Glitch frustrates Spotsylvania voters
By PAMELA GOULD AND JIM HALL
Tom Strode said if someone hadn’t warned him that his congressional district had changed, he might not have thought anything about it when Rob Wittman’s name appeared on his voting screen Tuesday.
Strode, a Spotsylvania County resident, had been seeing the incumbent’s name in the 1st District elections for years.
But because Strode knew he had been redistricted into the 7th District, he was looking for the names of Rep. Eric Cantor and challenger Wayne Powell.
When he didn’t see them, he spoke to one of the voting officials at his polling place inside Lee Hill Elementary Tuesday morning.
“We tried again,” Strode said, but the error remained.
They then moved to another voting machine marked as being for 7th District voters and discovered the same mistake.
Ultimately, voting officials at two Spotsylvania precincts, Lee Hill and Summit, realized they had the same problem.
All voting machines at the two precincts were set up for only one congressional district. Because of redistricting, each precinct should have had machines for both the 1st and 7th District races.
The result: 48 people at Lee Hill Elementary apparently voted in the wrong congressional race and 141 people at the Summit precinct had the same problem.
Though their ballots will be counted in the presidential race, the Senate race and for the two constitutional questions, their congressional votes will be thrown out, county spokeswoman Kathy Smith said.
State Secretary of the Board of Elections Donald Palmer said Tuesday afternoon that election officials are “pretty confident” that some voters cast ballots in the wrong congressional district, but that local officials will be the ones making certain during vote canvasses. He agreed that votes in the other races will count.
The congressional candidates reached Tuesday said they had not been informed about the error by either county or state officials.
The impact of the mistakes was heightened because of where they occurred.
At the Lee Hill precinct, a majority of the voters are in the 7th District, but all machines were set for the 1st District.
The Summit precinct, at Lee Hill Community Center, has very few voters in the 7th District, but all machines were set for it.
The chief election officials at each precinct immediately admitted that the problems were the result of human error.
Six Spotsylvania precincts were split precincts for Tuesday’s election. The Brent’s Mill, Massaponax, Riverbend and Parkside precincts had no problems Tuesday, Smith said.
Two voters, including Strode, were the first to realize the problem at Lee Hill and Summit precincts. Lee Hill was aware of it by 7 a.m., Summit by 7:30 a.m., Smith said.
County election officials were contacted and eventually brought additional voting machines to both precincts. Precinct officials used paper ballots until they ran out of their initial supply of them.
The touch-screen machines on site couldn’t be reprogrammed to fix the error or they would have lost the votes already cast, a local party official said.
Voters stood in line for more than two hours at both precincts Tuesday morning and well into the afternoon.
Some people who were in line when the problems were discovered opted to leave rather than wait for resolution.
The Summit precinct wound up with half as many machines for the 1st District race as it would have had without the error, according to information from election official Paul Jenkins. At 11 a.m., there were two voting machines for that district instead of four, he said.
Jenkins said turnout was heavy in the 3,500-voter precinct, but he said that wasn’t unusual for a presidential race. He said people were moving slowly through the polls because they were taking time to consider the two proposed state constitutional amendments.
UNUSUAL FOR VIRGINIA
Tuesday’s election mistake was unusual, said Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington.
“Virginia has a history of being quite professional in the conduct of its elections,” he said.
When mistakes do happen, he added, they often occur after a census, when district lines are redrawn.
“The good news is that this was caught relatively early in the day, and it affects a relatively small number of voters in the precinct,” he said.
Harold Ferenz wasn’t happy about the delays he encountered at the Summit precinct and was troubled that some people lost their congressional votes.
“There’s no excuse for a screw-up like this,” he said.
Cathy Leonard was upset for the people—like a young woman in front of her—who came before work and didn’t have time to wait for the problem to be resolved.
“We were all the way inside and they told her: Everything is stopped. We only have 50 paper ballots,” Leonard said. “I just really felt sorry for her.”
Percy Mitchell, his wife, Vivian, and their daughter, Chastity Taylor, arrived at Lee Hill Elementary about 6 a.m. to cast their votes before the two women went to work. They waited an hour outside in the cold and had just reached the gym when they learned of the problem with the machines.
Mitchell said they were told it could take 1 hours to get the problem fixed, so they left.
Vivian Mitchell headed to work and hoped to return before polls closed at 7 p.m., her husband said. But he doubted his daughter would make it back in time to vote since she works in Tysons Corner.
“Today, I set aside to come and do this,” Mitchell said. “I wasn’t as frustrated as some other people.”
One of those other people was Susan Franklin. She arrived at Lee Hill Elementary at 6:15 a.m. so she could vote before work. She left an hour later when she heard about the problem.
She was thankful to have an understanding boss who let her take an early lunch break to return.
Once the machine problems were resolved, voting officials gave people at Lee Hill Elementary the option of using paper ballots to help speed them along, and many 7th District voters took advantage of that option. First District voters did not have to wait for a machine.
Robert Bruton Jr. emerged from voting about 11 a.m. after waiting two hours.
“I’m usually in and out,” he said of his previous voting experiences at that precinct.
Larry Pritchett had to try three times before he was finally able to vote.
He pulled up to the Lee Hill Community Center at 6 a.m., but left after taking one look at the long line. He had to be at a meeting in a little over an hour.
“I said, I ain’t gonna make this,” Pritchett recalled.
So he returned to the polling place on his lunch break. But he said the line was crawling, so he left a second time without voting.
He arrived at the community center for a third time at about 5:30 p.m. after his workday ended at the nearby Printpack. He waited for about 40 minutes before finally casting his ballot at around 6:15.
“I have voted in every election since I was 18,” Pritchett said. “It’s my duty. I can’t complain if I don’t vote.”
Dawn Napper, a teacher at Robert E. Lee Elementary, was disgusted with the problems at Lee Hill.
“This is ridiculous,” she said. “Part of our concern is at least 100 people left. I’m worried they won’t be able to vote.”
Napper was also concerned about the impact of lost votes in what she anticipated to be a close national election that, for her, echoed the race between George W. Bush and Al Gore.
“This is too close of an election for this to be going on,” Napper said. “We don’t want another 2000.”
Staff writers Jeff Branscome and Chelyen Davis contributed to this story.