In the present economic climate, no state agency in the country is completely immune from budget crunches. The Virginia State Board of Elections (SBE), Virginia’s non-partisan agency in charge of administering the state’s elections, is no different. Budget cuts have forced the agency to make some tradeoffs in recent years, in both staffing and services. However, the agency is finding ways to cope with the limitations and continues to work to make elections work smoothly, regardless of the economic circumstances.
“I refuse to cry the blues,” SBE Secretary Nancy Rodrigues said. “The reality is there is no money. That is the economy. [However], elections still go on.”
Rodrigues, who was appointed by former Virginia Governor Time Kaine in 2007, said that the board has experienced a twenty-four percent cut in its budget over the past two years and is down from a high of 37 employees to a current staff of 25. The cutbacks have forced the board to make certain trade-offs; for instance, SBE no longer offers paper poll books. Rodrigues said that although the board recently spent $6.5 million to purchase electronic poll books for use at polling stations around the state, more polling places have requested the books than SBE can currently provide.
Yet regardless of a tough budget situation, SBE continues to take the lead in handling the commonwealth’s numerous elections. Virginia is one of only two states to hold state-wide elections every year, with elections occurring at various points in the calendar. In her three years in office, Rodrigues has already overseen 12 state-wide elections.
“One of the things I’ve been struck by is how many elections we have,” she said. She recalled one instance before the 2008 presidential election where she appeared on Fox News and the anchor commented that, at the time, she was among the most recently appointed head election officials in the country, inferring that she was less experienced than other officials.
“At the time, I had already been through three state-wide elections, while some of my counterparts hadn’t been through any,” she said.
Leading into November elections is typically the busiest period of the year for SBE, and this year was no different. The board consists of three officials appointed by the Virginia governor to four year terms, with terms overlapping with the governor’s own term by one year. SBE’s primary duty is to oversee the activities of local electoral boards and registrars throughout the state. With roughly 2,400 polling places throughout the state for SBE to manage, election day can present quite a challenge.
“Imagine if you had a Fortune 500 company – a retail store – and they had to conduct all of their sales on one day out of the year,” wrote Susan Pollard, director of communications for the Virginia department of general services and SBE. “You would need to prepare for many months for the big event. Last minute issues appear but you prepare for them.”
Such last minute issues are often unpredictable, and require vigilance on the part of SBE and local election officials alike. Pollard said that local election officials are typically well-equipped to handle issues as they arise. However, SBE was ready to tackle unexpected events. Rodrigues said that she normally spends election day flanked by a lawyer from both the Democratic and Republican parties, ready to deal with whatever controversy may present itself. In presidential elections, a lawyer form the governor’s office may also be present.
She said that the vast majority of issues that arise are the concerns of individual voters, who may not be able to find their polling place or want to know whether they are registered to vote. However, some issues are more difficult to resolve. For instance, Rodrigues said that during a past election, a bridge leading to one polling place was shut down due to a threatened suicide jumper. SBE had to work quickly with the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) to reroute traffic, which involved arranging for drivers to make an otherwise illegal U-turn, and ensure voters were able to make it to the polls in time. She also recalled one instance where a threatened shooter closed down a polling station at a local school.
“Ice storms, thunderstorms, threatened shootings; we’ve had it all,” she said.
In preparing for each election, SBE looks to both the expected turnout and the number of candidates or questions on the ballot. James Alcorn, Deputy Secretary of the SBE, said that the level of turnout typically correlates with the type of election. He said that turnout for presidential elections is “beyond a shadow of a doubt” the highest. In fact, one polling station actually ran out of ballots during the 2008 presidential election. The experience has taught SBE to overestimate the number of ballots necessary, rather than be caught shorthanded.
“Paper is cheap; lawyers are expensive,” said Rodrigues.
Higher interest in presidential elections can directly correlate to a heavier workload for SBE. For instance, Rodrigues said that in the week before the 2008 presidential election, SBE received over 100,000 pieces of mail. She said the influx of mail was largely due to absentee ballot requests and specific questions about voting.
Alcorn said that SBE did not expect turnout for the 2010 election to be especially high because indicators such as absentee balloting do not indicate turnout will be especially strong. He said the best election to compare it to would be the 2006 election, which also did not have a particularly high turnout. However, even 2006 had a close U.S. Senate race on the ballot,.
Low turnout or no, SBE is still looking for ways to improve election administration across the commonwealth and to promote efficiencies within the system. Rodrigues said that she is still surprised by the system’s continued reliance on paper records, given the available technology. She said that the commonwealth could save money and improve administration by implementing online voter registration. While there is some movement toward online registration, it may not come to fruition any time in the immediate future.
“Like anything in life, it takes time,” she said.
Alex MacDonald is a second-year student at William & Mary Law School.