Voting Snafus, Afternoon Edition

By Sarah Kliff

Earlier today, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Florida were all in the running to become the problem state of 2012. Where do we stand a few hours later? Pennsylvania has improved and largely dropped off the voting-disaster radar, while Florida and Virginia remain the states to watch. Between those two, it looks like Florida has pulled ahead of Virginia as the most troublesome.  As of 3:30 this afternoon, the Election Protection Hotline had received over 52,000 calls from voters reporting problems. Here's how their voting experts sum up the issues:

Florida: This morning, calls trickled in to the Election Protection Hotline from Florida. Now, the Voting Rights Project’s Jon Greenbaum is talking about “massive breakdowns.” In 35 precincts scattered across 15 counties, optical scan machines have gone haywire. At first, poll workers were following the protocol for handling scan ballots: putting them into safe “lock boxes” so that they could be scanned and counted when the optical scan machines were fixed. But as problems mounted throughout the day-- and the “lock boxes” filled up--ballots have ended up in duffel bags or even on the floor. “Not the most secure places,” says Greenbaum. Voting rights advocates are worried about how, and even if, these ballots will be tallied.

Which raises the question: Why can't Florida get elections right? The answer might be the state's propensity for change. Most voting experts will tell you that it doesn’t really matter what kind of technology we use to cast our votes; they all have pretty similar error rates. What makes or breaks an election is whether or not there are strong, ironclad procedures for counting the votes. That requires poll workers who are familiar with the machines, can answer voter questions and know exactly how to process the votes once they’re cast. "Switching technology is the fun, shiny stuff, but it's pointless," says Thad Hall, author of "Electronic Elections." "You need to focus on the procedures."

Hall’s analysis seems spot on: most of the Florida counties that have experienced problems today are the ones who switched to using optical scan ballots right before this election. Sarasota County, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach are all highly-populated counties using optical scan ballots for the first time--and they are the major hubs for voter-reported breakdowns. Ultimately, the big problem in Florida isn't machines malfunctioning. It's that many counties adopted new technologies without adopting procedures for dealing with the inevitable breakdowns.

Virginia: The Old Dominion has actually seen some improvements over the past few hours. Things aren’t perfect and lines are still long, but the state’s election officials have been responsive to the Election Protection Hotline’s reports of breakdowns. They’ve been sending out additional election officials to sites with the longest lines--and, as a result, reducing wait times. At the Cuffee Community Center in Chesapeake, for example, six to seven hour lines were “substantially reduced” with the addition of more poll workers. “We’re still talking a period of hours [that people were waiting], but [we've] cut down the time,” says Greenbaum.

This doesn’t mean Old Dominion is in the clear: there’s a bizarre storyline developing out by Virginia Tech University. A few days ago, a registrar in Montgomery County issued a memo filled with faulty information about the consequences of registering to vote, including possible loss of financial aid and tax-dependent status, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. Then today, the polling place for Virginia Tech was suddenly moved to a small church six miles away from the campus with only 30 parking spots. Virginia Tech has more than 30,000 students--a pretty big number, particularly in a key state where polls have been running close.

Then there are the potential problems on the horizon. The commonwealth has a unique law that says at 6:45 p.m., 15 minutes before the polls close, poll workers are supposed to write down the names of everybody in line and allow only those people to vote. “If you have lines of several hundred or a thousand people you’re not going to be able to get, in 15 minutes, the entire line,” says Greenbaum. So the close of Virginia’s polls, which we’re all eagerly awaiting, could wind up being the rockiest part of the day.