As members of the Virginia Elections Board met last week to certify the results of the special election in the 24th House District, one item that was discussed at the meeting in Richmond was the situation surrounding Chesterfield County’s extraordinary voter turnout for the November 6 midterm elections. Those at the polls in a few precincts weathered highly problematic infrastructure and personnel.
One month ago, it was announced that Chesterfield’s electoral board would investigate instances of missing personnel, incorrect ballots, precincts with varying hours, broken machines, and very long lines that led to a court order to keep doors in two precincts open until 9:00 p.m. Some at the polls waited in line for over two hours to cast their ballots, which led to local elected officials getting involved on Election Day to ensure that votes were cast properly.
Though, while voter turnout was the highest in years, it was not completely unexpected.
“It shouldn’t have come as a surprise,” said Chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia Jack Wilson in an interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch (RTD). “She [Chesterfield Registrar Constance L. Tyler] didn’t plan for it.”
A report requested by the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors found that the county produced 165 election complaints, more than any other Virginia locality, and 35 percent of the statewide total, RTD reports this week.
The review stated that Chesterfield election officials had an “adequate” staffing plan in place. However, several poll workers “failed to report” on Election Day. The county also did not utilize enough electronic poll books for voter check-in. Other Chesterfield precincts ran out of ballots early, and some even opened late.
As for the judge’s order to keep the Spring Run and Birkdale precincts open until 9:00 p.m. – past the 7:00 election deadline – since the judgement was issued at 7:30 p.m., Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Elections (ELECT) Chris Piper explained that the polling areas had been shut and locked. Although the doors were reopened for citizens who had not voted yet due to the aforementioned problems, just one person returned to cast their ballot during the extended hours.
At the state elections board meeting on Friday, December 21, member Clara Belle Wheeler, angry with the instances of lackluster work on behalf of Chesterfield, said that voters “stood in line expecting to be able to vote, and the door did not open. People were disenfranchised.”
“This is not the old Soviet Union. This is Virginia,” Wheeler exclaimed. “If I sound angry, it’s because I am.”
Other board members, however, are keeping comments to themselves as they await the completion of Chesterfield County’s own post-midterm election report that is expected in early 2019.
Commissioner Piper, downplaying the issues seen on Election Day during his first year as Governor Ralph Northam‘s (D) head of elections, said the state of elections in Virginia in 2018 is “a good one.”
Chesterfield, Henrico, and Prince William counties added up to around half of the 475 election complaints statewide. In Henrico County, paper jams and other machinery mishaps delayed casting ballots in some precincts. In Prince William County, “unusually low staffing levels” led to long lines and other issues at the polls, with a lack of “adequate funding” cited as the issue for much-needed improvements.
The City of Hopewell was also named as a problematic area. The newly-appointed, yet embattled registrar, Yolanda Stokes, was said to have not processed absentee ballots in a proper way, approved a “suspect precinct change” for a registered voter, and issued an emergency absentee ballot that may have violated state law, the review found.