Behind Election Day Lines

Published 4:46 pm Thursday, November 8, 2012

“When I opened the door and announced at six o'clock that the polls were officially open, we had a line-and it was dark, and I couldn't see how far-but [laughs] they nearly ran over me getting up the hall to get in to vote,” reported Tola Morgan, chief officer for Prince Edward's District Six.

According to an early voter who waited in that line, there were over 40 other citizens waiting outside when the doors opened. At 6 a.m. it was just above 30 degrees in Prospect.

Officers of election had arrived well before 6, readying the polls, taking their final oath before opening the doors: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will perform the duties for this election according to law and the best of my ability, and that I will studiously endeavor to prevent fraud, deceit, and abuse in conducting this election.” And, for many poll workers in the Herald coverage area, it was going to be a long day indeed.

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An officer of election at Cumberland's District Five said they were so busy during the morning “we thought we weren't even going to get any lunch.” She arrived at the Randolph Macon VFD building at 4:20 a.m. with the other officers of election to prepare for the day, “at 5:30 they were lined up outside waiting for us to open at 6.”

Cumberland's District Five continued to have a line until just before noon. By 2 o'clock, 638 citizens had voted at District Five.

According to Sonya Gray, deputy registrar for Cumberland County, over 40 percent of all registered voters in Cumberland County had voted by 1:30 in the afternoon.

John Skelly has been an officer of election for 20 years. This year's morning turnout was, in his words, “extraordinary… the first time we've ever seen it like that.” When asked how the turnout compared to the presidential election four years ago, he stated it was “not like this. This has been the biggest.”

The morning rush was also experienced in other Cumberland districts. When the doors were opened at the District One polls, 30 people were waiting to vote.

At the Cumberland Community Center, also known as the old elementary school, there was a line until quarter to one, according to election officers. At one time, 47 voters were waiting to sign in to vote. Thankfully, the long school hallway leading up to the polls provided warmth from the chilly November air.

Cumberland's District Five officers eventually did get to eat lunch, but some officers in other districts weren't so lucky.

Although the Prince Edward District Seven precinct only had six voters waiting outside when they opened their doors, there was a non-stop line all day, according to one officer of election. Another officer smiled when asked how busy it had been, stating at five o'clock that she had only been able to use the bathroom once since the polls opened. There was no opportunity for a lunch break either there or in Prospect, the flow of voters was so constant.

The steady line of voters at Prince Edward's District Seven was confirmed by Gene Watson, chief officer of that district and the previous secretary for the Prince Edward Board of Election for over 20 years.

He also smiled when asked the next day how busy it had been, stating that although he had hoped to look professional next time he plans to wear tennis shoes. He calculated that he was only able to sit down for 30 minutes all day.

Watson also noted that there seemed to be an increase in student voters from four years ago.

There was some confusion at District Seven, according to Watson, because many students thought they were registered to vote there who were not. Longwood students could be registered to vote in one of three different Prince Edward districts, depending on where they lived.

When students came to vote who weren't in the poll books, Watson said he “got on the phone to find out where they voted, so I didn't send them on a wild goose chase. Because, we wanted them to vote.”

Unfortunately, he said quite a few students had also registered to vote this fall and entered their home address as their residence, meaning they accidentally registered to vote there instead of in Farmville. If the voter card that was sent to their home was not corrected, they were officially registered to vote at that address. Of course, it was too late on Tuesday to change their registration. Watson said he had students that were registered in Virginia Beach, Hanover and Chesterfield that he unfortunately had to turn away.

Marlene Watson, registrar of Cumberland County, experienced similar frustrations. She met quite a few citizens who had not kept track of where they were last registered.

She felt that often citizens assumed that because they had paid their taxes or changed their address, that they were automatically registered to vote at their new residence. However, she pointed out that “if you don't change your registration, it doesn't get automatically changed… I can't make you in the system today.”

Officers of election and county registrars weren't the only ones working hard. According to Dale Bolt, general registrar of Prince Edward County, there was at least one polling monitor at each of the Prince Edward districts. There was also at least one in Cumberland.

Poll monitors must be a qualified Virginia voter and report to the election chief of the poll they are monitoring. As officers of elections call out names, monitors track who has and has not voted. Campaigns use live-time information to determine campaigning decisions for the day.

Monitors and officers of election can also challenge a voter if they are concerned that the individual is not who they claim to be or is ineligible to vote. If there is an official challenge, the voter will have to sign a document stating they live where they say they live before voting.

Monitors also watch to make sure that election officials are following the rules. Watson pointed out that as an officer of election, he did not mind that, because “they were there to verify and really cover my back.”

Morgan, the chief officer in Prospect, has been an election official for “many, many years.” She stated, “I have worked polls for I don't know how many years and I have never, ever, seen a turnout like we had yesterday.”

When Morgan announced that the Prospect polls were officially closed at 7 o'clock, “there was a line from inside at the table, where they give their identification, down the hall, out the door and all the way down to the stop sign.”

All those present at 7 p.m. are allowed to vote. Officers of election can either bring those that are still waiting inside and close the doors, or, if that is unfeasible, track the names of those that were in line when it was seven.