If Kenyon College in Ohio was the emblem of everything that went wrong with the 2004 presidential election--with its woeful lack of voting machines, ten-hour lines, and a tsunami of political ill will in the single most crucial swing state in the country--then Virginia Tech looks to be in the running as its 2008 successor.
Two months ago, the local registrar of voters in Montgomery County, E. Randall Wertz, put out a circular--later withdrawn--scaring students into thinking they might lose their student loan funding or their health care if they registered to vote locally. (They risked no such thing.) Now, he's gone one better. The polling site for most students has been moved to a church on a remote country road six miles away from campus. The only available parking is a half-mile away, on the other side of a busy major road. The precinct is, by most definitions, too small to accommodate the 6,000 voters registered to vote there. And, despite the best efforts of campus organizers and national advocacy groups like Rock the Vote to overcome some of these obstacles, the line to cast a ballot was reported to be about three hours long as of mid-afternoon.
The county has laid on one shuttle bus departing from campus every half-hour, but it is clearly inadequate. Voting rights activists have drafted the services of a local school bus to ferry voters from the parking lot to the precinct. But the logjam has proved unavoidable--and can only get worse with the evening rush ahead of the scheduled poll-closing time of 7 pm.
Heather Smith, spokeswoman for the Rock the Vote, said the line was snaking down Merrimac Road towards St. Michael's Lutheran Church. "It sure feels like they are trying to keep students away from voting in this very tight election," she said.
The relatively good news is that, both in Virginia and across the country, the massive election protection operation mounted by voting rights activists, political operatives and armies of lawyers, both paid and pro bono, is proving much more effective than in 2004. Very similar problems are arising--everything from flyers telling Democrats to vote on Wednesday, to voting machine malfunctions and attempts to disenfranchise voters based on tiny inconsistencies in their ID information--but they are being quickly flagged and, in many cases, countered.
More good news is that, unlike 2004 or 2000, we don't have a partisan Republican state election chief in any of the battlegrounds who might aid and abet attempts to suppress the vote of likely Democrats. Virginia, the state reporting the worst problems in the first half of the day, has a Democratic governor and a Democratic head of the State Board of Elections. Ohio is now also run Democrats. And Florida, while still highly dysfunctional in every conceivable respect when it comes to the machinery of elections, has lost much of the partisan edge it had under Jeb Bush's governorship.
Still, the scope for chaos is considerable, especially as the mid-day lull on the East Coast gives way to the end-of-day rush.
The prize for the single worst mechanical breakdown goes to a precinct at the Clarence V. Cuffee Community Center in Chesapeake, Virginia, where the failure of the electronic voting database created a monster line of about 1,000 voters and a wait as long as seven hours for the people stuck at the back of it. Again, election protection helped: at the urging of voting rights activists, Norfolk County officials came to the precinct from their headquarters to help clear the backlog. By mid-afternoon, the wait was reported to be down to about three hours.
Virginia was the single worst voting trouble spot--a result of its sudden new status as a swing state, a surge in registration numbers, a failure to have enough machines and paper ballots in place to meet demand, and the lack of early voting on any scale, in contrast to North Carolina, Georgia or Florida where early voting accounted for as many as 40 per cent of the anticipated overall tally.
Many of the early problems were reported in the strongholds where the Obama campaign most needs to turn out the vote--the DC suburbs in the north, Richmond and the Hampton Roads area around Norfolk and Virginia Beach. At first, leaders of the Election Protection coalition put together by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, the NAACP and other groups pressed state officials to keep the polls open for an extra two hours, so people deterred or turned away because of early morning problems would have a chance to come back and try again.
As the afternoon wore on, however, it became clear that many of the problems had been solved relatively quickly--in large part thanks to the heavy presence of both partisan and nonpartisan lawyers in every precinct. One Election Protection volunteer, a corporate lawyer from Alexandria called Paul Kugelman, said he had gone to several precincts where there were reports of trouble, only to find they had been solved by the time he got there. "In some places there were more lawyers than voters," he said.
The big test will be how the day ends. Election Protection's top lawyer, Jon Greenbaum, reports that in Florida so many optical scan machines had malfunctioned that election officials literally did not know what to do with the overflow of unprocessed ballots. Some ended up stuffing them into duffel bags, or leaving them piled up on precinct floors--violating basic security procedures.
In other problem states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey, it was not clear what might happen if the supply of emergency paper ballots ran out. Election Protection lawyers were urging officials in Virginia to print up more paper ballots, but they said the officials' response was to wait for the ballots to run out first and then to consider taking action.
A similar nervousness is evident across many other states, particularly in polling places with a high concentration of young voters. Rock the Vote said students at George Mason University in Virginia had received e-mails purportedly from their provost informing them that election day was on Wednesday. (The e-mails were the result of a hack, and the real provost hastily put out a correction.) The Student Association for Voter Empowerment reported four-hour lines at Penn State in Pennsylvania, and two-hour lines at Oberlin in Ohio. At several colleges, including Grinnell in Iowa and Radford University in Virginia, students complained they were challenged because of inconsistencies in their registration information. At Radford, for example, students who gave their dorm names without a street address were told their eligibility was in question.