Voter turnout hits record figures

Despite the weather Tuesday, voters in the Rockbridge area kept pouring in to cast their ballots in record numbers.

In Lexington, 73.81 percent of registered voters cast a ballot. Carolyn Rendleman has been city registrar for 10 years. She had expected up to 80 percent of registered voters to show up at the polls, after a turnout close to 70 percent in 2004.

Scott Belliveau, chief of elections at Highland Belle, says they were getting about 130 voters an hour in the first three hours after polls opened.
(BECKY BRATU/Rockbridge Report)

Rendleman registered 3,346 Lexington residents, and 2,470 voted Tuesday.
In Rockbridge County, 74.64 percent of registered voters showed up at the polls. Of the county’s 13,658 registered voters, 10,195 cast a ballot.

Rockbridge County Voter Registrar Marilyn Earhart had predicted a turnout as high as 90 percent. Rockbridge County, Buena Vista and Lexington all registered more voters than they did in the 2004 election, which held the previous record for voter turnout.

Scott Belliveau, chief of elections at Highland Belle precinct in the county, has been working as a polling official for seven years. He said the turnout was the highest he has ever seen.

“We knew it was going to be big this year, but this is quite a turnout,” Belliveau said.  

He found 32 people already waiting in line when polls opened at 6 a.m.

Throughout the day, the lines remained long and steady and the voting process ran smoothly. Waiting in line took about 15 minutes at Highland Belle, and casting the ballot only a minute at most.

“It was pretty quick, easy, I guess,” voter Catherine Lindsay said. Other voters said the process took less time than expected, but it was still the longest they had ever waited at the precinct.

Belliveau said about 38 percent of registered voters, including absentee voters, had cast their ballots by 10 a.m. He said in past election years Highland Belle had a 64 percent turnout.

“I think we could hit 75 percent quite easily today,” Belliveau said.    

With such a big turnout, officials were bracing for problems.

Peak voting times were from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m., when people were going to work; between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., when they had their lunch breaks; and from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m., when they went home from work.  Polls closed at 7.

Buena Vista had hired two more people this election year to assist with the increase in voters. Registrars worked overtime to ensure a smooth voting process.

Transportation to and from polling places was another concern for Rockbridge area residents Tuesday.  The Rockbridge Area Transportation System took area residents to and from polling places with carpools, said Executive Director Tim Root.     

Polling officials tried to accommodate voters as much as possible. At both the Highland Belle and Lexington precincts, officials took voting machines out to the cars of the people who were unable to walk into the polling place.

Registrars were worried that large numbers might increase the risk for irregularities at the polls.  

Not only long lines but also voting machine malfunctions had the potential to cause voter frustration. At the county’s Ben Salem precinct just after 7 a.m., voters were delayed for a few minutes by a glitch in the two electronic voting machines.

But registrars said last week they trusted their equipment.

“I am very confident about the machines,” Rendleman said.

She said the machines were kept locked and all the activity performed on them was automatically recorded. Access to the voting systems was reserved for employees of the registrar’s office.

Earhart said the county registrar’s office ran tests to make sure the machines were working well.

“We did have some [machines] that were off a little bit and we went in and changed it so that everything winds up good,” she said.    

Polling places in Lexington, Buena Vista, and Rockbridge County used Patriot DRE machines, which use a paperless touch screen. There is no backup paper-vote system. According to the nonpartisan organization VotersUnite!, documented failures of Patriot systems include loss of votes, under- and over-counting, and other malfunctions that caused delays at polling places.

But Rendleman remained confident.

“I think we have one of the best systems to catch voter problems, and the machine problems are just negligible,” she said.  

One more factor – a light but steady rain – threatened to affect voter turnout. Brad Gomez, an assistant professor of political science at Florida State University, contributed to a study exploring the link between bad weather and voter turnout. The study showed that voter turnout decreases by about 1 percentage point for every inch of rain that a county receives above its average rainfall. Gomez’s results also indicated that the reduction in turnout benefited the Republican Party. 

Despite the rain, though, the local lines were long.

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