Judge hearing arguments on poll hour extensions
Updated: September 15, 2010 - 04:38 am
10:27 p.m. - UPDATED with comments from Gray spokesman Traci Hughes
Vince Gray suffered back-to-back losses before polls even closed today, with the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics and the D.C. Superior Court both rejecting his bid to extend the District’s voting hours until 10 p.m.
Shortly before the 8 p.m. poll closing time, Judge Joan Zeldon denied the Gray campaign's request to extend voting citywide by two hours in an emergency hearing.
"The board of elections performance during the election was "wholly inadequate," said Andy Sandler, a lawyer for the Gray campaign. As the day went on, he said, the problems became more pronounced.
"It is unconscionable what is happening around the city today," Sandler said.
Election board officials said they couldn't confirm many of the Gray campaign's allegations. Adrian Fenty's lawyer, Marc Elias, argued that the two-hour extension would be unfair to voters who didn't hear about it and went home without voting. He also said it would deprive both voters and the other campaigns of their due process and equal protection rights.
"We are not in the 11th hour," Elias said. "There are 13 hours of voting in the District of the Columbia, and we are in the 12th ... It is simply too late for the court to issue this order."
While the case was Gray for Mayor vs. Board of Elections and Ethics, the Fenty campaign was made a party to a suit, allowing Elias to argue its case
From the second she began questioning Sandler, it was obvious Zeldon was skeptical of the request.
"This court is going to be very cautions in using judicial power to interfere in an election," she said.
The Gray campaign presented signed affidavits outlining delayed openings at some precincts, and a legal volunteer for the campaign testified about the scope of the problems, which she said included voters who lacked photo ID being blocked from voting at schools, and precincts running out of ballots.
But the information the Gray campaign presented to Zeldon didn't seem to vibe with information they had previously given to the Board of Elections and Ethics. Throughout the day, the board and the campaign seemed to be talking about different elections in different cities.
It isn't clear what the political impact of the ruling might be. Fenty's campaign chairman, Bill Lightfoot, declined to speculate on the matter. Gray is favored to win, with pre-election polls showing him with a large lead. So why would Gray extend so much time and energy keeping the polls open?
Gray campaign spokesperson Traci Hughes insists it wasn't a campaign tactic. Rather, she says, "Chairman Gray is a very principled individual, who's extremely protective of the democratic process." Hughes says the campaign filed its ultimately unsuccessful petition based purely on the reports they received of things not going perfectly at a number of polling stations.
"There were people who got up early to go vote before work," Hughes says, who the campaign worried may not have been able to cast ballots because, the Gray campaign had heard, some precincts did not open on time.
While the Gray campaign said voters across the District were facing long lines, malfunctioning machines and delayed openings, the Board of Elections and Ethics said most problems were mere hiccups as the District transitioned to new voting technology. They acknowledged a smattering of technological problems as volunteer poll workers adjusted, as well as delayed openings at two precincts, but said both were less than a 30 minutes.
The Gray campaign complained of the “abject incompetence” of the board, and in a letter of complaint, outlined seven specific problems with the voting process and said they had received 120 complaints from voters as of 1 p.m. The letter, which asked for the District to extend the voting hours until 10 p.m., said those failures were tantamount to violating D.C. code and the Voting Rights Act. If the board didn’t respond by 5 p.m., they threatened to seek an injunction in D.C. Superior Court.
"We don't want people to be discouraged by glitches in a process that should have been done properly," Gray said at around 3 p.m. "So we want to make sure that everyone has a chance to vote."
Board chairman Togo West stopped by its One Judiciary Square headquarters and briefly chatted with reporters not long after the original complaint arrived.
“I’ve come from some polls and didn’t see any long lines,” West said. “I got to go to the right ones.”
West left shortly thereafter, and Kenneth McGhie, the board’s general counsel, began discussing specific problems with the Gray campaign’s lawyers.
The Fenty campaign was generally quiet on the issue throughout the day. The mayor said he hadn’t heard of widespread problems during an early campaign stop, and Elias declined to comment on the letter. Fenty eventually said he thought there was no need for an extension, but wouldn’t object if the board agreed to one.
"From what I heard from the board of elections, they're finding citywide that the polls don't have long lines. I'll go with the board of elections. They're the experts. Whatever they decide, we'll obviously live with. I don't think we have a choice."
The council chairman himself had problems casting his ballot, and aides later said 50 people had been turned away from one polling place in Ward 7.
"I think that's a contribution to the disenfranchisement of people who did not get to vote," Gray said shortly after visiting a precinct in Ward 4. "There's no question [the board] they were responsible for what happened today. The election workers even said as much. They should have accommodated people. If you keep one open, you have to keep them all open."
At a 1:30 p.m. press conference, Rokey Suleman, the board’s executive director, said “things are going very well,” and said part of the problem was related to poll workers following instructions, and that the board miscommunicated with them. The board had told poll workers that electronic voting machines should have three board-approved seals. In reality, they only needed two, which caused confusion among some poll workers.
At the time, Suleman said he hadn’t received a formal complaint from the Gray camp and that the polls would close at 8 p.m., with board spokesman Alysoun McLaughlin later explaining the reported half-hour delays weren’t traditionally considered worthy of extending polling hours.
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