The City of Falls Church’s Office of Voter Registration and Elections and Election Board are now seeing the results of the months-long process of changing the way that The Little City’s citizens vote.
Proposals were first put forth last fall to redraw the City’s voting wards, cutting the number of polling places in the City down from five to three. The shift was approved by City Council on Dec. 12 of last year, and by the United States Department of Justice on March 7 of this year, but the first run of the new voting procedure didn’t come until the City’s Municipal Elections last month.
Having been issued new registration cards, voters made their way to Thomas Jefferson Elementary School, Oakwood Apartments, and the Falls Church Community Center on May 1. For some, it was the first time in decades that they didn’t cast their votes at their usual polling place. Scout House and American Legion Post 130 were eliminated as polling places, and some voters whose previous polling places remained were directed to vote elsewhere so as to more evenly distribute voting populations in each ward.
General Registrar David B. Bjerke expected some conflict that Election Day with the change in routine, but was pleasantly surprised by the outcome.
“It was way more successful than even we were expecting,” Bjerke said. “I didn’t get one phone call [to complain], all day. Nobody called. That is amazing to me.”
There were some stories conveyed to him by poll workers of voters who felt inconvenienced and had to be redirected from the wrong polling place to the right one, but overall he considers that first Election Day with the new wards a success and says that vote-casting will go ahead as it had on May 1 during the Democratic and Republican primaries next Tuesday.
Bjerke cited efficiency and a desire to provide a better service to citizens as reasons for the Electoral Board’s decision to reduce the number of voting wards.
Of the City’s approximately 12,500 residents, about 8,700 are registered voters. Taking into consideration the state’s mandate that wards contain no more than 5,000 voters, and that no more than 4,000 voters cast their ballots at any one polling place during a presidential election, the new wards were divided such that about 3,000 citizens are assigned to vote at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School and the Community Center, and 2,500 at Oakwood Apartments.
Previously, the distribution was approximately 2,300 at TJ, 1,300 at Oakwood, 1,250 at Scout House, 1,700 at the Community Center, and 1,350 at the American Legion Post.
Because a minimum of three voting machines must be provided at each polling place, Bjerke says the new ward system allows for a more equitable distribution of voters per each of the City’s available machines, which translates to less waiting in line even though fewer polling places house those machines.
“With an even population, and even distribution of machines, nobody’s access to the ballot is off anymore,” Bjerke said. “Relatively speaking, the access to the ballot is about equal, and that’s what we were really focused on.”
Bjerke says the change makes elections more efficient not only for citizens, but for the City as well. By employing fewer poll workers, the City anticipates a nine percent savings. Although the numbers haven’t yet been crunched, and savings might not be seen in these initial elections because they are being more heavily staffed to accommodate the adjustment to the new wards, Bjerke says that money was saved in the latest election when compared to previous elections, and that savings should approach the anticipated nine percent as time goes on.
Fewer wards has also resulted in faster returns for Bjerke’s staff, ending the work day on the last Election Day by 9:30 p.m. for his staff – a work day that starts at 5 a.m. to make sure polls open at 6 a.m.
When asked why Scout House and the American Legion Post were eliminated as polling places, Bjerke explained that Virginia law “suggests that you use government buildings whenever practical.” Scout House, he said, lacked central heating and air conditioning, making it uncomfortable in the winter and summer, and had a small indoor space for voting that put voters out in the elements if they needed to form a line to vote.
The Legion Post too, he said, had a relatively small voting space – though it did have sufficient parking, which is an important amenity for voters.
TJ and the Community Center are both government buildings and could have supported all voting in terms of capacity, he said, but in order to offer sufficient parking to voters, Oakwood Apartments remained as a polling place.
The Electoral Board invited resident input, and voters voiced their concerns as the ward reduction was being considered, but Bjerke said no reasoning presented outweighed the primary goal of equitable voting access.
“We understood, and we responded,” Bjerke said, adding that he himself is a City resident who would have voted at Scout House. “The Electoral Board took every one of those messages and responded to every single one of them, and wanted to have a conversation with them.”
In the end, City Council approved the ward reduction with no dissenting votes.
“That to me says that there wasn’t enough citizen outcry against it, and in fact there was a lot of citizen support for it, to say ‘yeah, this seems like a common-sense move, let’s go ahead and do this,'” Bjerke said.
Bjerke said he was pleased that the first election with the ward reduction ran smoothly, but his office is looking forward to the presidential election in November, when voter turnout will be higher and infrequent voters will need to be reminded of the new system.
“The presidential [election] for us is the big show,” Bjerke said. “Our due diligence on that, everything we did for outreach, we have to do again for the presidential election.”