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New Fairfax County Report Seeks Changes to Election Process

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[Image courtesy of glassdoor]

After an 2012 election with lengthy waits and delays in many precincts, Fairfax County, VA assembled a bipartisan commission charged with studying the county's elections and making recommendations. The Commission issued its report yesterday, making several suggestions about ways in which the voting process could improve. According to the Washington Post:

The report of the Bipartisan Election Process Improvement Commission largely confirmed what local officials said soon after the 2012 results were in: More voters than expected showed up, and there were not enough voting machines and poll workers on hand to keep the lines moving. Fixing the problems will require better technology, better training and better polling places, it said ...

Turnout is always high in presidential-election years, but officials were still surprised by the final tallies, the report found. Ballots were cast by 81 percent of Fairfax voters in November, compared with 32 percent for 2011's state and local elections and 49 percent for 2010's congressional contests.

Predictions were especially off the mark in one key department. Because absentee voting rose in 2004 and 2008, officials assumed it would continue to increase in 2012, the report notes. But it didn't: The number ticked down, leading to more people than expected showing up in person.

One key recommendation was that Fairfax County stop offering ballots on both touchscreen and optical scan machines (a choice which some locals jokingly call "paper or plastic") and focus exclusively on the scanned ballots:

Fairfax County uses two different kinds of voting machines. In 2003, the County began using Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) touch screen voting machines. The Commonwealth subsequently adopted a statewide ban on future purchases of DRE equipment in the Commonwealth, although localities that used DREs were allowed to continue using them until the end of their useful lives. (In 2009, the law was amended to allow limited purchases of DREs for the express purpose of providing accessible voting equipment.) Beginning in 2008, to supplement its dwindling stock of DREs, the County acquired refurbished optical scanning voting machines, which scan paper ballots ...

During the November 2012 election, lines formed while voters waited to use the DREs. Although it was quicker to use the paper ballots and the optical scanner, most voters were hesitant to use paper and chose to vote on the DREs. Voting on the DREs took longer because the voter had to page through the candidates, two constitutional amendments and four County bond issue referenda. Many voters were unfamiliar with the last items and took extra time to read them. Because two forms of voting machines were being used, it was necessary to have enough space to set up the DREs and also to have enough privacy booths and stations for people to vote by paper. Some rooms were too small to comfortably accommodate all the necessary equipment and still provide privacy.

Therefore the Commission recommends:

+ The County should move quickly to using only one integrated voting system throughout the County. The system should utilize electronically scanned ballots, and be an integrated system that is fully accessible to voters with disabilities. There currently are enough optical scanners for each precinct to have one, but there will need to be additional machines acquired to replace the current ones as well as to have additional ones in future years. In addition, acquiring high-speed scanners should be investigated to speed up the Central Absentee Precinct (CAP) and recounts. The Office of Elections should begin now to have all the necessary equipment in place before the 2016 presidential election, preferably in time for the 2015 election, so that voters and Election Officers will gain experience using the new voting equipment before the next presidential election.

+ In order to educate voters about voting on paper ballots, a publicity campaign should begin with the 2013 primary election to explain that these ballots are counted right at the time they are electronically scanned and are totaled at the end of Election Day, just like the DREs are. Voters have told Election Officers that they did not want to vote with paper ballots because they believed that the paper ballots were not counted immediately or at all.

+ To eliminate confusion, paper ballots should be referred to as electronically scanned ballots in order to better communicate this voting process.

= Each precinct should have an optical scan with sufficient backup scanners available and a long-term goal of two scanners per precinct as necessary.

+ The Commission recommends that Fairfax County maintain sufficient privacy booths well in excess of the statutory minimum of one per 425 registered voters. There should be one privacy booth for every 250 registered voters in a precinct.

The Commission also made numerous other recommendations, including ballot language and length, precinct size and layout, improving interactions with DMV on voter registration and use of technology. All of those can be found in the full report, which is available at http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/electioncommission/election-commission-report.htm.

Kudos to the Commission for its work and to the County for taking the opportunity to do this kind of post-election review.

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