State details jammed equipment, missing volunteers and possibly uncounted votes in November elections

By: - December 21, 2018 5:48 pm

Voters in Chesterfield County’s Evergreen West precinct, which saw a surge of Democratic voters in 2017 after Trump’s 2016 election. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Problems on Election Day this November ranged from humidity-induced paper jams to potentially incorrect final tallies being reported to the state from one locality, according to a report issued by the Department of Elections Friday.

Some election officials characterized the problems as typical hiccups. Others saw them as serious deficiencies.

“There are issues in every single election,” said Chris Piper, commissioner of the Department of Elections. “It’s a unique process we do as Americans. For 13 hours we try to get everybody in one place to vote, so there are going to be issues.”

Likewise, Chairman of the Board of Elections James Alcorn said it sounded like a “pretty well-run election.”

The whole board didn’t agree.

“On Election Day 2018, we saw some really significant mistakes,” said board member Clara Belle Wheeler. “We cannot gloss over them. We can’t push them under the rug. We should not say ‘We’ll do better next time.'”

Of the 1,600 complains, half came from Prince William, Chesterfield and Henrico counties, which officials said reflected their status as among the state’s most populous localities. State elections officials also identified major problems in Hopewell, which has a new general registrar after a tumultuous process. The state Board of Elections also removed two members of the city’s electoral board.

Here’s what officials found:

Missing volunteers in Chesterfield County

Most of the complaints came from Chesterfield County. Seventy-six of the 146 complaints called or emailed to the state from Chesterfield were about long lines and confusion about an evening court order to keep two polling locations open late.

Virginia Republicans claim those polling places didn’t remain open. The Department of Elections is allowing the Chesterfield registrar to conduct a review for presentation early next year.

Those polling places did reopen, but around 7:30 p.m. once the court issued the order, Piper said.

In informal conversations, Piper said, it was clear that even though Chesterfield’s registrar, Constance Tyler, had a plan in place, many of her election officers didn’t show up on Election Day.

Tyler told county commissioners before Election Day she was expecting higher than normal turnout and could use some more volunteers. On Election Day, some of Chesterfield’s polling places didn’t have enough equipment to quickly check people in, the state’s report noted.

“I don’t think they are ignorant, they just weren’t paying attention,” Wheeler said of the situation in Chesterfield.

Wheeler, a Republican, suggested county representatives come to a state board meeting to explain their decisions. The county was key for a win in the 7th congressional district, where Democrat Abigail Spanberger ultimately unseated Republican Rep. Dave Brat.

Tyler is working with the county Board of Supervisors to fix the problems encountered on Election Day, Piper said.

“There is concern about funding and getting enough people out,” he said.

Prince William County needs more money

In Prince William County, home to U.S. Senate candidate Corey Stewart, the registrar was working with limited staff and equipment, the state report noted.

“Prince William County’s staffing at polling places seems to be outside the norm,” the state’s report stated. “While other localities with a similar number of registered voters report using at least eight Officers of Election in polling locations with less than 2,000 registered voters, Prince William County uses five in precincts with less than 3,000 registered voters.”

Each polling location in the county had only one voting machine and electronic pollbook, where officials check voter registration.

It “created a situation where voters were waiting to cast their ballots after having marked them,” the state report said. “The wait at the scanner resulted in a wait at voter check-in, thus resulting in long lines.”

Prince William’s registrar, Michele White, told the state she would have staffed polling locations better and put more equipment at each site, but doesn’t have the money to do it.

In Virginia, localities are responsible for funding elections while the state provides non-financial support.

Henrico couldn’t fix paper jams

In Henrico there were enough poll workers and machines, but not all the machines worked properly.

The equipment vendor told the state the weather likely caused disruptive paper jams.

“It is important to note here that Henrico County is not the only locality to have issues with paper jams due to high humidity on Election Day,” the state wrote. “Many other localities experienced the same issue, but received fewer complaints because Officers of Election immediately worked to clear paper jams.”

In humid conditions, paper ballots can expand in size, the report noted. But voting machines can only accept a specific thickness of paper to make sure it doesn’t accidentally count more than one at a time. If a paper isn’t the acceptable size, the machine will reject the ballot or jam.

“Ballots taken out for curbside voting were quite wet when they were brought in and scanned,” an equipment technician named Tyler Lincks told the state. He knew of at least five precincts in Henrico that had issues with jams. “Also voters waiting to scan their ballots in the polling place were hiding them from view by holding them against themselves in contact with wet rainwear.”

In Henrico, elections staff isn’t trained or allowed to fix paper jams. Instead, they call on technicians and poll workers place the uncounted ballots into an emergency ballot box to be counted later.

“This can create a perception among voters that either their ballot will not be processed correctly or their votes will not be accurately tabulated,” the state’s report said.

To make sure future elections in Henrico aren’t delayed, the state recommended that election workers are trained and allowed to clear paper jams. They also suggested that Henrico order its ballots in smaller batches so some can stay sealed until needed and be less affected by weather conditions.

Illegal ballots and possibly incorrect results in Hopewell

Among the seven major issues state elections staff found in Hopewell on Election Day were one absentee ballot issued on Election Day and results that may have been entered incorrectly reported to the state.

The state didn’t receive a significant number of complaints from Hopewell but used reports to identify problems.

“What happened in Hopewell should never happen,” Wheeler said.

In one case, the registrar’s office issued an emergency absentee ballot on Election Day. Virginia’s law allows emergency absentee ballots to be issued only through the afternoon before Election Day.

Hopewell didn’t record all of its absentee ballots correctly in the computer system used to count results and track voters. In those cases, voter credit wasn’t always applied.

And while tabulating results related to two constitutional amendments, the registrar’s office didn’t count provisional ballots. Those are cast for a number of reasons, including by voters who forget to bring identification to the polls.

“Hopewell did not enter provisional results for either of the proposed constitutional amendments,” the report stated. “It is difficult to determine if this is legitimate.”

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Mechelle Hankerson
Mechelle Hankerson

Mechelle, born and raised in Virginia Beach, is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in mass communications and a concentration in print journalism. She covered the General Assembly for the university’s Capital News Service and was among 12 student journalists in swing states selected by the Washington Post to cover the 2012 presidential election. For the past five years, she has covered local government, crime, housing, infrastructure and other issues at the Raleigh News & Observer and The Virginian-Pilot, where she most recently covered the state’s biggest city, Virginia Beach. Mechelle was with the Virginia Mercury until January 3rd, 2019.