vote around 8 a.m. on Election Day 2012, she saw a slow-moving, daunting line forming around the outside of the building.
But, an hour later, James was even more surprised to see what awaited her once she got through the doors of her polling place at Potomac Middle School in Dumfries: a new line snaking through hallways and down corridors, a seemingly interminable wait ahead of her. She would wait about two-and-a-half more hours to vote, she said.
“I was surprised, especially for a national election,” said James, 54, a pastor at First Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Dumfries.
Like James, many experienced wait times of up to four and five hours on Election Day at the River Oaks precinct, which experienced some of the worst wait times in the Washington region. Seeking to keep attention on the issue, Reps. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) organized a forum with James and others at the Belmont Bay community in Woodbridge on Monday.
Connolly is hoping to gin up support for a bill he believes offers some potential solutions. Modeled on the Obama administration’s Race to the Top education program, Connolly’s FAST (Fair, Accurate, Secure and Timely) Act would give grants to states based on how well they meet several criteria, including expanding early voting and registration opportunities, cutting wait times at polling places and boosting training for poll workers.
No Republicans participated in the event Monday, but Bill Card, the chairman of the Prince William County Republican Committee, was in the audience.
He said in an interview that while there were clear problems on Election Day, including wait times that were too long, there are plenty of potential solutions besides what Connolly is offering. He called Connolly’s bill “a solution in search of a problem,” as the bill comes before a bipartisan commission’s report that has been tasked to find out what went wrong on Election Day in Prince William.
That 16-member commission began to meet recently and is expected to deliver a report this year.
“The reason we do this locally is that we understand what we need,” Card said. “When has the federal government ever fixed anything?”
Colleen Ho, 28, a Crystal City resident, had recently moved from California to Virginia before the election and didn’t yet have a state driver’s license. But she had brought her voter ID card – all she needs under state law in order to vote. Unfortunately, she said, the poll worker didn’t know that and she was asked a series of unnecessary questions in order to cast her ballot.
Ho, an Asian American, said that at best she encountered a poorly-trained poll worker and at worst she was racially profiled.
Virginia Del. Luke Torian (D-Prince William) said he experienced few problems voting at Henderson Elementary School in Montclair. He later went over to Potomac Middle School with other Democrats, including Connolly, to encourage voters to stay in line.
The River Oaks precinct has a large minority population, and Torian said he questions why his polling station, which is less diverse, seemed to have more resources than River Oaks.
“It looked like voter suppression to me,” Torian said.