McLEAN, Va. (AP) — Virginia’s Board of Elections sent out last-minute instructions Monday to local election boards clarifying poll watchers’ rights after Fairfax County Democrats sued last week, saying the county was training its precinct workers to illegally bar the watchers from speaking to voters.
Democrats say poll watchers need to be able to interact with voters to ensure they aren’t unfairly denied ballot access or forced unnecessarily to cast provisional ballots, which are usually disqualified.
The guidance from state Board of Elections Secretary Donald Palmer urged election officials to be “as flexible and transparent as possible” Tuesday in their dealings with Democratic and Republican poll watchers.
Republicans intervened in the lawsuit on the side of the county, urging that poll watchers should be only passive observers of the voting process. And Fairfax election officials testified at an emergency hearing Friday that the Democrats’ concerns were unfounded and that no instructions had been given to bar poll watchers from speaking to voters, nor were they stopped from moving freely about the polling place.
Democrats were back in the judge’s courtroom Monday with training materials that they said contradict the election officials’ denials.
After Monday’s hearing, state and county officials agreed to send out clarifying instructions about poll watchers’ rights to move about the polling place and to speak to voters, said John Farrell, the Democrats’ lawyer.
Election officials had initially been reluctant to send out any last-minute instructions, fearing that the new guidance would create more confusion.
Fairfax County election officials sent instructions to precinct judges reminding them that poll watchers “shall be allowed to move freely about the polling place in order to hear and see the process” and “shall be allowed to speak in the polling place, including to the voter,” though the guidance also cited exceptions that bar poll watchers from electioneering or hindering the voting process.
Fairfax County, with more than 1 million residents, is by far the biggest battleground in Virginia, which is a key swing state in Tuesday’s presidential election.
Farrell estimated that in Fairfax County alone, anywhere from 4,700 to 9,500 disputes about voter eligibility may come up at the county’s 237 precincts on Election Day.
Farrell also accused Fairfax County officials of stacking precincts with election judges with partisan leanings. He said information provided by the county registrar over the weekend by the county shows that Democrats will be underrepresented at 55 of the county’s 237 precincts, despite rules requiring equal representation for Democrats and Republicans among elections officials like judges and assistant judges.
County spokeswoman Merni Fitzgerald declined comment on the lawsuit because it is ongoing.
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., a former chairman of Fairfax County’s Board of Supervisors, said he is troubled by the actions of the county electoral board, which is now controlled by Republican appointees.
“What you’re seeing is hyper-partisanship on the part of the electoral board,” Connolly said in a phone interview. “This is my ninth time on the ballot, and I’ve never seen any kind of problems that rival this.”
In particular, he cited Fairfax County electoral board member Hans von Spakovsky — a former Federal Election Commissioner whose appointment by then-President George W. Bush was vigorously opposed by Democrats — as a driving force for contentiousness in the election rules.
Von Spakovsky, now a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, called the allegations of hyper-partisanship “totally ridiculous.”
“In my time on the electoral board, I have simply enforced the state and federal laws that govern elections and the rules we are given by the State Board of Elections. You cannot point to a single action I have taken as a member of the electoral board that was not in compliance with applicable election laws,” von Spakovsky said in an email. He declined to discuss the specific allegations cited in the lawsuit about how elections officials have been trained.
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