To Avoid Jams, More Voting Machines Sought

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Fairfax voters will face long lines at the polls Nov. 4 if the county fails to acquire more voting machines, election officials have warned.

According to the minutes of the county Electoral Board's January meeting, General Registrar Jacquelynne C. Harris said that at least 300 optical scanner machines, at a cost of about $2.5 million, are needed to avoid serious logjams at the 228 polling places. Last Tuesday's enormous turnout for the state's presidential primary, in which more than 207,000 ballots were cast in the county, has only heightened concerns.

County Executive Anthony H. Griffin, facing a tight budget year because of falling property tax revenue, said he had been briefed on the shortage but was uncertain how much money would be available. He questioned whether as many as 300 scanners were necessary but added that the county was ready to do what it could.

"Their obligation and intent is to run a smooth election in November. Obviously, we support that," Griffin said. "The intent is to work with them to get the resources we need to do that."

Griffin said he would know more about available funds at the end of this month, after the third-quarter review of the fiscal year.

According to the minutes of the board's Jan. 9 meeting, Robert R. Sparks Jr., the board's chairman, asked Harris: "If there are no additional funds for voting machines, could this county get through the presidential election?"

"We could get through, but perhaps not very well, with the potential for enormously long lines," Harris said.

The minutes also show that unnamed election staff "stated that it is their opinion there are grave concerns about adequately serving the public in November."

Nearly 73 percent of the county's 633,000 registered voters turned out for the 2004 presidential election. Officials are expecting a bigger turnout this year.

The county has about 1,200 "direct record," or touch-screen, machines for 639,000 currently registered voters, a ratio of slightly more than one for every 600 voters. Harris said in an interview that although the legal maximum is one machine for every 750 voters, the ratio should ideally be closer to one for every 400.

Sparks said in an interview that the more likely option for the county would be to lease the optical scanners for a year, which would cost about $750,000. "Ideally, we would like enough machines so that each of the 228 polling places has a single optical scan," he said, adding that to exclude some polling places could lead to resentment and complaints about fairness.

Complicating the county's situation is the status of the touch-screen machines. After widespread complaints about their susceptibility to fraud and error, the General Assembly last year banned new purchases of the ATM-like devices, which provide no paper trail verifying the choices that voters make. The county is allowed to use the touch-screens until the end of their useful lives but then will probably return to traditional paper ballots that are electronically scanned.

In optical scan voting, people mark paper ballots by filling in ovals next to the name of their preferred candidate. The ballots are then counted electronically.

At the January meeting, Judy Flaig, county election manager, said it was becoming difficult to keep the touch-screen machines maintained, which could further complicate their reliability. She said that about 1,100 of the machines were "reliable enough."

According to the minutes, Sparks said: "At best, there is a real risk with long lines with the machines that do work, and even those are not always reliable. At worst, if several break down, there will be suspicion and recriminations."

Sparks said he has briefed Griffin and the Board of Supervisors on the situation but received "no promises."

Board Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) said supervisors were ready to help.

"There's no question that we need to have more capacity. The question is how many and what we can afford," he said. "We expect to work those things out over the next few months."

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