April 19, 2014


Grading the absentee-in-person experience in Virginia

[Each year, I write a "my day as a pollworker" report. This year, I'm not a pollworker, or election officer in Virginia parlance, for a variety of reasons, so I decided to write about my voting experience.]

I just got back from “in-person absentee voting”. This is similar to but not the same as early voting – in Virginia, it’s still absentee voting, but you do it by going to a central polling place (there are almost a dozen in Fairfax, which is a very geographically large and populous county). And you have to have one of a dozen reasons (e.g., you’ll be out of the county on business or pleasure, you’re disabled, pregnant, incarcerated awaiting trial, …) – you can’t just do it because it’s more convenient. See Code of Virginia 24.2-700 for all of the acceptable reasons.

My goal, besides the actual act of voting, was twofold. First, Virginia has new voter ID laws, and I wanted to see whether pollworkers had been trained to know what the new laws are. And second, Fairfax County by policy is supposed to offer voters the choice of “paper or plastic” – optical scan or DRE, and I wanted to see how that happened. (I know how it has happened in the past in my precinct, because I was responsible for ensuring that we followed the rules, but wanted to see how it was done in this environment.)

Following are my results. For the first point, I’d give the county a B, and for the second a C-. The pollworkers on duty were very friendly and efficient – they had people in line offering clipboards with the application for absentee ballots, and several people taking the completed forms and looking voters up in the e-pollbooks, and then showing voters to the voting machines.

Virginia law says you can use a Drivers License, voter ID card, and many other forms of ID – most unusually, a company ID, bank statement, or utility bill. (Code of Virginia 24.2-643)

I came with a copy of my cell phone bill, printed from my home printer in black & white, which has my name and address. Part of my motivation for using the cell phone bill was that since it’s fairly obvious it comes off a home printer, it would demonstrate, if anyone had asked, that it’s trivial to make up an ID that’s good enough to get past the rules – but since we know that voter ID fraud is quite rare, it doesn’t matter anyway. (As it happens, the electric bill has my name misspelled, the gas bill only has the address but no name on the receipt part after you pay, and the home phone bill has my wife’s name but not mine, so I didn’t want to try any of those. I considered the garbage bill, but wasn’t sure how far to press the issue. And I had a driver’s license if they refused the utility bill, but that was a last resort since my goal was to see how the law is enforced.)

The pollworker asked for my absentee ballot request form & ID; I offered the form & utility bill. She asked for my DL, which I declined and said it wasn’t required. She said “so you walked here?”, which I declined to answer; she tried a few more times, and when it was clear I was only going to give her the utility bill, she sort of shrugged and looked me up in the pollbooks without further objection.

I’m giving a B grade for that, because she shouldn’t have asked for additional ID once I provided something that met the legal requirements – the law doesn’t provide a preference of ID forms – but she did ultimately accept it. The woman beside me indicated she appreciated my action when I told her it was a protest against voter ID laws.

The pollworker then stamped the date on my form and gave it back to me, and had me to go a second line to vote.

When I got to the front of the line, I should have been offered a paper or DRE ballot, but they attempted to show me to a DRE. I refused, and asked for paper, which the pollworker did without complaining – although it took a minute to find the paper ballots, and he indicated that very few voters were requesting them.

Interestingly (and not surprisingly), there was a wait for the DREs, but no wait for paper ballots. Had they followed the rules of offering the choice, the lines would likely have been shorter, as some voters would have picked a paper ballot to get a shorter wait, even if they don’t care about the technology issues.

My conclusion based on my experience and observing other voters is that of in-person absentee voters, probably 99% will will be on unrecountable DREs. Since Fairfax makes up 17% of the population of the state, and an even larger percentage of voters, this is a serious risk for verifiable elections in a swing state that has serious verifiability problems.

(Addendum: After writing this piece, I realized that I should have noted that none of the DREs or optical scan stations were set up for people in wheelchairs. And I saw no sign that the audio headsets for voters with limited/no vision were available. While neither of these is used commonly, it’s something that should have been made available.

Also, I received additional information from Virginia voters who voted at other locations in my county. It seems that many of the locations only allowed for DRE voting, something that the voter couldn’t find out until *after* s/he had already been “checked off” as having voted, so my estimate of 99% of votes on unrecountable DREs may be low.)


  1. Chris Petrilli says:

    As a point of reference, Arlington County — that liberal bastion to your east — accepted my voter registration card I was mailed, and never asked for photo ID. I didn’t think to try something more obscure. In addition, they asked if I’d like a paper or “touch screen” vote, and I took the paper. At the time I went (mid-day) there were people voting with both types and some slots available. When I was done voting on paper, the voting administrator took me over to the machine and gave me clear instructions on how to insert the ballot and made sure I waited until the light turned green.

    All together, I’d give them good marks.

  2. Tony Finch says:

    How long did the whole process take? Was the wait shorter or longer than usual?

    • Jeremy Epstein says:

      Tony, it took 30 minutes total, from when I walked in the building until I walked out, of which 25 minutes was waiting in line. A colleague who voted later in the day said he took 2.5 hours. I can’t say if it was longer or shorter because this is the first time I’ve voted absentee-in-person in a presidential election.