Massive E-Mail Campaign Freezes Absentee Ballots

By Tim Craig
Washington Post staff writer
Wednesday, October 22, 2008

RICHMOND, Oct. 21 -- Efforts by elections officials in Fairfax County and several Virginia jurisdictions to distribute absentee ballots to military members and others living overseas ground to a halt Tuesday after a group concerned about the state's voting system crashed e-mail servers with a massive letter-writing campaign.

Rokey W. Suleman II, Fairfax County's general registrar, said his office was unable to send or receive e-mail for much of the day, which could result in a crucial delay in sending absentee ballots electronically.

The mishap, which also affected several other Virginia jurisdictions including Richmond, occurred after representatives of TrueVote.US sent hundreds of e-mails to elections officials expressing concern about whether Virginia was prepared for an expected record turnout on Election Day.

The e-mails were in response to a report last week that found Virginia is among the least prepared states to handle Election Day problems such as long lines, broken machines and software malfunctions.

Kevin Zeese, executive director of TrueVote.US, which advocates reform in the balloting process, said the letter-writing campaign was designed to show Virginia officials "they are being watched by citizens" wanting the Nov. 4 election to run smoothly.

"It is important for elections officials to know people are watching and for people to know they want adequate voting machines," Zeese said.

But a campaign that was designed to prevent Election Day problems instead created chaos, Suleman said.

With the deadline to apply for absentee ballots in Virginia on Tuesday, Suleman said he and other registrars were unable to mail out or receive applications electronically. About midmorning, the Fairfax elections office had to shut down its e-mail servers after they took in more than 700 form e-mails from TrueVote.US.

"They made it significantly more difficult for us to do our jobs," Suleman said. "There are ways to help us do our job. But flooding our office with e-mails, shutting down the county servers at a crucial time when we are trying to help the voters is not the way to do it."

Besides slowing the distribution of absentee ballots, the e-mail outage also prevented elections officials from responding to written questions about the election. That caused the phone lines to become overwhelmed. Suleman said some people were forced to wait on hold for up to four hours.

"It just shut us down," Suleman said.

Late in the day, J. Kirk Showalter, Richmond's registrar, contacted Zeese to plead with him to suspend the letter-writing campaign.

Zeese agreed, saying in an interview, "We made our point." But Zeese said his group and others will continue to keep pressure on officials for more assurances that Virginia is prepared for the election.

Virginia received inadequate marks on polling place contingency plans and ballot reconciliation on a 50-state report card issued by the Brennan Center for Justice, Common Cause and Verified Voting Foundation.

Suleman and other elections officials dispute some of the findings in the report, but they concede that the potential record number of voters this year could cause long lines on Election Day. They are encouraging people who qualify to vote by absentee ballot.

"If the [e-mails] stop today, we will be able to process ballots and it won't be a problem," Suleman said. "If it continues, it is going to hamper us in our ability to assist people. . . . We can talk about the pros and the cons of the study after Election Day."

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