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Following Long Lines And Ballot Issues In 2018, Chesterfield Says It's Ready For 2020 Primary

Voting sign
Long lines, accessibility, and equipment issues were the most common complaints from Chesterfield voters during the 2018 election. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

In the 2018 Election, Chesterfield County had the largest number of online complaints of any locality in the state. The county says it has learned from past mistakes and is ready for Super Tuesday and the November election. 

Long lines, accessibility, and equipment issues were the most common complaints.

Constance Hargrove is the general registrar and the director of elections for Chesterfield County. She calls that day “a perfect storm.”

“So it's sort of a perfect storm where everybody decided in a midterm election, which doesn't happen, that they were going to vote,” she said. 

Hargrove says voter turnout increased nearly 20% in 2018, from the previous midterm election, which caused an increase in lines. She says more than 60% of Chesterfield’s registered voters cast ballots in that election.

The Virginia Department of Elections says they received almost 500 online complaints from around the state in 2018, with over half coming from three localities: Prince William County, Henrico County and Chesterfield County. Out of Chesterfield’s 165 complaints, nearly half involved long lines. 

“They had some issues with not having enough poll books in polling places, they didn't have enough staff in certain polling places," said Chris Piper, Commissioner for the Virginia Department of Elections.

Hargrove says she had additional poll books she could deploy but not enough scanners.

"And that just created a bottleneck and they had to work through those lines as they went throughout the day," Hargrove said.

Because of the long lines, two precincts in the county were ordered by a judge to remain open. According to the Virginia Department of Elections, this led to confusion for voters and poll workers.

Claire Gastañaga of the ACLU of Virginia says if there’s a line when the polls close, people are still allowed to vote.

“So if you are in line at 7 p.m., you have an absolute right to vote period. And so if anybody tries to tell you that it's closed, you say I'm in line and I have a right to vote,” she said.

Gastañaga says there are steps involved if poll workers or others try to stop residents from voting, such as calling voter protection or contacting the registrar.

While Hargrove disputes some of the state’s characterization of the 2018 election, the county made some changes for the next election. To alleviate overcrowding, Chesterfield split five precincts and relocated another to a larger building. 

The Board of Supervisors approved more funding, which allowed the Department of Elections to buy more scanners, poll books and hire more staff. 

Hargrove says to prepare for the upcoming Presidential Primary and the November election, they’ve been trying to recruit as many poll workers as possible, with a goal of about 1100. But she says that it’s hard to find enough people to work. 

Hargrove says over 1200 absentee ballots have been sent out for the March 3 presidential primary, compared to about 950 four years ago. She adds that the new "no excuse" absentee ballots bill approved by the General Assembly for the November election, absentee voting could increase by 40%. Governor Northam still has to sign off on the measure. 

Department of Elections Commissioner Chris Piper says he isn’t worried about Chesterfield this year. He says the county saw the problems from the 2018 elections and fixed them by the next election.  

“The proof is in the pudding. In 2019 they had a more [successful] election. And [we] anticipate that to continue," said Piper.

Piper says localities across the state are preparing for the upcoming November election. However, despite preparations, voters should still expect long lines. 

Ian M. Stewart is the transportation reporter and fill-in anchor for VPM News. He also produces and hosts the World Music Show for VPM Music — now in its 16th season. You can often find him riding his bike around Chesterfield County or on Virginia's Capital Trail. Stewart has won multiple Regional Edward R. Murrow and Virginia's AP Broadcasters awards for reporting and sound editing. He graduated from San Francisco State University with degrees in journalism and creative writing.