Virginia celebrated record high voter turnout in 2008, at 67 percent, and had similarly strong showing in 2012 with around 66 percent. Yet somehow, the state experienced much more Election Day malady last year, in terms of prohibitively long lines, than it suffered in 2008. This was particularly true in Prince William County, the only “minority-majority”—or, predominantly people of color—area in northern Virginia, where the population has increased 43.2 percent just since 2010, many of those Latino immigrants. So why the difference in performance from 2008 to 2012?
This question was explored in the “Lessons from Election 2012” congressional forum in Woodbridge, Va. hosted yesterday by Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), both of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. There was a tremendous amount of testimony about long lines and how this was a worse problem than 2008, despite a greater turnout rate back then.
Sandra James, assistant pastor of the First Mount Zion Baptist Church in Woodbridge, testified at the forum that in the past she’s “been able to walk right in to vote and then walk right out.” But this year, she suited up with her daughter and headed to vote at 7 in the morning only to wait outside in the cold for about an hour, and then another three hours inside a school building where snaking lines were “chaotic.”
Though she was one of the first voters in her county, James’ experience was in line with that of the last voter in the county, who likely waited three hours and 45 minutes to finally vote at 10:45 p.m., the time of the last vote cast in Prince William County, according to electoral board chairman Keith Scarborough.
Many others throughout the county waited five to seven hours to vote, Scarborough testified. “We experienced some lines during the day [in 2008],” he said, “but there was not a single precinct that did not close on time at 7 p.m.,” unlike in 2012, when Potomac and Woodbridge closed well after 10 p.m.
According to Scarborough, confusion related to redistricting was the reason for last year’s lines. This was the first presidential election since redistricting, so some voters still showed up at their old voting locations. A number of voters had question marks next to their names in the poll books because the county had information that they had moved or belonged in a different precinct. That jammed things up—and later Virginia Verified Voting data analyst Jeremy Epstein confirmed that problems at sign-in were the chief cause for long lines.
Also, Scarborough concluded that lines were held up due to two constitutional amendments on the ballot that were “chock full of legalese,” that may have stumped a few voters. Florida, which also was notorious for long lines in 2012, had 11 constitutional amendments on the ballot.
Rep. Cummings told Voting Rights Watch, “I think it’s clear that we have to use the research to do a better job here in Virginia and in other places for predicting how much personnel and how much equipment we need so people don’t have to stand in these long lines.”
Other reasons for the long lines were attributed to the lack of early voting in the state and also the new voter ID law, which apparently confused voters and poll workers alike. Virginia’s version of early voting is called in-person, absentee voting, but voters can only do this if they have a really good reason, such as being disabled or elderly. The voter ID law wasn’t as stifling as those passed (but not enacted) in Texas, or as employed in Kansas, but it was the first year used, and the suite of IDs available to vote with was so broad many did not know what could be utilized and what couldn’t.
Scarborough said he witnessed a person get out of line and then shoot him a frustrated look before saying loudly, “This place is out of control.” “And it was,” said Scarborough.
Many questioned whether what they saw in Virginia was voter suppression. Luke Torian, a delegate from the state’s general assembly said that precincts “may not have deliberately participated in voter suppression, but [they] left the impression that that is what was happening.”
Rep. Connolly said that many of Virginia’s laws were “designed to suppress voting”—particularly in off-presidential year elections that are often held on “odd dates” and are scheduled “to make sure that the right people vote.”
He has introduced the Fair, Accurate, Secure and Timely (FAST) Voting Act of 2012, which would have states compete for federal funding through the creation of best-practice models for voting. His bill is one of a handful that have been introduced to deal with the voting problems President Obama said “we must fix.” Republicans in Congress have not shown any interest in supporting legislation that addresses voting rights, however.
“The thing that we have to be careful about is that we don’t allow three-, four-, five-hour waits to become the norm,” Cummings said. “We’re better than that as a country and I don’t think Republicans, Democrats or independents will stand for their constituents, neighbors and friends standing in lines for long hours. We want to make it easier for them to vote.”