Voter advocates say the waits are harder on lower-income residents who must take time away from work or find a babysitter to be able to cast a ballot. Meanwhile, many voters are sticking it out — settling in for a wait with lawn chairs, snacks and books.
Mazin Abdelgader waited for two hours Thursday to cast his ballot at an early-voting site in southeast Fairfax. His wife stayed home with their three children, with hopes of voting on Friday.
“We’ve been literally for the past three weeks trying to attempt to vote,” said Abdelgader, 34. “We’d pass by every day and kind of check out the line but realize that it’s just busy every day.”
County election officials say the large turnouts for in-person early voting reflect the high interest in the contest between President Trump and former vice president Joe Biden and the doubts over the security of mail-in ballots that Trump has fostered without evidence.
Those factors have also contributed to long lines in other parts of the country, where some voters have waited as long as 10 hours to vote.
In Northern Virginia, Fairfax — home to nearly 750,000 active voters — has had the most problems with long lines, despite opening 14 satellite early-voting centers around the county this month that were expected to absorb the huge turnout seen after the main government center became the county’s first early-voting site on Sept. 18.
Gary D. Scott, the head of the county elections office, said worries about the novel coronavirus have hampered efforts to speed up the process in the handful of polling sites that have seen the heaviest traffic.
For example, state physical distancing restrictions have meant fewer ballot machines and fewer check-in stations inside those buildings, limiting the number of voters who are able to cast their ballots at the same time, Scott said.
Voter advocates have urged the county to extend the hours of the satellite centers, which operate between 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. on weekdays and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays.
But the county has been unable to do so because there haven’t been enough poll workers willing to work at those locations — especially during the pandemic, Scott said.
“Some of our long-term individuals who had been coming in year after year, as well as some of our new people, measured the idea of being exposed to a large number of people every day over several weeks and decided they just couldn’t take the risk,” he said.
Scott said the county’s 218 poll workers, most of whom are middle-aged or elderly, “are already putting in a 10-hour day,” which includes setting up and breaking down operations every day.
“If we’re not careful, they’re going to burn themselves out and mistakes will be made,” he said.
Another complication lies in the nearly 10,000 voters so far who had received absentee ballots but instead decided to vote in person. In those cases, the absentee ballot must be nullified first, a lengthy process involving forms that takes poll workers away from helping others and further slows down the line, county officials said.
Then there are the physical constraints of some the actual early-voting facilities, where small conference rooms converted to polling stations can only accommodate a small number of people, Scott said.
The Franconia Government Center, in the heavily middle- to lower-income southeast portion of the county, has had some of the longest wait times.
On Thursday, about 150 people were already in line before the doors opened at 1 p.m.
Genevieve Fields, 41, had taken off a few hours from her job as a social worker to vote early, with plans to make it back in time for a 3:30 p.m. meeting about the area’s growing demand for emergency rental assistance.
But as the line crept forward, those plans seemed to be evaporating as she weighed her desire to get back to her job against her hopes that a vote for Biden would lead to stronger LGBTQ rights.
“Our work is really extra needed right now, so I definitely want to get back for the meeting,” Fields said, seemingly conflicted, as she stood with her wife, Gidget, 41, and their 5-year-old son, Henry.
Alexandra Contreras was in line again after trying to vote a week earlier at the main government center and giving up after two hours.
“It was really hot outside,” said Contreras, 22.
But she was prepared to wait longer this time — her job as a clerk at a nearby clothing store had cut her hours.
“I have a lot of time,” she said. “My store is not doing great.”
Sean Perryman, the head of the NAACP chapter in Fairfax, said the long waits stand to affect predominantly Black and Latino working-class voters the most.
Perryman, a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor in next year’s race, noted that a 2014 presidential commission on election administration recommended that steps toward greater efficiency should be taken if the wait to vote is longer than 30 minutes.
His NAACP chapter has been particularly critical of the Fairfax elections office, with one of its officers calling the county’s approach to early voting “antiquated” in a string of tweets.
Among other things, the organization called on the county to hire more election workers, find more space and make it easier for voters with absentee ballots to find the secure drop boxes set up at those sites that allow them to avoid the lines altogether.
“We’re not accusing anyone of intentionally trying to suppress the vote,” Perryman said. “What we’re saying is the longer wait times have gone on for a few weeks now and more needs to be done to alleviate that.”
Jeff C. McKay, chairman of the county’s Board of Supervisors, said he has been working with the county’s electoral board to find ways to improve the process.
“I understand that it’s not only frustrating to stand in line, but there are many who simply don’t have the ability to wait so long,” McKay said in a statement, noting that the county increased its number of early-voting sites from six in 2016 to the current 15. Those sites also all have ballot drop boxes, officials said.
Election officials say they’ve planned around the assumption that 150,000 voters will vote in person before Nov. 3 and are on pace to meet that number, with 87,990 in-person votes cast as of Thursday. Another 144,375 absentee ballots had been turned in as of Thursday.
Scott said his department has been trying to speed up the process by getting voters to fill out preliminary forms while still in line and by making sure the drop boxes are easy to spot.
Some additional help will come from workers who have been processing absentee ballot requests, he said. After Friday’s deadline to get those requests in, those workers will be redeployed to the satellite centers.
But those changes are likely to have only a modest impact in the face of the continuing surge of early voters, a surge expected to last through Election Day, Scott said.
“Next week, as we approach the end, we’re expecting to see a much bigger jump,” he said. “I don’t think we’re going to see any relative drop-off.”