By Elizabeth Wong, Associate Director

With Virginia as a swing state in the presidential campaign and a senate race that pollsters had neck-and-neck for months, money and campaign volunteers poured into the state during the 2012 election.  All the effort resulted in voter turnout on par with the state’s historic turnout of 67% in 2008.  It was a great show of democracy in action as people waited in long lines to exercise their right to vote.  But should performing one’s civic duty and casting a ballot take up to five hours, as it did in Chesapeake?  Certainly there are lessons to be learned from this election.

Virginia should adopt no-excuse absentee voting

Virginia law requires voters to provide one of nineteen reasons to say why they cannot make it to the polls on Election Day and, in most cases, they must provide supporting information that unnecessarily intrudes the government into their private lives.  For example, those unable to go to the polls because of a disability or illness must disclose information about its nature, and those citing religious obligations must provide information on their “religion, and the nature of the obligation.”

Registrars shouldn’t be in the business of collecting and storing voters’ personal information.  Instead, Virginia should make it easier for voters to cast a ballot and allow anyone to vote absentee.  No-excuse absentee voting would keep the government out of voters’ personal lives, and help reduce the long lines on Election Day.

Poll workers need more training

Poll workers, some of whom volunteered their services for the first time this year, too often gave incorrect information to voters or were less careful than they should have been with ballots.  Some confused primary election procedures with general election procedures and asked voters for their party affiliation prior to casting a ballot.  When poll machines went down, poll workers switched to paper ballots, and some failed to put them in any type of secured box, leaving the ballots open for anyone to read.

In the decades of running our election protection hotline, the ACLU of Virginia has learned that poll workers, while having good intentions, aren’t always as informed as they should be about election law.  That’s why each year we aim to inform Virginians of their voting rights by distributing tens of thousands of voter rights cards throughout the state through community groups, local civic organizations and individuals committed to voter outreach.

The election process would go smoother, and more quickly, if poll workers were adequately trained, not only in the basics of election law, but also in the operation of electronic poll books and voting machines.

Contingency Plans for Emergency Situations

Election law requires absentee ballots to be received by the registrar by the close of the polls at 7 p.m. on Election Day in order to be counted.  Emergency situations – including natural disasters – may arise, however, and there should be a mechanism to ensure everyone gets their vote counted.

This year we heard from absentee voters living in New Jersey or New York for school or other reasons who applied for their absentee ballot by the deadline and to whom election officials mailed the ballots accordingly.  Unfortunately, however, Hurricane Sandy threw a huge wrench in the works and mail distribution was delayed along the east coast.  Some Virginia voters, hoping to cast their ballots this year, were unable to do so because they did not receive their absentee ballots before Election Day.  They had no way (except to drive their ballots to Virginia) to mark their ballot, put it in a sealed, witnessed envelope and have it returned to their registrar by 7 p.m. to be counted.

While the State Board of Elections did what they could within the purview of the law, it seems the state may now want to revisit contingency plans for emergency situations to ensure all votes can be counted.

Improving Procedures for “Inactive” Voters

At least once each year, the State Board of Elections (the Board) matches its voter registration list against the National Change of Address database to identify voters who have might have moved and have new addresses.  Pursuant to the Virginia Code, however, the Board treats voters with new addresses within the same locality differently from voters who moved to a different locality in Virginia.  The Board mails address confirmation requests to the new addresses of voters moving within the same locality, while it mails voters moving to a new county or city at their old address, even though the Board is aware of the new address through the address matching procedure.

Records show that this year there are nearly half a million voters on the “inactive” list because they failed to respond to a mailing sent by the Board asking for address confirmation.   Despite the ACLU’s encouragement to go beyond the minimum requirements of the law, however, the Board chose not to provide any of the “inactive” voters with information about new voter ID requirements or encouragement to register their change of address formally and rejoin the list of active voters.

The bottom line is that hundreds of thousands of voters could remain active if the Board changed its procedures for voters moving to a new locality by sending address confirmation mailings to their new addresses rather than their old ones.

The State Board of Elections is tasked with supervising and coordinating the work of local registrars and electoral boards in order to obtain “uniformity” in election practices and with making rules and issuing instructions that “promote the proper administration of election laws.”  It may not be an easy job, but it’s a necessary one.  We hope the Board will look back at this year’s elections and recommend and initiate the improvements we have suggested here.  While election officials do their job, the ACLU of Virginia will continue to advocate for the legislative and policy changes necessary to guarantee the principle of one person one vote.