'Never Seen Crowds Like This'

By Christian Davenport and Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 29, 2008

One week before the Nov. 4 election, a courtroom showdown is looming in Virginia over whether the battleground state is prepared to handle what is expected to be a historic voter turnout.

Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and his top elections officials yesterday launched an impassioned defense of the state's ability to handle the crowds, disputing claims in a lawsuit filed late Monday on behalf of the NAACP that the state has not allocated enough voting machines, poll workers and polling places, particularly in precincts with large minority populations.

Maryland and District officials are also expecting record turnout, which already has spawned long lines for in-person absentee voting, and say they are taking steps to ensure that Election Day goes as smoothly as possible. Still, they concede that long lines could delay results and cause some voters to give up before casting a ballot.

Never have so many people in the region registered to vote, and with the intense interest in the presidential election, officials expect turnout rates as high as 90 percent. Virginia has added 500,000 registered voters to its rolls since the 2004 presidential election and now has more than 5 million. Maryland's list has grown 10 percent, to almost 3.5 million, and the District has almost 427,000.

"The numbers are going to be staggering," said Guy Mickley, president of the Maryland Association of Elections Officials.

The lawsuit was filed in Richmond and Norfolk by the Advancement Project, a D.C.-based voter protection group, on the NAACP's behalf. Judith Browne-Dianis, the project's co-director, said a hearing could be held in U.S. District Court in Richmond as soon as tomorrow.

Among other things, the group has asked the state to move voting machines to precincts most likely to have long lines, keep polls open for two extra hours and use paper ballots in some cases. The group issued a report this month asserting that, in a large turnout, there simply would not be enough time for everyone to vote. That could force polls to stay open late into the night so that those who arrived by the 7 p.m. closing time could cast their ballots.

"That kind of surge in registration and turnout is just way too much for the system," Browne-Dianis said. "That kind of wait leads to lost votes. Not everyone is privileged to stand in line for long hours."

On his monthly call-in show on WTOP radio, Kaine said the state was "extremely well prepared" and that "if a court wants to take a look at what we're doing, we welcome them."

Virginia officials have added 4,600 voting machines since 2004, an increase of 77 percent. Elections officials also have embarked on a widespread effort to recruit 10,000 additional poll workers for Election Day, increasing the total to 30,000, Kaine said. The state has added more precincts.

"We have dramatically increased the resources that are available in each precinct to help voters vote," he said.

Not all voting rights advocates agree with the NAACP's lawsuit. "I'm not trying to defend the State Board of Elections, but you can't do this a week before the election and expect it to make things better," said Jeremy Epstein, co-founder of the Verifiable Voting Coalition of Virginia.

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