Minutes - Summary of Jan. 24 Meeting
Call to Order/Introduction of New Members
Chairmen Hanley and Mendelsohn called the third meeting of the Bi-Partisan Election Process Improvement Commission (“Commission”) to order in Room 232 of the County Government Center at 7:15 p.m. Members in attendance included: Bob Brostrom, Chuck Caputo, Cesar del Aguila, Bettie Baca, Alex Blakemore, Keith Damon, Jeremy Epstein, Olga Hernandez, William Kreykenbohm, Michael Kwon, Jay Myerson, James T. Parmelee, Susan Platt, Brian Schoeneman, Owen Shortt, Marcus Simon, Marion Stillson, and Jeffrey Wisoff. Members of the public were in attendance, as was County staff. The members who were not in attendance at the first and second meetings introduced themselves.
Review of Summary of Jan. 17, 2013 Meeting
The Commission reviewed the minutes of the January 17, 2013, and made corrections. Mr. Epstein corrected a statement he had made at the January 17, 2013, meeting. He clarified that DRE voting machines need to be plugged in while in storage prior to the election or they will lose their battery backup; if they are not plugged in, but the memory will not be erased.
Chairman Hanley reviewed the “homework” assignments that had been given to the Commission members at the January 17 meeting. The video of the meeting at which the Board of Supervisors created the Commission was linked to the Commission webpage as requested at the January 17 meeting, and many of the members have viewed it. It was noted that during the Board’s discussion, Supervisor Gross said she had a number of emails from voters that should be shared with the Commission when it was formed. Staff agreed to obtain the emails from Supervisor Gross and provide them to the Commission.
Reports from Members on Findings About Precinct Problems
Mr. Myerson said that he has obtained from the Obama campaign records of complaints about elections issues in Virginia statewide. Mr. Damon said that he is getting information from the Republican Party on complaints about elections issues in Virginia statewide. Chairman Hanley asked the Fairfax County Democratic Committee and the Fairfax County Republican Committee to submit the data they have about complaints from precincts on election day and they agreed to submit that data to the Commission. Mr. Wisoff offered that he has anecdotal summaries from Providence District.
Ms. Platt said that she discussed the shortage of elections officers with Supervisor Foust. She noted that County employees get volunteer leave and a discussion ensued about encouraging County employees to take volunteer leave to serve as elections officers, how that fits with the parties’ rights to vet elections officers, and the possible reluctance of County employees to declare a party affiliation. The discussion segued to questions about the extent to which the problems experienced in elections are attributable to the shortage of elections officers. The Commission asked staff to provide any data the County may have that shows the number of elections officers per precincts historically compared to the number of elections officers per precinct in 2012.
Chairman Hanley then stated that she wanted to clarify for the record what information the Commission can obtain from the Office of Elections, Electoral Board, and General Registrar, and what information may be unavailable or more difficult to obtain as a result of the Fairfax County Democratic Committee v. Quinn litigation. Chairman Hanley explained that all “public records” that are open for public inspection and copying pursuant to the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (VFOIA) are available to the Commission. However, the VFOIA does not require the defendants or the Office of Elections to create documents; therefore, if the Commission requests information not reflected in an existing document, the elections staff will have to consult with the litigation defense counsel to determine whether creating documents that supply the requested information would be prejudicial to the defense of the litigation. Likewise, the elections staff cannot verbally respond to questions posed in Commission meetings because of the risk that doing so will jeopardize the defense of the litigation.
Information Requested at the Last Meeting
Before the Chairmen began reviewing with the Commission the information that staff had gathered and provided in response to the Commission’s requests at the January 17 meeting, several Commission members asked whether staff could provide the members with the handouts electronically or post the handouts on the website. Additional requests were made to have the handouts for future meetings posted on the Commission webpage in advance of each meeting.
After discussion, Chairman Hanley agreed that, for future meetings, staff will provide handouts electronically if the materials are ready by 3:00 p.m. the day of each meeting. Otherwise, staff will provide the information to members electronically after the meeting. Documents will be posted on the Commission webpage or emailed to members as is determined feasible.
The Commission then reviewed several of the handouts that provided information that members had requested at the last meeting, including two Board of Supervisors agenda items from actions by the Board to create or split precincts; “Equipment and Election Officer Projections” for the 2008 Presidential election; “Criteria for Allocation of 2012 Election Resources”; “Allocation of 2008 Elections Resources Compared to 2012”; and “Precinct Data from November 6, 2012 Election.”
The members noted and discussed that the resource allocations for the November 2008 General Election were based on 100% turnout of active registered voters while the projections for the 2012 General Election were based on 75% turnout. Chairman Hanley also observed that the 2012 ballot was much longer than the 2008 ballot and it was generally agreed that the longer ballot contributed to problems in the November 2012 General Election. The members also discussed the impact of the 2011 redistricting. Chairman Hanley asked the members to review the documents for discussion at a future meeting, particularly the documents entitled “Precinct Data from November 6, 2012 Election” and “Criteria for Allocation of 2012 Election Resources.”
Mr. Myerson asks whether the parties attended “logic and accuracy” testing of the voting machines; whether the parties knew that the County was allocating resources based on 75% turnout, and whether the parties expressed any concerns about that.
Work Plan Item I.C: Pollbooks/Check in process
1. Electronic Pollbooks
Ms. Hernandez related that when voters who hadn’t voted in some period of time, their names are marked with a “?” in the electronic pollbook (EPB). Voters whose names were so marked need to be specially checked in by the Chief, but this process takes that EBP out of use until that voter’s status is determined. She also stated that the incidence of voters whose names are marked with a “?” is higher in presidential elections, when infrequent voters are more likely to turn out, which exacerbates the problem of having EPBs diverted.
After discussion about what parts of this process are dictated by the State Board of Elections and what parts of this process are dictated by local policy, the Commission asked staff to provide the following information:
- Is it a legal requirement that the voter be sent to the Chief? Or can another poll worker resolve the voter’s status?
- The Commission would like more information about this process generally so it can evaluate whether the problems that arise in this situation are legal issues or software issues.
The Commission engaged in lengthy discussion about the myriad shortcomings of the ability of EPBs to search for names. The EPBs perform especially poorly at searching for nontraditional surnames, such as surnames with spaces in them, hyphenated surnames, and multiple last names as are common in Hispanic cultures.
Mr. Schoeneman proposed that the Commission recommend that the County allocate funds so that every precinct can have EPBs. Mr. Parmelee expressed concerns about endorsing such a proposal without additional information about competing providers and products.
Regarding EPBs, the Commission asked staff to provide the following information:
- How much do the EPBs cost?
- Do the County’s Electoral Board and General Registrar think the County has enough EPBs now?
Chairman Hanley concluded the discussion of this portion of the agenda by summarizing what appeared to be the consensus of the membership regarding EPBs:
- It is important to have EPBs in every precinct; the County needs to move toward use of EPBs at all precincts.
- The Commission recognizes that the purchase of additional EPBs can be phased in over the next three years, before the 2016 presidential election, to spread out the cost.
- The County needs to look at what types of EPBs are available, as there may be types other than those the County currently uses.
- The functionality of how the current EPBs search for names is a problem and needs to be improved.
- An alternative way of processing voters whose names are marked with a “?” needs to be devised that will avoid taking the EPB out of service until that voter’s status is resolved.
- Paper poll books are important to maintain as backups to the EPBs, but finding nontraditional names in paper poll books presents much greater challenges than finding them with EPBs.
- The EPBs more accurately reflect which voters have requested absentee ballots because the paper books need to be manually annotated and that presents a greater risk of error.
- The EPBs also alleviate some of the resource issues, because paper poll books need two election officers – one to check the book and one to keep the count of voters. The EPBs mark off the voter and keep the count, reducing the need for election officers at the check-in table.
2. Assignment of Pollbooks/Ratio to Registered Voters
Mr. Damon expressed the view that long lines to check in are frequently attributable to a shortage of voting machines, not to a slow down at the pollbooks. This occurs because voters are required by law to remain inside the room after they have checked in. When voting machines aren’t available, the line of checked-in voters backs up to the check-in table, which prevents more people from checking in. The Commission discussed the need to look at the issue of all resources together. If the County buys more EPBs but no more voting machines, long lines will continue.
Mr. Schoeneman stated his perception that the problem can be solved with a correct allocation of money resources; that would eliminate concerns that some precincts didn’t get EPBs because they were targeted. Ms. Stillson observed that precincts with high minority populations may have a more transient population and a higher number of people with nontraditional surnames. As a result those precincts may need to get more pollbooks than would otherwise be allocated to them by a subjective formula.
Several members expressed their opinions that many voters are suspicious when the election officers encourage them to vote on paper instead of on the DREs. Some voters, fueled in some cases by Internet rumors, believe that paper ballots are not counted. The discussion turned to the need for more voter education.
3. Information on Who Has Voted Absentee
The Commission next discussed absentee voting. It was noted that the EPBs are only as good as the day on which they were programmed. The members discussed whether it would be possible for voters to request absentee ballots at such a late date that the poll books don’t reflect the request, then vote at their precinct as well, giving them the ability to vote twice.
The Commission asked Office of Elections staff to provide additional information on the topic of absentee voting:
- An explanation of how the process works and what safeguards are employed to prevent an absentee voter from voting a second time, in person in his precinct.
4. Provisional Ballot Procedures
The Commission next examined the two different provisional voter notices and envelopes prepared by the State Board of Elections for use by all local election officials. Chairman Hanley noted the link between poll book problems and provisional ballots. If a voter’s name cannot be found in the poll book, he has to vote provisionally. Therefore, problems with poll books lead to an increase in provisional ballots.
Ms. Hernandez stated that Chiefs can only give a voter a provisional ballot if the Chief has contacted the General Registrar or if the voter is insistent and can’t otherwise be satisfied. Discussion followed about problems getting a call through to the General Registrar on presidential Election Days.
The Commission generally agreed:
- The Commission should recommend to the Board of Supervisors that the County augment the existing phone lines by adding more or by adding lines that are dedicated only to receiving calls from polling places.
The members also discussed training as it pertains to provisional ballot procedures and that election officers trained far in advance of Election Day will forget at least some of what they have learned.
Finally, the members discussed whether the provisional ballot forms correctly require the voter to enter the full SSN. Mr. Schoeneman advised that the question related directly to the Fairfax County Democratic Committee v. Quinn litigation.
5. Language Barriers/Disability Issues
Mr. Caputo recounted the experience of two voters who are deaf and mute, and yet the election officer repeatedly insisted that they state their names and addresses, which unfairly delayed the voters and kept the election officer tied up in a pointless exercise that distracted him from helping other voters. The Commission agreed that the election officer’s actions were possibly a training issue, although the senselessness suggested that perhaps training would not have avoided this situation.
Reviewing the “Voting Equipment Allocation and Voter Usage” spreadsheet from the November 2012 election, members observed that some precincts had exceptionally high numbers of curbside voters.
Mr. Damon pointed out that Fairfax County is now required by federal law to provide all election materials in Spanish. He said that this requirement does not reflect the community, because the County has large numbers of residents who speak many other languages.
The Commission asked staff to provide additional information on the topic of language barriers:
- How many voters requested translations during the November 2012 General Election through the language translation service offered through the Office of Elections? In what languages?
Mr. Schoeneman observed that poll watchers are typically asked first to translate, so the data on the number of calls to the County for translation services will not show all of the translation services provided.
Ms. Stillson related that a blind acquaintance was required to sign the form State Board of Elections’ assistance request form [required by Virginia Code § 24.2?649(B)]. The voter, being unable to read it, could not verify the contents of the form, but finally acquiesced to it. It was noted that the statute [Virginia Code § 24.2?649(B)] exempts blind voters from the requirement to sign the form, and that this problem is another training issue.
Discussion followed about the limits of training as a panacea. Election officers, like all people, have varying learning styles and capacities, and varying ability to remember the material. The members discussed the merits of role-playing as a training activity, although the feasibility of using role-playing in such large training sessions was questioned. It was suggested that the solution is to train the election officers to remember that the goal is to help allow people to vote. Encouraging a “customer service” orientation will help to inform the way election officers approach the job.
The discussion turned to concentrated populations of elderly voters.
The Commission generally agreed on the following principles:
- Paper is more efficient for curbside and drains fewer resources, although the Commission recognizes that paper ballots are not accessible to persons with certain disabilities.
- Large numbers of elderly and disabled voters with mobility issues and equipment and voters with limited English skills lead to longer lines and slower processing of voters.
- To the extent consistent with the law, the County should consider whether it should allocate more resources to precincts with large numbers of elderly, disabled, or limited English proficient voters than would be allocated based on an objective formula.
The Commission asked for information from the Office of Elections that will inform their consideration of these issues:
- Is there a custom or practice in Fairfax County that two election officers go out for all curbside voting, or only for DREs (which is required by law)?
- Does the Office of Elections know the locations of assisted living facilities/senior housing and similar facilities? Does staff do outreach to these facilities and coordinate the numbers of voters and times of day when these voters who may come to vote?
- Does the Electoral Board currently consider the numbers of elderly, disabled, or limited English proficient voters in a precinct when it allocates resources to the polling places?
- Does the Electoral Board allow elderly and disabled voters to go to the front of the line?
6. Cost of Machines
The members reviewed the handout labeled “Fairfax County Voting Equipment History.” Discussed ensued about the kinds of voting machines that are currently approved in Virginia and Mr. Epstein read the list of approved machines from the State Board of Elections website.
The Commission generally agreed that:
- It should recommend that the Board of Supervisors accelerate the retirement of the DREs and that new voting machines be purchased as soon as possible so that County voters and election officers can get used to voting on paper on the new machines before the 2016 presidential election.
- One of the goals and benefits of purchasing new machines will be to allow the County to standardize its voting machines as it modernizes them; the County should move to using only one integrated voting system throughout the County.
The Commission asked staff for the following information:
- What is the estimated cost for the County to replace the voting machines?
7. Ballot Complexity
The Commission reached consensus that:
- Bond referenda should not be held in presidential election years if possible.
- Keeping ballots shorter and simpler is important in a presidential election year. Longer and more complex ballots lead to longer lines. Constitutional amendments cannot be delayed to the next year, but local questions can and should be scheduled for other years when possible.
Items from Commission Members
After discussion was concluded on Items I.C and I.D of the work plan for the evening, completing all but the one on D.2, voting machine allocation to precinct process, the Chairmen went around the room and asked each member if he or she wished to raise any other issues.
The Commission asked staff for information about:
- The history of stipends paid to election officers. When did the County start paying? Has the stipend increased, and when?
- Does the Office of Elections have data to show when the last voter voted in each precinct in the November 2012 General Election? Mr. Long responded that the Office of Elections does not have that, but it has data to show when the voting machines were turned off in the precincts. The Commission requested that data as a proxy.
- What training materials are required and prepared by the State Board of Elections and what materials are prepared by the local Office of Elections?
- What percentage of the County’s election officers completes the training?
- Are there online tutorials/training for the County’s election officers?
- What percentage of the election officers uses online training?
- What percentage of election officers are no-shows on Election Day?
- Do election officers prepare any kind of after-action report? Can it be provided to the Commission?
- Does the Electoral Board have a list of the precincts that have traditionally had problems at every election, i.e., do they maintain a “watch list”? Have the election officers at such precincts been changed?
Staff agreed to determine whether the information requested exists and is available, and to provide it to the Commission if possible.
Thereafter, the meeting adjourned.