Virginia: The New Florida?
In the crush of the first few hours of Election Day, the crucial swing state of Virginia is emerging as the country's number-one voting trouble spot. As of 10:30 am ET, more than two dozen polling places across the state were reported to be close to a standstill because of machine failures, lack of back-up paper ballots and other problems. Dozens of other locations were experiencing abnormal delays and long lines, raising serious questions about the ability of Virginia voters to exercise their democratic rights before the scheduled close of voting at 7 pm.
Many of the problems were concentrated in the DC suburbs in the northern part of the state; in Richmond, the state capital; and in the Hampton Roads area around Norfolk and Virginia Beach. All three are seen as strongholds for the Barack Obama campaign, where turnout could be crucial in putting the state in the Democratic Party column.
The nationwide, nonpartisan Election Protection coalition--spearheaded by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, the NAACP and others--was urging state officials in Richmond to extend voting hours by two hours to 9 pm so people turned away in the morning rush would have time to try again. The coalition did not exclude legal action to force the state's hand if the governor's office and the State Board of Elections did not take the initiative itself.
"The problems are so widespread, it's going to take action on part of state election officials to deal with problems they are facing today," Election Protection's top lawyer John Greenbaum said. "If they don't, we might potentially have to seek other recourse."
In contrast to Florida in 2000 or Ohio in 2004, activists interested in maximizing voter access to the polls are not dealing with a politically hostile state leadership. Virginia's governor, Tim Kaine, is a Democrat and the head of the State Board of Elections, Nancy Rodrigues, is a Kaine appointee. Both say they welcome the surge in turnout.
It has been obvious for weeks, however, that the state is woefully underprepared for its role as a high-profile swing state--something it has not experienced since the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Virginia law allows for absentee voting, including in-person absentee voting--a process leading to lines of up to six hours on the final day on Saturday. However, in contrast to Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and a clutch of other states seeing a marked increase in African-American turnout, Virginia has no early voting. State officials struggled to process all the new registration forms in time to allocate enough machines to polling stations, leading to widespread predictions of a meltdown.
"Unfortunately, these were expected problems," Jonah Goldman of the Lawyers' Committee said.
State officials say they have almost doubled the number of voting machines available since 2004, and have created an extra 300 polling places. It is clear, however, that they have been simply swamped. Some polling locations did not open on time. In others, electronic or optical-scan voting machines failed to function properly. Precincts either did not have back-up paper ballots available, or else chose to regard them as provisional ballots--something they should not do, according to election lawyers. In Richmond, where it was raining, some voters accidentally got their ballots wet, causing the optical-scan readers processing the votes to jam.
Last week, the NAACP unsuccessfully filed suit to try to force the state to allocate more machines to key high-population areas with large numbers of African-Americans, and to extend voting hours. The State Board of Elections, in response, insisted it had "the minimum number of voting machines in each precinct as required by the Code of Virginia." Clearly, though, the minimum is proving not nearly enough.