A panel is recommending a slate of changes to Fairfax County’s voting process to reduce delays for voters on Election Day.
The recommendations from the Bipartisan Election Process Improvement Commission, formed following last fall’s presidential election that left some voters waiting in line for hours to cast a ballot, include technological upgrades, better signage at polling places and improved staffing and training of election officials.
“Technology will allow the better deployment of resources,” said Kate Hanley, the co-chair of the commission and a former Board of Supervisors chairwoman.
For example, 46 of the county’s precincts don’t yet have electronic poll books, meaning that voters must be divided into different lines and checked in by two volunteers manning each of the paper poll books.
The search feature on the county’s existing poll books is also not that great, said Stuart Mendelsohn, the other co-chair of the commission and a former Dranesville District supervisor. Some hyphenated or non-traditional last names make it hard to locate the voter in the system.
“You wind up getting people who are voting with provisional ballots needlessly,” Mendelsohn said.
The software license on the electronic poll books will expire soon, and the commission recommended that the county explore whether better software or hardware is now available.
Old technology could also use an upgrade, according to the commission’s report. Poor signage at some polling places caused confusion for voters.
There were also times where precinct chiefs had difficulty reaching the registrar or other election officials by phone when they needed assistance with something, making it take longer to resolve problems at polling places. The commission recommended establishing dedicated phone lines, so poll workers aren’t calling the same phone number as the general public.
The county’s mix of voting equipment also contributes to delays, the commission found. Due to a series of changes in law in the early 2000s, the county has both touch-screen voting machines and optical scanners that scan paper ballots.
Voters seem to prefer the touch screen machines and were waiting in line longer to use them, rather than casting a paper ballot.
The commission proposed making the optical scan ballots the norm, because state law prohibits the county from buying new touch-screen machines, and trying to educate voters about voting on paper ballots. Some voters have told election officials that they did not want to vote with the paper ballot because they believed they are not counted immediately.
The paper ballots are, in fact, immediately scanned and tallied using an electronic scanner.
The setup of polling places should also be reviewed, the commission report said. Some locations didn’t have enough parking for a peak election year. Some were arranged in a way that left voters lining up outside in the cold.
One of the big, unresolved, debates among commission members is whether paying election officers more would help attract more people to sign up for those positions, Hanley said. Ultimately the commission proposed conducting a survey, to see whether it would make a difference.
There should also be a larger pool of election officers who are trained and ready to cover people who don’t show up. Of the 23 precincts where the machines were shut down more than one hour after the poll closing time last year, 16 were understaffed, according to the report.
The Board of Supervisors referred the report to County Executive Ed Long and asked him to report back next month on any of the recommendations that have budget implications.
The full report is available online at www.fairfaxcounty.gov/electioncommission.