The Fairfax County registrar's office is facing a backlog of absentee ballot applications, has a shortage of experienced staff to answer questions and process new voter cards and is failing to check many of those cards for accuracy, records and interviews show. As a result, state and local election officials and many on the registrar's staff say they are concerned about confusion and delays when a record number of new voters could go to the polls Nov. 2 and tens of thousands of absentee ballots are counted.
The Washington area's largest jurisdiction, like many local governments, is adding tens of thousands of voters to the rolls this year. More than 16,000 new voters registered in the weeks just before the Oct. 4 deadline. As a swing county and Virginia's largest voting bloc, Fairfax -- and many of these new voters -- could tilt the state toward President Bush or Sen. John F. Kerry.
But while election offices from Montgomery to Loudoun counties added and trained reinforcements early this summer, Fairfax fell behind, according to interviews with more than a dozen officials and workers. Five experienced staff members quit -- four of them in the past month -- and new hires were brought on too late, according to current and former employees.
"The biggest question I have is, have we done enough to make sure everybody who wants to vote gets a chance to vote?" said Larry E. Byrne, a member of the county's three-person Electoral Board, which sets policy for the registrar's office. "There's a lot of concern that we don't have enough bodies to do the work, and concern about whether or not the election is being conducted properly."
The Electoral Board on Sept. 29 unanimously passed an unusual resolution telling General Registrar Diane McIntyre that much work needed to be done before the election. The board demanded that she properly train new workers, improve morale on her staff and speed up the processing of absentee ballots and voter registration forms.
McIntyre said most of her critics are "disgruntled employees," and she criticized the Electoral Board for lacking a "full and complete understanding of what is going on in the office." She predicted that everything would go smoothly on Election Day.
But Virginia's top election official said she has received concerned phone calls in recent weeks from eight workers in the Fairfax registrar's office. "I'm really worried that with so few days left before the election they can get on top of this," said Jean Jensen, secretary of the State Board of Elections. "If they don't, they will trade one chaos for another."
Jensen predicted that in many cases, a voter who registered but whose name and address do not show up in a poll book on Election Day would cast a provisional ballot. But she said that that and other glitches with voter cards, while not invalidating votes, could create stress and delays for voters and poll workers. Turnout, which was 78 percent in 2000, could exceed 80 percent this year, officials said.
The volume of would-be voters, phone calls and detailed paperwork that usually stream into a registrar's office before a presidential election has grown this year. Workers must be well trained in election law and know registration deadlines, voting precincts and polling locations. They must understand the complications of absentee ballots for military voters (one set of rules) and nonmilitary voters (another set). They must know that when someone lists a post office box instead of a street address on an application to vote, the street address is needed. And when someone convicted of a felony checks a box saying the applicant's voting rights have been restored, the claim must be verified to make sure the person is telling the truth.
Some workers say that is not happening efficiently in Fairfax.
"You don't just say, 'Here are some applications, let's put them in the computer and generate a ballot,' " said Joan O'Connor, the registrar's former office manager, who said she quit in frustration because of office disorganization. "They have to be looked at."
Preparing for the election "is like an avalanche coming, and you're at the bottom of the mountain and you see it coming. The more people you have at the bottom, the better," she said.
A letter delivered by several workers in the registrar's office to the Fairfax Electoral Board last week and interviews with eight current and former employees highlighted several problems, from unopened ballot applications and unanswered phones to incorrect information given to voters who call with questions.
The staff has no time to flag errors in registration applications or check voter cards for accuracy, workers said. They said the shortcuts raise the possibility that some voters will arrive at the polls to find that their registration cards do not match the names, addresses and Social Security numbers listed in poll records.
With a record-setting 22,674 absentee ballot applications sent to voters for this election so far, several workers said they worry that the forms are being processed too slowly to get ballots in the hands of out-of-town residents in time to cast their votes from overseas and across the country. Many voters who could not get through on the phones Oct. 4, the registration deadline, sent their questions about registration in e-mails and faxes. Workers said many of those queries were not collected until days after the deadline.
"I'm worried that people are just going to be mad as hell if they go to the polls and can't vote, since everyone has that right," said Jean Gilbert, who has worked in the registrar's office for 10 years. "I know that if I discovered that I wasn't in that poll book, I'd be furious."
McIntyre said she began adding part-time extra workers in June and now has a staff of 44. But Electoral Board members and several employees said most of the reinforcements arrived only in the past three weeks. McIntyre acknowledged that with so much to do, she had to set priorities and skip so-called line checking of voter cards. But she said glitches would be addressed before the election.
She said she is confident that she has enough temporary workers to help her full-time staff handle the growing workload. Part-time hires enroll in training classes and are tested for familiarity with voting rules, she said. Several staff members disputed that.
Electoral Board Chairman Nancy Krakover defended McIntyre, saying that many of the complaints against her are partisan. Both women are Republicans. Byrne and the other Electoral Board member, Maggi Luca, are Democrats.
"There is a contentious environment there," Krakover said. "We've been trying to figure out why. The only thing I can figure out is that it's a party issue."
Full-time workers in the registrar's office are a mix of Democrats and Republicans hired over the course of shifting gubernatorial administrations in Richmond.
Wesley Weidemann, founder of Virginia Votes, a new group that is mobilizing people to register in Northern Virginia, said he is concerned that if there are problems at the polls in Fairfax, people might think fraud is involved.
"It may be nothing. It may be incompetence," he said. "But we have to protect [against] even the appearance of compromise."
Montgomery County augmented its full-time registrar's staff of 23 with nearly 60 temporary workers, starting in the summer. Workers are processing registrations and absentee ballot forms in two shifts, until 10 p.m., seven days a week, administrative specialist Marjorie Roher said. In Montgomery and in Arlington, which tripled its small staff, the new hires come from temporary agencies or have been poll workers in previous elections.
"We don't expect everyone to know everything," said Linda Lindberg, the Arlington registrar. "But it's been harder when we hire people with no election experience."