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Exclusive: Fairfax chief responds to reports of voting ‘irregularities’

By   /   January 7, 2013  /   1 Comment

AFTER-ACTION REPORT: Fairfax County Registrar Cameron Quinn oversees more than 600,000 registered voters in Virginia’s largest county.

By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau

FAIRFAX – Harried poll workers, mechanical glitches and suspicions of multiple voting plagued Election Day at one Fairfax County precinct, according to eyewitness accounts obtained by Watchdog.org.

The incidents at Hunter’s Woods Precinct No. 221 in Reston could have been innocent, isolated aberrations – or representative of a deliberate voter fraud statewide, said a vote-watch organization that is compiling a state-by-state investigation of alleged voting irregularities.

“We have verified that these reports were submitted in good faith and to the best of the (observers’) respective recollection,” said Logan Churchwell, spokesman for the Texas-based group, True the Vote.

Fairfax drew TTV’s attention as Virginia’s most populous county, and Watchdog reviewed the first-hand accounts of the alleged irregularities.

The suspicions of malfeasance were speculative, not smoking guns, says the county’s chief election official.

“Often there are benign reasons for things that don’t seem correct,” Fairfax Registrar Cameron Quinn told Watchdog.

Quinn addressed five concerns raised by TTV representatives:

1. “During the five to six hours I worked the poll book, three or four people came to my station and were recorded as having already voted. It was not clear whether they were trying to vote twice, had already voted absentee, or if someone else had assumed their name.”

QUINN: “This kind of problem occurs every election. Sometimes these are systems limitations, and sometimes these are human errors. It is certainly possible that someone might try to vote under someone else’s name, but given Virginia’s voter identification requirements, this is now very unlikely.

“An example of the kind of benign reasons this can occur is, for instance, an election official may mark the wrong person voting from a household, such as fathers/sons who are Senior & Jr.

“In a different situation, with some of our military returning from time in Afghanistan, the federal law requires us to mail them a ballot for multiple elections unless we are notified by the voter they had already returned.  So, following the federal requirements, we may have mailed a ballot to the voter at their overseas address based on their request from an earlier election.  This ballot may not have been forwarded to the voter back home, or yet have been returned to us, so it may appear someone applied to vote in that person’s name, when in fact there is a logical and appropriate explanation for the perception.”

2. “At one point, a woman came in and I checked her in. … About an hour and a half to two hours, later I was working in the paper ballot area while others did the poll book, I was startled to see this same woman coming toward the area with a paper ballot in her hand. When she saw me she tried to avoid me and seemed furtive. I asked her to wait a moment while I got the (precinct) chief and she mumbled something and then ignored me and proceeded to the table. The chief said he would talk to her. Subsequently he told me she said she had just gotten out of bed and had not been there before. He allowed her to vote normally.”

QUINN: “Nothing suggests this voter had left and returned.  It is not uncommon to have a handful of voters who take a very long time to vote, particularly with a ballot that has, as was true this fall, two constitutional amendments and four bond issues.”

3.  “A few people complained that their votes on the WinVote machines did not come up as they wished, though they did not say how they wanted to vote.”

QUINN: “Two things to understand.  First, election officials are trained and assigned at polling places to assist voters on problems, such as this.  Often this is a user error; these machines are more sensitive, like smart phones, so sometimes the voter doesn’t even realize they’ve brushed the machine, which can cause the problem.

“Our particular version of equipment also requires a voter to ‘undo’ the first selection in order to correct it, so voters sometimes get frustrated because they can’t correct a mistake the way they assume it should be corrected.

“Second, if it isn’t user error, but is a calibration issue, these are rare, but occur every election, with electronic voting equipment.  Usually we catch these problems during the pre-election testing done before every election.  Since electronic voting equipment is computer based, however, these wear out based on use as well as age, so a few machines may have calibration issues every election, despite our pre-election testing.  If voters ask for assistance when a machine doesn’t seem to be working, these problems can usually be corrected immediately, through further direction to the voter, or a simple fix.  So it is important that voters report this kind of problem as soon as it first occurs.

“Additionally, I would note that because this equipment is computer based, it also wears out more quickly than the traditional lever machines and other voting equipment.  These machines (purchased in 2003) are reaching the end of the recommended life cycle and clearly need to be replaced before the next presidential elections, and we have been discussing the need to budget for new machines with county officials.”

4.Several voting permit cards (given after check-in and collected after voting) were found out in the parking lot.”

QUINN: “This (allegation) was not raised to the chief, or our office, on Election Day.  As a result, it’s hard to determine what happened. If this was the end of the day, perhaps a few were dropped by accident after the polls closed – not necessarily a cause for concern, as we use different permit cards each election.  If this was at 8 a.m., it could indicate a problem the chief would immediately need to investigate.

“One of the frustrations for election officials is that often months after the fact there are urban myths circulating that something happened during an election ‘somewhere in a locality.’  Without timely information, such as exactly where, and approximately when, and hopefully the name(s) of who was involved, it is hard to investigate and determine if there was a problem, or not.”

5. “When the polls opened our team was not ready. There was a huge line and surge of people. I was asked to help another election officers count the paper ballots at this time (shortly after the polls opened). I looked and the first pack of paper ballots was strewn across a student-desk in the middle of the room. We each counted them and there were supposed to be 100 but there were only 99 ballots.”

QUINN: “While rare, on occasion the ballot packets we receive from the printer – which should have exactly 100 ballots per packet – are off.  This is a big reason the election officials count them, and sometimes recount them, so they can account for the actual number of ballots received.

“Voters (and election officials) who see something that concerns them as potentially being an election integrity problem need to act immediately when they see something.  They should talk to an election official, preferably the chief or assistant chief in the precinct.  These folks have the experience and often can explain how something is not in fact a problem, or can take steps to prevent a problem from occurring.  A voter who isn’t satisfied with that answer should not hesitate to escalate their concern to the elections office.  Waiting, even until the next day, means it is unlikely a problem could be mitigated or prevented.”

Contact Kenric Ward at [email protected] or at (571) 319-9824. @Kenricward


Kenric Ward was a former San Antonio-based reporter for Watchdog.org.