No Excuses for Chesterfield Voting Problems

I’ve been an election officer twice now, for the June primary and now for this massive mid-term election, so that makes me a real expert, right?  Hardly.  But I read the Richmond Times-Dispatch story about the problems Tuesday in Chesterfield County with deeper insight than I would have a year ago.

Know first that after the tables are set up and Apple poll book is turned on and the signs taped up, before the doors open, the seven of us at Precinct 115 raised our right hands and recited the oath, then signed it.  There is a quiet moment when the blood of the patriots who secured and preserved this sacred right is remembered, if not specifically mentioned.

To prepare for my two stints inside the poll I’ve attended four training classes, the first of them taking most of a Saturday.  During those classes the level of preparation behind the process becomes evident.  Even more enlightening is the process of counting and recording and preserving every scrap of paper and data in the hours after the doors close.

It is a very hands-on process prone to human error, and surprisingly decentralized, with local registrars and electoral boards the key individuals.  The problems outlined in that story are inexcusable and land squarely at the top.

Everybody knew that the turnout for this election would skyrocket. Please. The assumption should have been plan and equip for a presidential year turnout, because that is what we almost had.  Did everybody just forget the crowds from 2016, 2012, 2008?  The Chesterfield officials complain about a 60 percent turnout causing congestion, and inside our Richmond City precinct almost 68 percent voted in person very smoothly.

Whining about the turnout should be dismissed.  But not all the human error involved is at the local level.  A lot of lip service is given to how important this process is and then other considerations screw it up.

Local and state officials are too quick to change precinct lines or divide an existing precinct between two different congressional or legislative districts.  The reason is usually driven by some kind of gerrymandering process, and the next gerrymander for some legislative districts will be now be designed by a federal court.  The result – and they should know this – is high levels of confusion.

On top of the 1,042 people who walked into our precinct and voted Tuesday, there were easily another 200 who had to be sent to another place because of a change after the 2017 election. “But I voted here last year” or “why wasn’t I notified” were the common complaints.  One piece of mail is not notice.

Thank goodness the electronic poll book identifies their new voting place.  Thank goodness after the initial morning rush we never had long lines again (despite the 68 percent turnout.)  But if there were Chesterfield precincts where the boundaries had also been jumbled, people may have waited a long time before the person checking the list sent them away.

Another major hang-up, I’m sure, were the constitutional amendments.  Few people had even heard about them, let alone made up their minds.  Our greeter was handing out the official brochure and a surprising number of people stopped cold and tried to read that or looked at the chart on the wall.  The General Assembly puts these things on the ballot with near-zero resources to educate votes, badly gumming up the voting process.

Finally, there is human error in the assumption that somebody else will do this job and we don’t have to.  Given the low pay for the day ($130 for 16 hours!)  it’s basically a volunteer activity and should be promoted that way.  Do not assume your locality has enough qualified people. I repeat my earlier invitation – join the elite!

I’ve enjoyed getting to know the crew where I work (not my home precinct) and look forward to next time.  I need to buy some honey from the fellow who serves as our chief officer, a somewhat thankless job (thanks, Ames.)

I hope the 90-something-year-old WW II vet wearing that worn Eighth Air Force ball cap who walked slowly in on his cane comes back next time.  He and his peers refreshed the Tree of Liberty well.  Absentee?  Not for him.  I understand the arguments for easier remote or early voting, and Chesterfield just added to them, but there is something to this ritual that is every bit as powerful as any religious ceremony.

UPDATE:  Also worth reading.  

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12 responses to “No Excuses for Chesterfield Voting Problems

  1. “One piece of mail is not notice.” How many does it take for a responsible voter, Steve?

    Also, we just had 13 constitutional amendments on our ballot in Palm Beach county. . Again, no problem for an informed, responsible voter. Every registered voter received an explanatory guide in the mail. Maybe we push too much to have EVERYONE vote?

    • Well, no such guide was mailed to any voters on the constitutional amendments, and any notices in the newspaper probably looked just like all the other dense legal notices read only by law firms. If you are moving somebody’s voting location a bit more effort to inform might be in order, but my point is they should do it far less often than they now do, and it should be impossible to split one precinct between two districts. I live in such a split precinct, and if there are primaries in both parties next June the poll officials will have four ballots to pass out correctly.

  2. I agree with your sentiment that voting is a civic ritual as powerful as any religious ceremony. I understand the need for absentee voting in some cases, but when people vote absentee, they forego participating in that great democratic ritual of standing in line and casting their ballot. It’s one of the few things in our fractured, social media-fixated world that ties us all together.

    • So I mail you an application at…..

    • “I agree with your sentiment that voting is a civic ritual as powerful as any religious ceremony. I understand the need for absentee voting in some cases, but when people vote absentee, they forego participating in that great democratic ritual of standing in line and casting their ballot. It’s one of the few things in our fractured, social media-fixated world that ties us all together.”

      That is a profound statement, Jim. But today our political system is being operated in ways designed to tear our civic and social rituals down, tearing apart other people’s traditions and beliefs, while turning ever smaller groups of people, and ever larger aggregations of people, one against the other, for private and public advantage. Now even our voting and elections generate more hate and division than unity, and common purpose. We are turning our nation upside down, intentionally by growing numbers of leaders. This downward spiral will not end well.

  3. John,
    Appreciate your comments about “informed voters”. But it occurs to me to ask whether you had any more sources than your voter guide. We do not get a voter guide or anything like it. I always find myself coursing through the newspaper every election to try to find any meaningful, neutral information. I’m with you that I think only responsible voters should vote, but if there’s a constitutional amendment on the ballot, I think I’d like to know what the General Assembly is thinking. The best information I got was on Jim’s blog, and I was guided by the thinking in his post.

    Can’t comment on moving the polls since i voted at the same place as last year.

    • We had adequate (if liberally biased) coverage by the press and TV for months in addition to the mailed sample ballot. There was a plethora of yard signs also vote this way or that on amendment so and so. There were rallies by the pros and cons.

      I hope my home state never initiates early voting as in Florida, and also voting for the judiciary. Imagine a scenario where a recent SCOTUS appointee was voted on early by many and at the last minute after millions of early votes had been cast, an accuser recants her accusations.

  4. My impression of the voting process in Virginia is that it’s a little bit seat of the pants. I’m glad you got a half day of training. The training I got was a one hour session at night which between that and the leadership at the precinct convinced me to not do it this year.

    To be sure, it’s not an easy process and yes there are ready-made places to have problems. But in my mind all the more reason to prepare properly and not be making excuses afterwards.

    I’m pretty sure more folks are voting ahead of time out of fears of screwups – accidental and on-purpose.

    The boundary lines are what they are because the districts for local elections do not coincide for the districts for State Delegate/Senate and National Congress. they’re all different and that results in “split” precincts and the thing is – the voting officials KNOW THIS ahead of time and there are STILL screw-ups because the process is more manual and error-prone than it needs to be.

    I think much of the voting public is pretty much oblivious as to just how close to the edge some of this stuff actually works unless they actually become volunteers at the precincts in all of it’s ugly glory; somehow, most of the time, it manages to catastrophe….

  5. Thanks, for a needed pep talk.

  6. I served on the Fairfax County redistricting task force in 2011. A group of people with disparate backgrounds and views. Everyone took our job seriously and respectfully listened to each other. We were basically given two charges by Kate Hanley the task force chair. One was to avoid splitting precincts. The other was to avoid putting incumbents in the same district.

    Spit precincts, unless done by the city or county to address growth is not a good idea.

    It’s easy to find out where you vote. Everyone gets a postcard and the information is online. Can’t adults take some responsibility for themselves? Democracy and protecting voting rights doesn’t require society babysit us.

  7. Does everybody get a reminder post card every year? Don’t think so. If you are used to going to one place, unless somebody really calls a change to your attention the habit will take you there again. And on the amendments, so many have passed with no effort the proponents see no reason to mount a campaign unless opposition emerges. Perhaps that’s the ticket – some of us just need to attack them all right out of the box and force a debate! Sound’s like a job for Bacon’s Rebellion!

    • I agree with Steve on this. There’s a bit of a game being played here about voting and address changes and people should be getting postcards confirming their precincts – in my view. If they can find me to send me my property tax bill – they can sure as heck include my voting precinct info in that bill.

      The idea that if you yourself don’t keep up with it – then it’s on you – smacks a little of how voters were excluded from voting during Jim Crow… to be honest where folks were sent from one precinct to another and basically were discouraged from voting.

      The other things is – I bet folks don’t realize that there are local electoral boards who supervise the election and they are actually members of the Republican and Democratic parties without provisions for others including independents as far as I can tell: ” The Electoral Board of each County and City in Virginia is made up of three members who serve three-year staggered terms. Two members are members of the political party of the most recently elected governor. The chair and secretary must represent different political parties unless the position is declined”

      I’m not sure this is such a wonderful idea especially with 2 members being the same political party as the elected Gov but my suspects are that most folks don’t realize this.

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