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It’s The Ballot Questions, Stupid

By Greg L | 9 November 2012 | Prince William County | 17 Comments

Politicians across the country and locally are lamenting the long lines that we saw at the polls on Tuesday and demanding something be done to fix it.  That something to be done is, or course spend more money because no one ever seems to bother trying to figure out why the lines were so long.  Throw money at the problem and it’ll go away.  Right.  That tends to work — never.

The actual problem, readily apparent to anyone who bothered to watch what was going on while they were waiting was that it took a long time for most voters to vote.  Some voters, often ones that had a sample ballot in their hands and bothered to read it while waiting, got through a polling booth in well under a minute.  Others — most voters from my perspective — stayed there far longer.  It created a bottleneck, and no reasonable amount of extra voting machines could possibly fix that.

In my precinct 1347 voters shared three voting machines.  Lines were consistent up until about 6:30.  That averaged out to about 39 voters per machine, per hour or about 1.5 minutes per voter on average.  Adding another machine would have made nearly no difference at all, but if we were able to reduce the amount of time to thirty seconds on average, what it usually takes when there are no ballot questions, there wouldn’t have been any lines at all.

The reason they took so long was entirely due to there being ballot questions these voters knew nothing about until confronted with the screen asking them to make a choice.  We saw this in 2006 when the Marriage Amendment ballot question was asked, and lines were horrendous as voters tried to discern what the heck the explanation of that question meant.  People left the lines to come try again later, and there were people waiting in line for several hours, just like this year.  The the 2008 presidential election, with far higher turnout to deal with but with no ballot questions, had no lines to speak of.  It was the same mess in 2012 as we saw in 2008, but we haven’t really learned anything from it.  Elections that have ballot questions always have very long lines.  Those that don’t aren’t really troubled with them.

The clear answer is to help voters make up their minds about ballot questions before they get in the booth.  If all election workers did was hand out sample ballots and explain to those waiting in line that they were going to be confronted with these questions so they might as well figure things out while they’re in line, these lines would go a lot more quickly and be tremendously shorter.  We know voters will show up not knowing what’s on the ballot.  We know they’ll ponder over the legalistic wording of a ballot question for a while before they make up their mind.  We also know we can choose when that roadblock is going to happen, and make sure it doesn’t throw the whole process into chaos.

So before we accept at face value Frank Principi’s dubious claims that there isn’t enough funding for elections operations, how about we figure out what the actual problem is and how it can best be addressed before we reflexively start clamoring for more money to be thrown at the problem, which almost certainly will do nothing to fix it.



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17 Comments

  1. Anonymous said on 9 Nov 2012 at 7:17 pm:
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    IF only the legal voters were allowed to vote, it would not have been nearly as long of a line.

  2. Anonymous said on 9 Nov 2012 at 8:58 pm:
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    Excellent point about the amendments… makes a great deal of sense with the lines and such.

  3. J Doe said on 9 Nov 2012 at 9:30 pm:
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    Anon are you suggesting there were illegal voters?

  4. Loan Arranger said on 10 Nov 2012 at 7:45 am:
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    I think you shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss Principi’s claims. It appears a number os Supervisors have similar issues, and Prince William County is already looking for someone to blame.

    I think you’ll find you spoke too soon in this issue, Greg.

  5. Scout said on 10 Nov 2012 at 8:42 am:
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    JDoe - I assume the first comment was poking fun at the anti-immigrant hysteria that floats around this site. No one with a functioning brain thinks that there would be enough illegal voters (whether immigrants, zombies, or under-age drinkers using their fake IDs for political purposes) to have any effect on the pace at which people made it through the voting process this past Tuesday. If there were any illegal voters in Virginia, I’d be very surprised if their numbers exceeded a few dozen statewide. They would have had no effect on any race, and certainly had no effect on wait times.

    As I spent 105 minutes waiting in line to vote, I had a chance to reminisce about many things, one of which was the time I lived in Northern California. I lived in a residential section of a large city. There, the polling districts were quite compact - a few blocks square. The polling places were frequently in people’s garages and there were only one or two machines. But the number of people who had to vote in any one place was relatively small. California, then as now, usually had complicated ballots with lots of Propositions, but it all went reasonably fast. Because there were so many sites, people generally could walk to the polling place from there home. By contrast, our voting site is in a large magnet middle school, where classes were in session. People had to hover in the parking lots waiting for spaces throughout much of the day

    Greg’s idea of distributing copies of the propositions to voters going into vote is worth considering. The Party booths outside the polls were doing this in some places, at least as part of the D or R recommended ballots. A supplemental idea would be to make clear and acceptable the idea that if you don’t understand a proposition, don’t vote on it one way or another. The idea that a lot of folks simply throw a dart at these things is pretty demoralizing to those who take the time to figure out what’s what.

  6. Cajun said on 10 Nov 2012 at 1:16 pm:
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    Greg: Good point. In fact, the jurisdiction should be responsible for distributing a non partisan analysis of all ballot measures in advance of the election.

    I’d also like to see Virginia have open early voting. As it is now, it’s sort of fibber voting. If you claim you can’t make it to the poll you can vote early. Makes you wonder.

    It only took me 35 minutes to reach a machine. Not bad. But some jurisdictions had 2 plus hours. That’s too long.

  7. Greg L said on 10 Nov 2012 at 1:49 pm:
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    Early voting is an big invitation to fraud and abuse and inconsistent with the idea of an “election day.” As long as we can make the voting process efficient and effective and provide an opportunity for *legitimate* absentee voting, there’s no strong reason to change this.

  8. Scout said on 10 Nov 2012 at 2:20 pm:
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    A lot of countries either vote on Sunday (or over a weekend). Another approach would be to change Election Day to Veterans’ Day (or Armistice Day, as we prefer to call it around here). Then, when one votes, one can remember that the reason we are able to do this is because of all those who wore the uniform and gave or risked their lives for us.

  9. Anonymous said on 10 Nov 2012 at 3:43 pm:
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    Three machines for the amount of people in line during the entire time the polls were open is crazy! The ballot questions were printed in the newspapers so that is not an excuse. Throw a little more money in getting more machines. There should also be some accomodation for handicapped persons if nothing more than seating to allow them to sit for a few moments while moving with the line.

  10. Anonymous said on 11 Nov 2012 at 8:34 pm:
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    People sat in prison camp for a lot longer than 90 minutes or however long anyone waited so, quit your whining. And yes I am saying exactly that there is voter fraud. One locality I read about has reported 128% voter turnout.

  11. Harry Wiggins said on 11 Nov 2012 at 9:27 pm:
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    The PWC Democratic Committee covered every precinct in PWC, with the exception of 2 in Coles, and covered 953 hours of 1001 precinct hours handing out sample ballots with our preference. The problem wasn’t 2 ballot questions. I visited 39 precincts during the day/evening, starting at 5:30AM at Lake Ridge 501 before traveling to Gainesville and working my way east, with my last precinct stop being Dumfries. The problems were many and varied: in one precinct one of the 4 machines was programed for election day “October 29, 2012″ the machine was taken out of service; another machine had the election time starting at 3:00AM that machine was also taken out of service; the Coles precinct had no wait at all, walk in show your ID get your card, vote walk out. The problem at River Oaks where there were 1091 voters in line at 5:10PM was easy to spot and it was an operational issue that was either intentional or unintentional, but nonetheless it suppressed the vote in River Oaks, where more than 150 voters left without voting because of the 6 hour wait to vote. There were problems with voting in PWC from day one of in-person absentee voting and persisted through election day, the last vote cast in PWC was 10:32PM, I’d say there are problems that need to be addressed that have nothing to do with 2 ballot questions.

  12. Greg L said on 11 Nov 2012 at 9:43 pm:
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    Anon, there were no turnouts in PWC higher than Brentsville Precinct at 68.3% turnout. I have seen no substantiated data indicating turnouts higher than 100% yet, and none of the stories alleging turnouts greater than 100% have been substantiated as far as I can tell. Those seem to be a case of shoddy pseudo-journalism as far as I can tell, but I’m reserving final judgment on those. I’d suggest you do the same.

    Harry, other than operational failures, do you have your own opinion as to why there were long lines this election but not in 2008, when turnout was substantially similar? I’d be happy to explore alternative hypotheses, but I’m pretty sure I nailed the independent variable here.

  13. Harry Wiggins said on 12 Nov 2012 at 6:38 am:
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    Greg, I do. The electronic poll books seemed slower than the “paper” poll books and the staff working the poll books initially were trying to resolve problems at the poll book rather than moving problems (wrong precinct, wrong address, moved, etc) to other staff, at times at River Oaks (until the light went on in the early afternoon and staff figured it out) there were times when all six voting machines were empty while the staff at the poll book were trying to solve problems. There were other issues as I mentioned, the first three precincts I visited all had at least one machine down, and there seemed to be insufficient technicians to “fix” the machines timely, not sure if the techs were staged around the county or were coming from a central location. I understand from one of our poll volunteers that Washington Reid only had one machine in use for an hour or two. The machines that PWC must use, due to the GA moratorium, are antiquated, unless the screens are cleaned regularly the votes aren’t recorded, so there is frequent down time in order to clean the screens. We’re doing a lessons learned this week so I’m sure I will hear other issues.

  14. Anonymous said on 12 Nov 2012 at 9:18 am:
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    At what point were they taken out of service with incoreect dates and such? If they had been used for voting, it is unfair to the previous voters, whatever the party may be. The machines should be certified just like gas pumps before use. If they do not have a certified decal, they cannot be used.

  15. Anonymous said on 12 Nov 2012 at 9:56 am:
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    http://97.65.137.90/262740/proof-of-voter-fraud-in-boston-ma

  16. Greg L said on 12 Nov 2012 at 10:02 am:
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    Actually take a look at that spreadsheet. The first precinct had 1,235 registered voters and 848 votes cast. Is that really a turnout of 135%??? Of course not. Not one of those precincts had more votes cast than registered voters.

  17. Wineplz said on 28 Nov 2012 at 3:42 pm:
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    We had 2,640 votes in our precinct (Cedar Point) of about 3900 registered voters, had 5 machines for the first half of the day (when we originally opened the 6th one, it already had votes on it…someone from the county cared for it about half-way through the day and got it up and running). When I arrived at the school at 4:45am, we already had a few people sitting in line; when we unlocked the doors at 6am, the line contained about 300 people. People were in line on average for 90min…it only slowed down between about 2-4pm when the average wait was about 45min…after that it was back up to 90min. When we closed the polls at 7pm, the last voter didn’t actually leave the building until 7:50pm.
    And yes, I can attest to the ballot questions causing a slowdown at the machines. When we first opened, I was working the door, handing out sample ballots (the non-partisan ones) and pamphlets about the ballot questions. People were asking me what they would be agreeing or disagreeing to because even the pamphlet did a poor job of explaining what was being asked. I could probably count on 1 hand the number of people who were already aware of the ballot questions…everyone else seemed surprised. Considering many people no longer buy newspapers and get their info online, there is a very good reason why so many people were unaware of the questions. The layout of news sites is distinctly different than a newspaper, so you have little chance of an odd, boring, but important note about ballot questions catching your eye.

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