Electoral Board members Rev. Carl Tinsley and Melvin Williams with Brenda Hale President of NAACP Roanoke Chapter
The Rev. Carl Tinsley member of the electoral board had to handle Roanoke City council questions on his own at Monday evening’s Roanoke City council meeting. Rev. Tinsley told council that the three-person Electoral Board along with city staff had held five public meetings throughout the city and in total only seventeen people showed.
Ten people spoke at Monday night’s public hearing with all but two expressing resistance to consolidating the 32 precincts to 19. The realignment plan appeared to be going smoothly until the November 6 presidential election resulted in 2-3 hour waits at several polling places. Peters Creek at Ruffner Middle School gym and Villa Heights at Forest Park Academy were still voting way after the polls closed at 7:00 p.m..
Rev. Tinsley said that poll workers were hard to recruit and it would help if compensation for the 16-18 hour day was raised from the current $140. Technology was a challenge for some poll workers as they worked with the computerized poll books. In contrast physical poll books were used in the 2008 presidential election. Computers are more efficient compared to the physical books that took longer to find a voter’s name – but they didn’t break down. “I agree that the lines were long … every four years we will have a bottleneck,” said Tinsley.
The 64 computers were divided among the 32 precincts resulting in two at each precinct. Stephen Niamke chief of elections at the Peters Creek precinct assured Councilman Sherman Lea there were only two computers at each precinct though Lea said he was told there were three at Wasena and Jefferson Park. Niamke who Lea had publically berated at Ruffner during voting on November 6 told Lea that computers had to be “paired” so one could back up the other. There would have to be four computers at a precinct he said.
The state has halted funding for machines due to the quandary over the lack of a paper trail said Tinsley. He asked council to contact city officials for more money and to lobby for early voting and no excuse absentee voting.
Lea said, “I thought the way [the election] was handled was a travesty” and blamed the state. “Legislators should be here,” he said.
Tinsley had received complaints from people saying they had left without voting because they had to get back to work. He said he himself stayed at Villa Heights as voters inside the doors by the 7:00 p.m. closing didn’t finish voting until 9:15 p.m.
Lea insisted that “planning was very poor … I’m frustrated because we knew this was coming.” He was skeptical that consolidating precincts from 32 to 19 would help.
Councilwoman Anita Price asked about the training. Tinsley said there were maybe one or two new poll workers and though they were trained some lacked computer experience. He hoped that more computer savvy young people would volunteer. Of those operating the computers he said, “they are still human and make mistakes.”
City Manager Chris Morrill said that the city could provide more funding. That was backed up by Assistant City Manager Sherman Stovall who said “we would be in a position to fund the Electoral Board if the State Board would allow.”
Tinsley agreed that the Virginia State Board of Elections “makes decisions too – and we are caught in the middle.” Lea insisted that “there was a planning issue … that’s my point.”
James Whitney, chief election officer for Raleigh Court #4 at the Lakeland Masonic Lodge said if the precinct was moved to Patrick Henry High School they should consider that school is in session during May elections. For that reason alone he advocated for moving May elections to November as did most all the other speakers. Trish White-Boyd compared the $10,000 savings expected with precinct consolidation to $40,000 in savings if the May local elections were consolidated with elections in November. Brenda Hale President of the NAACP local chapter concurred.
Dan Crawford said he didn’t wait long to vote but was livid when he heard other precincts had to wait 2-3 hours. “A lot of people went home who couldn’t stand for three hours … we can do better.” Yolanda Puyana said it only took her five minutes to vote and reminded council that the Latino community along with other minorities are growing in the city.
Commonwealth Attorney Don Caldwell said we just had two precincts that were a problem. Most precincts worked as intended and that equates to a 94% success rate. Precinct consolidation will “level the playing field … I am here to support reducing the precincts,” he said citing that the population has shifted since the current precinct boundaries were drawn in 1967.
Niamke said that there were an inordinate number of inactive voters and it took time to figure out why they were inactive. He said that a machine went down for awhile and that the election observer slowed things down asking poll workers to repeat the voter’s name and addresses as they checked in. He said he was in favor of realigning the precincts. Niamke also told Bestpitch that a separate computer poll book for inactive voters would be a big help..
Bestpitch said there needed to be better facilities for those who have to wait. He discounted Hale’s remarks about voter dilution saying all city residents vote for the same candidates except for those precincts in the 17th HOD district. “It’s simply not a factor.”
Lea said “we’re not Monday morning quarterbacking … we saw voter suppression throughout the country … we want to make it as easy for people to vote.” Price agreed saying, “the process left a lot to be desired.”
Bowers said he too wanted to see early voting and no excuse absentee voting. He asked Roanokers to contact their senator and delegate. He thought that the consolidation plan may be too ambitions and mega precincts would be too hard to manage. The plan “is a little bit too much and is not quite yet ready.”
In other business:
A public hearing was held on an increase in the occupancy tax. It was uncontested and no one spoke in opposition. The tax will increase from 7 to 8 percent effective Jan. 1, 2013. The additional 1% is expected to add $450,000 to the current $3.1 million now generated by the tax. City council passed it unanimously.
Roanoke County received approval to increase their occupancy tax in the 2012 session of the General Assembly. Salem City joined the city and county and have increased their occupancy tax rate. The Roanoke Valley Convention and Visitor’s Bureau with the support of the area hotels favored the increase as a means to increase funding for enhanced regional marketing efforts.