Prince William County is on track with plans to replace its aging, touch-screen voting machines with a new system that uses paper ballots, election officials said Tuesday in a presentation to the Board of County Supervisors.
The conversion to a paper ballot system is one of several measures the elections office is taking to reduce waiting times for voters, including investing in new technology to speed up the voter check-in process, officials said. Residents in some Prince William precincts have faced long lines in recent elections, such as in 2012, when voters at River Oaks Elementary School in Woodbridge had to wait for as long as four hours.
Interim General Registrar Rokey Suleman said that Election Day backups typically occur at two “choke points” — during check-in and at the voting machines.
“If you have four machines, you can only have four people voting at a time,” Suleman said.
Under the new system, there will be only one or two machines at each precinct, he said. “But the personal interaction with the machine is going to be seconds instead of minutes per voter,” he said.
“Voters are going to be able to fill out ballots . . . in private, and then walk over to the machine and feed” the ballot into the machine, Suleman said. “That’s going to decrease the lines significantly.
“We’re still going to have a choke point at check-in,” he added.
Tony Giuffré, secretary of the county’s electoral board, said that the county has invested in new technology to speed up the voter check-in process, including scanners, new laptops for poll workers and election management software. The scanners will be used to read bar codes on newer driver’s licenses during check-in, which will save time and reduce errors, he said.
Giuffré said he expects to roll out the new voting system during next year’s June primary election, although the equipment may be used only in some precincts. The full, countywide rollout will probably occur in the November election for the Board of County Supervisors, school board and Virginia General Assembly, he said.
The registrar’s office held mock elections in February to try several types of voting machines, Giuffré said. Participants expressed a preference for a paper-based voting system, which led to the decision to buy those machines, he said.
Suleman said voters also have more confidence in paper ballots because they create a paper trail in case a recount is needed.
Giuffré also asked the supervisors to support state legislation that would allow the county to study the feasibility of implementing vote centers in primary elections instead of requiring residents to vote in their home precincts.
The centers could be set up at several locations around the county, such as high schools, and Prince William residents would be able to vote at any center, he said. Suleman said that he had implemented vote centers when he worked for the District and that they were successful.
Supervisor Frank J. Principi (D-Woodbridge) asked how the elections office plans to inform the public about the new voting system and changes in polling locations.
“We can have all the best technology in the world, but if people don’t know where to go . . . and understand how to use a paper ballot, then we’re really not helping the situation overall,” Principi said. “So I’m curious, what is our information and education investment with the voters of Prince William County?”
Giuffré said that the elections office does not have a budget for voter education, so it works with the county’s communications office to inform the public through news releases and newsletters. Voters are notified about changes to their precincts by direct mail, he said.
“We’ve got to get the voters to the right place, understanding the technology, and get them to vote,” Principi said. “And for my money . . . press releases and newsletters just doesn’t cut it.”
Barnes is a freelance writer.