Sunday, March 24, 2013
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Metro columnist Dan Casey: Precinct problems need to be fixed

Dan Casey is The Roanoke Times' metro columnist.

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Election Day was not a pleasant one for Peggy Markham of northwest Roanoke. The 75-year-old widow isn't quite as spry as she was in her 38 years as a registered nurse for the Department of Veterans Affairs. But she was determined to vote.

About 9:30 a.m., Markham drove over to William Ruffner Middle School, the precinct at which she has cast ballots for years. There was absolutely no place to park her car. So she drove away, then returned between 1:30 and 2 p.m. This time she found a parking space. But the big hassle hadn't yet begun.

The gym was packed with hundreds of other voters. Markham waited and waited and waited and waited. The line moved like a herd of snails through peanut butter.

"I've had both knees replaced," Markham told me last week. "I have to stand on metal and plastic. I didn't bring anything to eat. I didn't have any food. You had to stand on your feet the whole time. There was no place to sit down."

By the time Markham voted, it was after 5 p.m. "I tell you, that day almost got me," she said. "There's got to be a better process to vote."

Markham is surely right about that, and the question is one that Roanoke City Council will be taking up in the upcoming weeks as it considers a precinct realignment plan proposed last year, before the election.

What's unclear, however, is whether the plan on the table will solve problems experienced by Markham and thousands of other Roanoke voters in November.

The proposal would shrink the number of voting precincts. In general, there would be more voters per precinct than there are now. In some cases, that number could swell by thousands.

The city council will hold two evening hearings - on Thursday and again on April 9 - to consider the realignment plan proposed by the city's electoral board. It would reduce the number of voting precincts from 32 to 19. Half of those would have more than 3,000 voters per precinct.

There are some worthwhile reasons to consider changes to Roanoke's precinct map, and Roanoke Registrar Lavern Shepherd outlined them for me Thursday.

One is, the current precinct map hasn't changed since the 1960s, but the population density of city neighborhoods has. That's left some precincts, such as Williamson Road 2, with barely more than 1,000 voters and others, such as Washington Heights, with more than 4,000.

This is usually not a problem except when there's a high turnout, as in presidential elections. Then, it can translate into short waits at small precincts and interminable delays at larger ones.

Meanwhile, under a law passed in 2007, the Virginia General Assembly has barred localities from buying or leasing more voting machines.

The state has made other changes, too. It has encouraged localities to move away from low-tech paper voter registration rolls and into higher-tech electronic poll books on laptop computers. But it has limited the funding to two laptops per precinct - localities are allowed to buy more with their own funds.

In Roanoke and in many other Virginia localities, checking voter IDs on the electronic poll books was a major polling place bottleneck in the 2012 election.

Shepherd also has found it harder to recruit poll workers than in years past, and to train the workers she does recruit on the new technology. Fewer people want to put in a 15- or 16-hour day, plus advance training, for a payment that amounts to less than the minimum wage.

"We're looking at efficiency. We have polling places that are way too close to each other. The number of voting machines is fixed â? we can't purchase more; we can't lease them," Shepherd said.

"The costs are horrendous in equipment and supplies, and good people and reliable people are very hard to find," said Gordon Hancock, vice chairman of the Roanoke Electoral Board. "We don't need the 32 precincts. We would be better off if we reduced the number."

Shepherd has budgeted to buy 12 new electronic poll books to add to the 64 she already has. If the number of precincts was reduced to 19, there would be enough for four poll books per precinct rather than two as there were in the last election.

The trade-off is that most of the realigned precincts would have more voters. Three precincts in the Raleigh Court area would be merged into a single one with 3,835 voters. At the Villa Heights precinct, which votes at Forest Park Academy, there are now 3,113 registered voters. The electoral board's proposal would push that number to 3,891.

I was at that precinct on Election Day. It was a mob scene. The line snaked out the gym door in the school's rear, then back inside down a labyrinth of hallways all the way to the school's front door. Some voters waited three hours there; some left in disgust. The precinct had to call the police to direct parking.

The legislature also added new voter ID requirements that went into effect in 2012, and this year the General Assembly strengthened the requirements once again to require a photo ID in future elections. If Gov. Bob McDonnell signs that law, there's no telling what added delays to the voter check-in process.

All of the above has fueled great suspicion about the precinct alignment plan, particularly in black neighborhoods. A couple of extra electronic poll books per precinct might make little difference if the precincts are larger and the scrutiny of voters will be greater.

"As long as the Republicans are trying to take away our vote, you can't trust anything with voting any more," said Jeff Artis, a longtime African-American activist.

Mayor David Bowers already has vowed to vote against a new precinct map. The Roanoke chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has come out unanimously in opposition. Those upcoming hearings should be a good show.

Whatever process and map they come up with should be designed more with the convenience of presidential election-year voters in mind than for the convenience of city election personnel.

Nobody should have to wait in line almost four hours to vote - like Peggy Markham and many others did last November.

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