The most provocative question raised by the severe poll delays in parts of Fairfax County on Election Day in November was whether the problems resulted from a nefarious plot by the Republican-controlled elections apparatus to discourage voting in Virginia’s largest Democratic county.
So it’s frustrating that that concern was precisely the one left unclarified in Tuesday’s bipartisan commission report on how to ensure that such waits don’t happen again.
As I reported the week after the Nov. 6 election, there were signs that Republican-appointed elections overseers had been suspiciously slow to approve the appointment of precinct polling officials nominated by the Democrats.
A shortage of such officials proved to be a major cause — though not the only one — of the voting delays. At some precincts, people didn’t finish voting until 10 p.m., or three hours after the polls were scheduled to close.
In addition, Fairfax Democrats say budget documents suggest the county elections office in 2012 slashed spending aimed at promoting absentee voting. In 2008, they said, officials nominated by the Democrats spent $36,000 for that purpose.
County elections chief Cameron Quinn, a Republican, responded that her office “very aggressively” disseminated information about absentee voting and other topics. But she said she could not “accurately assess” what was done four years earlier.
The commission found that a substantial drop in absentee voting from 2008 contributed to the long lines in November.
The delays at the polls were so annoying, and such a threat to the democratic process, that Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) appointed a 26-member commission to recommend changes.
Last week, the panel issued a list of laudable, common-sense suggestions: Use more electronic poll books, instead of paper ones, to check in voters. Provide sufficient parking space. Recruit more poll officials. Encourage absentee voting, especially in presidential election years, when turnout is high.
But the commission didn’t look much into the most intriguing disputes over the election. It said it was hampered by a controversial lawsuit that the Fairfax Democratic Committee has brought against the elections office and others. The office said it wasn’t free to talk to the commission in depth until the lawsuit was resolved.
Some Fairfax Democrats said the elections overseers were using the lawsuit as an excuse to avoid answering tough questions. Others, however, including Bulova, faulted fellow Democrats for insisting on pushing the lawsuit forward.
“That would have been nice, to dig deeper,” Bulova said. “The report was meant to be forward-looking. Some of the backward-looking part was obstructed by [the] lawsuit.”
The commission didn’t thoroughly investigate why Quinn and her staff deployed fewer elections officers in 2012 than her predecessor did in 2008.
One reason given was that fewer workers supposedly were needed because of expanded use of the electronic poll books. But many poll workers lacked experience using the devices.
Moreover, Democrats said they had nominated hundreds of elections officers that Quinn and the Republican-dominated Electoral Board failed to approve in time.
“This was behavior that was very confusing to us, very frustrating,” said Fairfax Democratic Chairman Cesar del Aguila. “I’m not going to accuse anyone of maliciously doing anything at this point. I just want the facts and the truth to come out.”
Officials nominated by the Republicans hold two of the three seats on the Fairfax County Electoral Board, because the GOP controls the governor’s mansion. The board appointed Quinn, who is general registrar.
Fairfax Republican Chairman Jay McConville said Democrats were misrepresenting what happened, but he couldn’t go into detail because of the lawsuit.
Democrats were especially concerned about the risk of voting difficulties in Fairfax last year because a controversial GOP elections expert, Hans von Spakovsky, was a member of the Electoral Board. He is one of the nation’s most prominent advocates of strict voter-identification laws that the GOP says are necessary to prevent fraud — and that Democrats say are designed to suppress voting.
In February, in a highly unusual move, Fairfax judges rejected the reappointment of von Spakovsky to the board. They did so after Democrats claimed he had “shown a decided bias” in favor of the GOP and was “temperamentally ill-suited” to oversee elections properly.
An alternate candidate, also nominated by the Republicans, got the job instead.
None of the after-action analysis will affect the election results, of course. President Obama carried Virginia handily, helped by the big margin he racked up in Fairfax.
But citizens who care about the purity of future elections have to hope the lawsuit will eventually cast light on all that went wrong.