Election Day 2004:  A Chief Election Officer's View

November 14, 2004

SUMMARY:  As chief election officer for Huntley Precinct, I know first hand the problems caused by the large turnout, particularly the long waiting times voters experienced most of the day. Using a question and answer format, this article explains the problems and offers solutions. First among these are the need for having two more voting machines for each precinct and for each precinct having a full complement of election officers.

On election day, November 2, 2004, I worked as chief election officer for the Huntley Precinct in Lee District of Fairfax County, Virginia. You all know the story of the record voter turnout, and it was no different at Huntley Precinct. There are 2740 registered voters in Huntley. 250 either voted absentee or requested an absentee ballot. 1844 voters voted in person on election day. That makes an overall turnout of 76.4%. During the morning hours, voters waited up to an hour and a half to vote. Lines went out the door of the Groveton School cafeteria, down the hall, out the front door of the school, and around the side of the building. Things eased off between 2:00 and 4:00 in the afternoon, with the wait down to about 20-30 minutes. It went back up to 45-60 minutes until about 6:00 PM, when the precinct just ran out of voters. The last half hour before the polls closed, you could almost walk up directly to the pollbook desk, get recorded, and go right to a machine.

For Huntley, the pollbook, the list of registered voters, was divided in two, A-K and L-Z. You'd think that voters would appear randomly so that the lines at the A-K and L-Z tables would be roughly equal. It didn't turn out that way. In the early morning, you could almost walk up to the L-Z table, but the line to the A-K table was very long. About 10:00 in the morning all the L-Z voters showed up, and the situation was reversed.

It's worth noting that almost all the voters were very patient and expressed their feeling that the huge turnout was a good thing for democracy and America. I also want to express my appreciation to the voters, of whom there were many, who thanked my election officials for their hard work. Believe me, the officers all appreciated the thanks!

So let's get right to your questions.

OK, why did I have to wait so long to vote?

It's simple mathematics. The polls are open for 13 hours, from 6:00 AM to 7:00 PM. That's 780 minutes. There were five voting machines, for a total of 3900 voting machine minutes. Divide that by 1844 voters and you'll see that each voter has just a bit over two minutes to vote. Take out the time for machines going down, the election officers initiating the machine for each voter, and the time a voter spends walking to the machine, and you're left with fewer than two minutes per voter. During the peak voting times, there are going to be more voters than the machines can handle. So the short answer is . . .more voting machines are needed. The question is how many more. Given that this high turnout only occurs once every four years, machine purchases should be kept to a minimum. Two more machines would have been a huge help in Huntley, about 60 more voters an hour, which would have cut waiting times considerably.

The new touch screen voting machines in Fairfax County have now gone through their fourth election (two general elections and two primaries). What we saw in Huntley was that several of these machines need some maintenance. One machine had to be rebooted six times. Two other machines needed to be rebooted twice each. The County's plan is to re-calibrate and service between elections the machines for which problems are reported. It's clear that they need to do this on three of Huntley's machines.

The next part of the answer is that more election officials are needed. The good news is that one official can supervise two machines, so that for two more machines only one additional person would be required, at a current cost of $100.

The bad news is that, like most jurisdictions, Fairfax County is having trouble finding volunteers to be election officers. Huntley was authorized 11 officers. However, due to drop outs and no shows, we started the morning off with only six. Count two officers per poll book, and one per two machines, and you'll determine that we didn't have enough officers to do the basic job. Given that no election officer can work 13 hours without a break, you can appreciate the desperate circumstances we were in. Fortunately, the County allowed us to recruit and train volunteers from among the voters, and we found four people willing to step forward and help. So by lunchtime, we had almost a full staff and were able to function.

It's worth noting that the County hasn't raised the pay for election officers in over seven years. A chief earns $150 for roughly 18 hours work on election day (plus many more hours of preparation). An assistant chief earns $125 for 16 1/2 hours on election day (plus several hours of preparation), and an election officer earns $100 for his or her 16 hours of work. Now, election officers shouldn't be volunteering because this will make them rich—the spirit of helping their community is important—but asking them to work at minimum wage (or below) on what is a grueling day isn't going to keep the volunteers coming. It's probably time for a $25-$50 raise. But more importantly, the County needs to recruit new officers aggressively and track them just as aggressively through their training. Finding out four days before the election that there is a shortage of volunteers is probably too late to fix the problem.

One innovation in staffing was helpful. Election officers may now work a half-day, sharing the shift with another person. We had a married couple at Huntley who did this, and it worked out fine for us and them. However, finding people who would work if given this option didn't seem to be very easy. And, if the afternoon person doesn't show up to work, the morning person is obligated to work all day. As a result, in practice this hasn't seemed to provide the desired increase in volunteers.

What other problems were there?

Glad you asked. I can think of two.

First, most polling places are in schools. To save money this year, school custodians, or at least the one at Huntley, weren't required to be there until 5:00. That means that by the time he opens the door so the election officers can get it, it's 5:05 or 5:10. The election officers have to set up the room, put up a ton of signs, get the pollbooks out, and check and set up the voting machines. If the team is shorthanded, or there's a serious glitch with a voting machine, 50 minutes just isn't enough. Most chiefs can do some setup the evening before—both my assistant chiefs spent an hour and a half late Monday afternoon moving tables and going over our game plan. But they, and some of the other election officers, would have gladly come at 4:30 to get a jump on the morning setup. With the school building closed, we couldn't do that. Election officers MUST have access to their polling place at 4:30.

Second, the County must devise a more succinct ballot, and voters must come into the polling place prepared to vote. The problem this time stemmed from the two state referenda items and the four County bond items. These items each appeared as a lengthy paragraph on the ballot, and many voters took the time to read each item thoroughly. While there were handouts describing each item available at the entrance to the polling place, these six items probably took 75% of each voter's time at the machine; voters were probably able to vote for President and Congress in just a few seconds. Many voters took the easy way out and skipped the bond and referenda items completely, between 60-100 on each item. This is a case where the County needs to do better getting the word out and simplifying the ballot, and individual voters need to do more to prepare themselves to vote on such items.

Wait, you mentioned having to reboot machines. Were votes lost when this happened?

Short answer, no.

Each vote is recorded individually on the machine's hard drive and on a removable USB drive. When we re-boot the machine, we get a printed tape showing how many voters have already voted on the machine. If the machine locks up before the voter pushes the vote button, we re-vote the voter on a different machine, because his or her vote didn't get registered. Our machine that needed six reboots had roughly the same number of votes at the end of the day as the other machines.

And of course the machine counts are reconciled with the number of voters checked off in the pollbooks.

What else was new this year?

First, you may have noticed our high school student page helping with the lines. Our page did a terrific job, and I heard the same from many other chiefs about their pages. The page is not permitted to work the pollbooks or the voting machines, but he or she may help with everything else. Our page's key assignments were working to keep the lines organized, and identifying voter problems and bringing them to my attention. There's nothing worse than standing in line for an hour only to find when you got to the pollbook that there was a problem with your registration.

So what was that machine that your page had?

That was the new handheld Electronic Look-Up Device (ELD). It contained a data base of all the registered voters in Fairfax County. When our page looked up a voter, she could tell if that person was registered in the Huntley Precinct or at any other precinct in the County. If the voter was registered in another precinct, the ELD printed out a slip of paper telling the voter the name of the correct precinct and its address. Normally, the chief or assistant chief must call the County Registrar's office on each voter not in the poll book. This device was a lifesaver, probably reducing the number of calls I had to make by 75%. Sadly, there are lots of situations like ours in the County were there is a Huntley Precinct that votes at the Groveton Elementary School and a Groveton Precinct that votes at the Hybla Valley Elementary School. It's not surprising that first time or infrequent voters go to the wrong location.

Did you get all kinds of lawyers wanting to scrutinize your operation?

No, we didn't as far as I know. Each party is authorized one poll watcher to watch the opening, one for each split of the book, and two to watch closing. We enforced this rule strictly, so there were no extra people from either party hanging around who weren't voting, at least not inside the polling place. But then again, Virginia was hardly a battleground state.

What was the issue this year about the blue cards?

After each voter has been checked off in the pollbook, he/or she is given a blue card to take to the voting machine to give to the election officer working that machine. It shows that the voter's participation has been recorded in the pollbook, and it is designed to ensure that a voter only votes once. Election officers working the machines return these cards to the officers working the pollbook(s) so the cards can be reused. Each precinct was given (or should have been given) two packs of these cards for a total of 200.

Apparently, some precincts ran out of cards and then cut the cards in half to make do. I'm not sure how this would happen since it would mean that 200 people were in line between the pollbooks and the machines. We had long lines in Huntley, but not that long! However, we received one pack of cards with the materials provided to the chiefs at our training, and another pack of cards was in the blue D-bag locked in with the machines. It occurs to me that in the rush to set up in the hour (or less) before the polls opened, some precincts may not have discovered the pack of cards in the D-bag. One hundred cards wouldn't have been sufficient at the most busy times. That's another reason that election officials need more setup time.

If this had happened to me, I wouldn't have cut cards in half, but I won't question the judgment of those who did. In what was a hectic and chaotic time, they made the best decision they could to keep the lines moving. We don't keep count of the cards, and even if we did, we wouldn't have had time to do it on this particular election day.

Were there any other blue card issues?

Yes. After having waited in line at the pollbook, some voters were short on time and couldn't or didn't want to wait in the second line for the machines. It is possible that they simply left and returned later to vote with their blue card. The concern was this. If a voter leaves the polls with his/her blue card, in theory anyone could return with that card and vote.

I was approached by a small number of voters who had time constraints. I did not want voters leaving the polls with their blue cards, so I asked them what the absolute latest time they could leave was, put them in line, and if they hadn't voted by that time, I pulled them out of line and let them vote immediately. Other election officers at other precincts made other decisions. It turns out that there is not formal policy on what to do it this happens. Again, it's hard to fault election officers for making the best decision they can.

Can I swear that none of the Huntley voters left with their blue card and came back later? No, I can't. With two hundred voters in the cafeteria at peak voting time, it was simply not possible to watch what voters did. But none of the people who approached us with this problem left before voting.

Any final thoughts?

First, for all the opposition in some states to having voters show ID at the polls, it didn't seem to deter voting here. We had only two voters who didn't bring ID and signed the affirmation of identity form. ID actually helps the officers working the pollbooks, as they see the spelling of the name rather than having to ask or guess.

Second, my election officers did a fantastic job under tremendous pressure and maintained positive attitudes throughout. Next time you vote, please remember to thank the people working the polls. They've earned it!

To sum up this year's lessons learned from a high turnout Presidential year election:

This article can be found at

I appreciate well thought out comments on these articles, and will sometimes incorporate them into a future draft of the article.  I'll ignore abusive responses and ensure future correspondence from the sender goes to the mail filter that deletes it unread.

Send me an e-mail

Envelope: click here to e-mail me