Dispatches

How Virginia simply wasn't ready, plus the wisdom of Johnny the Janitor.

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Richmond, Va.: Virginia simply wasn't ready. Voting rights watchdogs have been warning since the primaries that the state was going to have problems if it didn't boost the resources available—and distribute them properly. The polls hadn't even opened when that warning came crashing into reality: at least two precincts couldn't even get the voting started on time. Outside one of them, in southern Richmond, voters reported later in the morning that they'd been in line for three hours and counting.

As in dozens of states, the story of the day in Virginia is long lines in heavily black and Democratic precincts. The causes are myriad. Many precincts have too few poll workers or too few voting machines. One common problem was that poll workers divided the line in half by alphabet, only to find that one half of the alphabet far outweighed the other. They stuck to their system rather than adapting to reality, creating lengthy waits. Voting machines also broke down in several places, and election officials delayed hours before encouraging poll workers to start using paper ballots. Elsewhere, elderly and disabled voters who are entitled to curbside voting at their precincts were being told they instead had to stand in line, in the rain.

That's a particularly touchy problem, since a federal judge yesterday pointed to curbside voting, in part, as relief for voters hurt by long lines when he rejected an NAACP request that the state be forced to extend voting hours. NAACP Executive Director Ben Jealous said this afternoon that the organization was weighing whether to go back to the court and ask that the state be held in contempt. "We've been talking to them for over a month, saying 'Fix it,'" Jealous said about the problems this morning. "They're perfectly capable of fixing it, and I don't know why they won't."

But the voting delays have done little to discourage voters. Outside Southside Baptist Church in Richmond, hundreds of voters stood in a muddy field, under the rain, for up to three hours. The site was so chaotic police had to be dispatched to control car traffic in front of it. Blocks away, cars parked on street shoulders, in gas station lots and—much to their neighbors' chagrin—on folks' lawns. Yet, voters repeatedly said they were content to wait. "It was to be expected," one man shrugged, smiling and pointing to his grade school son. "And he was here with me the whole way."

Meanwhile, a national coalition of election watchdogs, under the banner Election Protection, whirred all morning, working to control the chaos. A dozen election lawyers huddled in a downtown firm, fielding calls from voters and teams of lawyers and law school students who fanned out to the polls. They dispatched experts to battle—or, as they'd say, help—poll workers where needed, harangued the state board to resolve problems, and handed out advice to individual voters.

Like Jealous, Election Protection volunteers were frustrated to have been proven correct about the inadequate resources. "We're seeing exactly what we predicted," sighed Vinceretta Taylor Chiles, who volunteered as a watchdog through the state's black law guild, the Old Dominion Bar Association. "If they would have just put more resources at these precincts, we wouldn't have these problems."

By afternoon, most precincts had calmed down, according to news reports and election officials. But everyone was bracing for a difficult close when the second rush comes after work. "We do not have any confidence the resource are sufficient to meet the need," said Election Protection's Peggy Sanders, "and we'll see problems again at the end of the day."

--by Kai Wright

Cleveland: The first person I talked to yesterday was our always-upbeat building supervisor. His name is Johnny, and he was more gregarious than usual. I suspected it was because he was overjoyed that this long, historic election was almost at its conclusion.

Johnny the Janitor is an exceptionally well-educated man, informed partly by his life on Cleveland's bitter streets and partly by his job keeping track of everything that happens inside our newspaper building.

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