Virginia: Ground Zero For Election Shenanigans, Snafus

| Tue Nov. 4, 2008 3:05 PM EST

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Virginia hasn't gone Democratic since LBJ took the state in 1964. Forty-four years later, most polls give Barack Obama at least a four-point advantage over John McCain, thanks in no small part to the defection of moderate "Obamacans." Virginia is not used to being up for grabs, and the enthusiasm and passion among the electorate are unprecedented in modern times; forecasts indicate the state could see 90-percent voter turnout, more than double the average for a presidential election.

While widespread participation in the electoral process is a good thing, Virginia's readiness to manage the tidal wave of new voters (half a million people have registered since 2004) is very much in question. A report released in mid-October by the Brennan Center for Justice, Common Cause, and the Verified Voting Foundation found that Virginia numbered among the states least-prepared for the Election Day challenge. "I don't see what the plan is to handle the volume," Common Cause's Susannah Goodman told the Washington Post. "We are concerned about really long lines at the polls at critical rush hour times, and we are concerned that they don't have enough machines."

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The polling places anticipated to be most overwhelmed by the crush of voters and lack of adequate voting equipment are projected to be in poorer, predominantly minority districts. In an effort to help count those votes, the NAACP filed suit last week against Commonwealth of Virginia and Governor Tim Kaine, asking that polling places remain open until 10pm; they are currently scheduled to close at 7pm. Yesterday, a federal judge denied the request. This morning, amid reports of "massive voting machine failures and voters being turned away at the polls," Election Protection, a non-profit group that catalogs reports of voting problems, warned that it may go to court to force Virginia to keep its polls open two additional hours, until 9pm. Already, the group reports fielding over 27,000 phone calls from voters alleging problems at the polls, mostly in the states of Pennsylvania, Virginia, New Jersey, and Florida. Even this would be an imperfect solution, as any ballots cast after the official 7pm close would be counted provisionally—meaning they will not be counted today and would be subject to approval by election officials, allowing at least some potential that they would not be counted at all.

Long lines and lack of polling equipment are only part of the problem. Another is that it is raining across much of Virginia today. Not only has inclement weather historically dampened voter turnout (primarily among Democrats), it can also wreak havoc on paper ballots: if a voter handles the ballot with wet fingers, the machine may not be able to process the vote.

Finally, there have been a handful of reports of more insidious forms of voter suppression in Virginia, many of them apparently aimed at discouraging turnout among college students, who are expected to vote overwhelmingly for Obama. Typical election shenanigans or something more serious? You be the judge...

  • In late August, Virginia's Montgomery County issued a press release aimed at students attending Virginia Tech, warning them to think twice before voting in Virgina: "By making Montgomery County your permanent residence, you have declared your independence from your parents and can no longer be claimed as a dependent on their income tax filings... If you have a scholarship attached to your former residence, you could lose this funding." Virginia Tech administrators have told students to ignore the statement.
  • The attempt to suppress Democratic turnout in Montgomery County appears to have taken a new tack. In a conference call this morning, a representative of Rock The Vote stated that local election officials recently moved a polling place from the campus of Virginia Tech to a location six miles away, making it difficult for students without cars to vote.
  • A hacker gained access to the George Mason University email system last night and sent a fake email from the university provost to 30,000 students and 5,000 employees, reading, "Please note that election day has been moved to November 5th. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause you." University police and the FBI are investigating.
  • In the last few hours before polling places were due to open, voters across Virginia have reported received "robocalls" directing them to the wrong polling places. Most of these calls appear to have been aimed toward low-income voters.
  • UPDATE: As reports of voting problems in Virginia continue to surface, CREDO Mobile, a self-described "progressive" cellular communications firm, has sent the following text message to its users: "CREDOmobile: Broken machines & long lines in VA. 866-313-6081 for info & to connect to Gov. Kaine's office. Demand polls stay open 2 addl hrs." Stay tuned...

    UPDATE: Contrasting nicely with apparent efforts to suppress student voting at Virginia Tech and George Mason, CNN reports that Jerry Falwell, Jr., chancellor of the fundamentalist Liberty University, launched a get-out-the-vote drive in late September, aimed at registering all 10,500 students at the Lynchburg institution. Falwell especially urged out-of-state students to register in Virginia... and without any threats that they could lose their financial aid. Think that 10,500 conservative Baptists can't make a difference in the grand scheme of things? Virginia's 2006 Senate race was determined by just under 10,000 votes.

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