Spotsy voting problems called ‘total fiasco’
By PAMELA GOULD
AND JEFF BRANSCOME
Spotsylvania County Supervisor Gary Skinner called the voting problems in Lee Hill District precincts on Tuesday “a total fiasco.”
“I think it was absolutely the most unprofessional voting setup that I’ve ever seen or ever participated in,” said Skinner, who represents the Lee Hill District, which has three precincts.
The county’s three-member Electoral Board is expected to attend the Board of Supervisors’ Nov. 27 meeting to discuss why the touch-screen voting machines weren’t correctly set up for voters who are split between the 1st and 7th congressional districts.
“I’m not through with it,” Skinner said Wednesday. “I want an answer, and I want a guarantee that it will never happen again.”
On Tuesday morning at the Lee Hill and Summit precincts, as many as 10 machines were set up incorrectly, invalidating nearly 200 congressional votes.
“Nothing like that has happened before,” Spotsylvania Electoral Board member Alan Branfman said Wednesday.
That won’t happen again, said Branfman, a member of the Electoral Board for five years. In future elections, the precinct captain will stand alongside the technician to see that each voting machine is set up correctly.
At the Lee Hill precinct at Lee Hill Elementary on Election Day, the technician set up all six voting machines for the 1st Congressional District. Only one should have been set for that district. The other five should have been set for the 7th District.
A voter discovered the problem and told an election official the wrong district showed up on his touch screen when he tried to vote.
At 7 a.m., an hour after the polls opened, county election officials responded by sending additional paper ballots and programming additional voting machines to take there.
But by then, 48 people had voted in the wrong congressional district at that precinct. The same problem occurred at the Summit precinct in the Lee Hill Community Center.
There, the technician set up all voting machines for the 7th District rather than setting up one that way and five for the 1st District.
By the time election officials there were notified at 7:30 a.m., 141 people had voted in the wrong congressional district.
All 189 people had their votes for president, Senate and the two state constitutional questions counted. Their invalid votes for the congressional seats were thrown out, election officials said.
On Wednesday, as Spotsylvania election officials were reviewing all votes countywide, representatives from the Democrat and Republican parties were present but didn’t raise concerns about those votes, Branfman said.
“I have to assume they don’t feel it would have made a difference,” he said.
In both congressional districts, the incumbents won by large margins.
Spotsylvania Registrar Kellie Acors said the people involved in the errors at both precincts Tuesday were experienced poll workers who had been through training multiple times and had locally created manuals to guide them through their election duties.
She confirmed, however, that the technician who worked at the Summit precinct had missed the most recent training. But she said he had worked with split precincts in at least two elections before this week.
When the errors became known, election officials set aside the machines with the incorrect votes so those already cast would not be lost.
The registrar’s office delivered additional machines to each of those precincts, said Acors, who became registrar in 2008.
SPLITS POSE CHALLENGES
Stafford Registrar Greg Riddlemoser said split precincts are an issue in Stafford County during elections for state offices such as last fall’s House of Delegates race.
Several precincts are split, including one Garrisonville District polling place that is split three ways.
“For a registrar, it’s easier to deal with being in one congressional district because your reporting requirements are the same, but the paperwork and logistics to support all that is a bigger deal,” Riddlemoser said.
In Stafford, when voters check in, the electronic poll book prints a receipt that shows exactly which ballot should be used.
Adam Cook, the Democrat who lost in his 1st District challenge to Rep. Rob Wittman, said Tuesday that split precincts should be eliminated.
“This is just a matter of the legislature taking too long to draw the district lines and so they couldn’t change them in time,” Cook said. “Split precincts are apparently a nightmare.”
Split precincts are not the norm, though they are more numerous now than in the past, said Don Palmer, secretary of the State Board of Elections in Richmond.
“We did have an increased number of them [statewide] with the redistricting that occurred,” he said.
Palmer said he advises local officials to minimize the number of split precincts.
“Split precincts are a challenge for election administrators,” he said. “It adds complexity.”
Acors said she felt the county had enough resources for this election, though she admitted they used all 10 of their spare voting machines to address problems on Tuesday.
While she would welcome additional machines, she said she didn’t see that as possible since the company that made the ones the county uses has gone out of business and only certain machines are approved by the state.
The county has 144 machines and had 140 in use on Tuesday, county Electoral Board member David Jones said.
The Electoral Board hadn’t requested new machines because money is tight, Jones said.
County Administrator Doug Barnes said that if the board had asked, “obviously we would have considered it because we knew this was going to be a big election.”
He suggested the Electoral Board ask for more voting machines for the 2016 presidential election.
Spotsylvania’s Electoral Board and registrar’s office will receive $319,808 this fiscal year from the county and state, based on the approved budget. That’s $17,858 more than they received during the fiscal year of the 2008 presidential election.
Skinner, who said he waited in line for about 40 minutes to vote at Parkside Elementary School, said he’d be “more than happy to fund enough equipment to do the job right.”
Residents should have to wait no more than 20 minutes to cast their ballots, he said.
“One of the biggest elections that we probably have faced was this year,” Skinner said. “And we were not on top of things and there’s no excuse for that whatsoever.”
Acors said she and her staff and the people manning the Lee Hill and Summit precincts were distraught over the problems voters encountered.
“This is a big deal. It’s not going to be taken lightly,” she said. “It breaks your heart. Our office cares so much for our voters. We work a lot of extra hours to make sure everything goes right.
“When something like this happens, we don’t want people to lose confidence in our office. It reflects on us.”
She said one of her main tasks on Wednesday was to respond to the people who made complaints on Election Day, “95 percent” of which were related to the problems at those two precincts.
“We need to work extra hard to build up their confidence for the next election,” she said.
—Staff writers Jim Hall and Katie Thisdell contributed to this report.
Pamela Gould: 540/735-1972