Long Lines Expected At the Polls

Election officials expect lines at the polls from the moment they open at 6 a.m. until they close at 7 p.m.
Election officials expect lines at the polls from the moment they open at 6 a.m. until they close at 7 p.m. (2006 Photo By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
Buy Photo
By Kafia A. Hosh
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 30, 2008

Loudoun election officials, bracing for a record turnout in a county that has 28 percent more registered voters than in the last presidential contest, say there is no getting around it: Voters are facing the prospect of long lines and crowded precincts Tuesday.

"People have to go in with the idea that they will be there for a period of time. They might as well go in with that understanding and just be very patient," said Loudoun General Registrar Judy Brown, who declined to give an estimate of how long the wait might last.

Loudoun had 179,392 registered voters as of Sunday, up from 140,291 in November 2004, and the registrar's office expects as many as 90 percent of them to show up Tuesday. In addition to the races for president, U.S. Senate and U.S. House, the ballot has four local referendums that could take time for voters to review.

Despite the daunting numbers, election officials are hopeful that their recruitment of extra poll workers and the county's heavy use of paper ballots will help keep the lines and wait times manageable.

Voters can help themselves by going to the polls at an off-peak time, officials said. Brown said the heaviest traffic is usually between 6 a.m., when the polls open, and 10 a.m. Precincts also are generally busy between noon and 2 p.m. and during the last two hours before polls close at 7 p.m.

"A lot of people show up before they go to work so they can [vote] and get it over with in case they don't get out of work on time," Brown said. She predicted that people will start to line up at some precincts before polls open.

The county has about 1,100 election workers for its 62 precincts, a better ratio than in 2004, when there were 682 workers and 52 precincts. One reason for the additional hiring was to have people available to fill in at the last minute for no-shows. For the Board of Supervisors election last year, 39 Loudoun poll employees didn't turn up for work, and this year "we're a little nervous that they don't show up, so we have an extra person at each polling place," said Dianna J. Price, Loudoun's electoral board secretary.

For the first time, each polling site will have one to three workers serving as greeters. They will try to keep the lines moving by asking voters to have their identification ready and spotting people who are at the wrong precinct. In addition, the poll books that list voters in alphabetical order will be divided among workers to help expedite the check-in process.

Loudoun has long relied on paper ballots that are fed through an optical scanner after voters fill them out. The county began using touch-screen machines in 2006 to comply with federal disability law -- a blind person can vote at the machine without assistance by listening to instructions on a headset -- but it kept the optical-scan system as well.

On Tuesday, each precinct will have one touch-screen machine and one optical scanner, giving voters the option of casting their ballot on paper or electronically. Ten machines and 10 scanners are in storage and can be brought into service in case of a malfunction.

Loudoun has 400 enclosed booths for voters filling out paper ballots -- one booth for every 445 registered voters, which is not quite as good as the state's recommendation of one booth per 425 voters, Price said.

She noted, however, that voters are not required to use a booth when filling out a paper ballot. People such as senior citizens or mothers accompanied by children will often "just sit down at a table because they prefer it," she said. At crowded precincts, that option could help reduce waiting times.

Brown said the voting process would be faster if Loudoun had electronic poll books, which would eliminate the need for poll workers to flip through alphabetical pages. She said she hopes the county will get the newer technology for future elections.

"I really think . . . we can justify the strong need here in the county for the electronic poll books," she said. "I just can't see how we can do it again this way. With the county the way it's growing, it's just impossible."

This year, 17 Virginia localities will use the electronic poll books, up from five in 2004, according to the State Board of Elections.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company