A court order to keep polls open later on Election Day wasn’t followed, Republicans say

A court order to keep polls open later on Election Day wasn’t followed, Republicans say
Voters in suburban Chesterfield County cast their ballot at the Edgewater precinct, which Trump won in 2016 but Democrats took in the 2017 gubernatorial race. (Ned Oliver/Virgnia Mercury)

After a day of mishaps that slowed voters down by hours in Chesterfield County, a court order that was supposed to extend polling hours wasn’t carried out, Republicans say.

“Election officials refused to let voters in despite a judge’s injunction,” a post on the Chesterfield County Republican Committee’s Facebook said on election night. “The registrar did not notify the polls.”

The Republican Party of Virginia filed a motion at 7:08 p.m. on election night, requesting that voting hours at two precincts be extended. The filing included information about a delayed opening at one polling place and said that at the two affected precincts there were only two pollbooks available to check voters in. It meant lines were “extremely long” all day, the complaint stated.

The order was printed at 7:29 p.m., almost a half-hour after polls close. It’s not clear when the order reached Chesterfield County elections officials, who can receive it electronically.

State Del. Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield, issued a statement that detailed some of the problems and reiterated that the polling locations ordered to stay open closed anyway. She encouraged voters to file a complaint with the state Board of Elections.

“Every vote is important and your voice deserves to be heard,” Robinson wrote.

Chesterfield County registrar, Constance Tyler, did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday and Thursday. She was promoted from deputy registrar last year when longtime county registrar Larry Haake retired.

Chesterfield, a key locality to winning the 7th District congressional seat, was plagued with problems throughout Election Day, said Jack Wilson, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia. He lives in Chesterfield and spent Election Day driving around to greet voters and check on polling place volunteers.

Raising concerns about voting wasn’t a political move, Wilson said. It was to fix a situation that he called “voter suppression.”

“You’re looking at making sure everyone who wants to vote gets to vote,” he said.

It’s not clear how much of an effect the two precincts could have had on the 7th District congressional race, Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Dave Brat lost by more than 6,500 votes to Democrat Abigail Spanberger, according to unofficial results.

There are slightly more than 7,000 voters in the two precincts ordered to stay open, according to state statistics.

Late openings, long lines, limited equipment

In Chesterfield, problems started at 6 a.m., when polling places were supposed to open.

One precinct opened about 45 minutes late, Wilson said.

Instead of allowing voters to cast provisional ballots or even asking them to wait, pollworkers didn’t tell voters anything and many left, he said.

The state knew the polling place opened late and acknowledged it during an Election Day media briefing. Chris Piper, commissioner of the Department of Elections, said at the time it was reasonable to expect delays as voting started.

The department monitors problems during Election Day, but local officials are primarily responsible for fixing them. State officials are on hand to provide guidance and resources.

Lines at some precincts were so long, waits throughout the day were consistently two hours, Wilson said. There didn’t seem to be enough staff or equipment, he said.

Representatives from the Republican Party of Virginia met briefly with Tyler, Wilson said, but weren’t convinced the lines would begin moving any faster by the time evening voters made their way to the polls. The party decided to ask the court to keep some precincts open late.

“It’s just a function of not enough people at the polls, checking people in and doing what they need to do to let people vote,” Wilson said.

Clara Belle Wheeler, an Albemarle County Republican who serves on the Board of Elections, said the issues in Chesterfield weren’t normal, and localities should have been prepared.

“This turnout in this election was not a surprise to anybody in the elections community,” Wheeler said. “Every registrar in Virginia knew we were going to have record turnouts.”

‘If anything happens there will be lines’

Chesterfield County officials knew crowds were coming to the polls.

Absentee voting was already up compared to last year by thousands a week before the election, according to an update Tyler gave to the county Board of Supervisors a week before Election Day.

She told the Board of Supervisors at its Oct. 24 meeting that she was expecting a “larger turnout this election.” At that point, Tyler’s office had received more than 2,000 in-person absentee ballots and sent out more than 6,000.

In last year’s gubernatorial election, there were 7,000 absentee voters in Chesterfield County, she told the Board.

According to unofficial results, more than 158,000 people in Chesterfield cast votes Tuesday. The county has 243,131 registered voters, according to state statistics, meaning early projections suggest close to a 65 percent turnout rate.

In the 2016 presidential election, turnout in Chesterfield was 74 percent.

Tyler told the supervisors she planned to place one ballot scanner at every polling place. Any more and she would have had to lease machines, she said, but by the time there were clear indicators of high turnout, it was too late to pursue that option.

Tyler said she planned to send additional pollbooks to certain polling places and had others ready to send out, but any pollbook would have to be sent with a poll worker — who were scarce.

“We have enough to work the polling places but it’s the bare minimum,” Tyler told the Board of Supervisors. “So if anything happens there will be lines.”

Wheeler said it appears the issues in Chesterfield were because of a lack of preparation, not resources.

“Yes, there are places where there are financial constraints for getting equipment or buying paper ballots or paying election officials,” she said. “Chesterfield is not a community that is financially impaired.”

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.