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Votes

Preference Poll Draws Fire

Some RCC board members would like to see changes in the preference poll.

Last month in the Reston Community Center’s preference poll which elects the Board of Governors, two residents voted twice, according to an unofficial audit by RCC staff.

“Even two undermines the integrity of the whole voting process,” said George Lawton, who was elected by October’s poll and is now the new chairman of the preference poll committee. Lawton said he would like to see changes made to the voting system, starting with the most egregious security loopholes.

“The voting process ought to reflect the will of the people and if you have any manipulation of the system that will is subverted,” said Lawton. The RCC Board consists of nine members, who serve three-year terms, and the poll is taken each year to elect three of those members.

AS IT IS now, all residents 18 and over of Small Tax District 5, which makes up all of Reston and 315 non-Reston households, are eligible to vote. Voting takes place in two stages. Walk-in voting took place this year from Oct. 3-14, at RCC Hunters Woods and RCC Lake Anne. Then, community polling day took place on Oct. 15. During this year’s community polling day, residents voted at one of six shopping centers in Reston — Hunters Woods, South Lakes, Lake Anne, Reston Town Center at Harris Teeter, and North Point. Votes are compiled simultaneously at the sites in six separate polling books.

A report on last month’s election was released two weeks ago by the immediate past chairman of the preference poll committee, Bill Bouie, and RCC staff. It outlined several problems concerning how the poll is conducted.

The first problem identified was the possibility of voter fraud, exhibited by the two individuals who voted twice. “It generally occurs when an individual votes during the walk-in period and mistakenly votes a second time during the Community Polling Day,” said the report.

But Lawton is not convinced. “I find it hard to believe that someone forgot they voted at one place and then decided to vote at another,” said Lawton.

The report also said that the potential for fraud in last month’s election was made possible by the voting process. “It was found that some of the poll workers were having voters initial the roll while others were having the voters sign the roll,” said the report.

THIS SYSTEM MADE it difficult for auditors to determine whether or not residents voted more than once, said Lawton. “With several [voting] books running at the same time, you have the possibility of someone going from polling station to polling station,” said Lawton.

The report acknowledged that people testified that this occurred. “It was alleged that unnamed individuals had voted at more than one polling location,” said the report.

David Dantzler, who worked the polls, reported at November’s RCC board meeting that he overheard one person bragging that he had voted at multiple polling sites. “He intended to vote at all the precincts and he was quite proud of it,” said Dantzler, who lives in Vienna within the tax district.

“I personally heard the person bragging,” said Board Member Mary Buff, who was elected in October. As a new member of the preference poll committee, she would like to find something that works better. “The way they have it now is really not that secure,” she said.

Buff is not alone. “I think the process can certainly be improved in terms of voter verification,” said Bouie in a telephone interview. “We heard a number of complaints about people voting a number of times.” But, Bouie said, it did not happen to the extent people claimed it did.

“[Problems with the system] had no effect on this election,” he said.

Lawton plans to lead the preference poll committee toward change. “This is supposed to be a secure process,” he said. “And that type of thing [voter fraud] can’t be tolerated.” If Lawton gets his way, fraudulent voters may be shamed into following the rules. “I would publicize the fact [that someone voted more than once], saying Mr. X voted twice,” said Lawton. He suggested that the committee may want to consider mailing out ballots and electronic voting.

THE REPORT ALSO discussed the low voter turnout in the poll. “The turnout was terrible,” said Buff. “We really need something that’s going to bring out more people.”

Lawton agreed. “The percent of people who vote in this poll is atrocious,” said Lawton. “One could argue it doesn’t reflect the view of the community. I’d like to see it increase dramatically.”

The preference poll has been scrutinized several times in the past. In July 2003, a governance panel sent recommendations to the RCC Board to allow mail ballots and electronic voting. In the spring of 2004, the recommendations reached the RCC Board, which then formed a preference poll committee.

The committee, which included three board members, also made recommendations to create a mail ballot and allow electronic voting. But the committee’s recommendations were then rejected by the RCC Board after its chair at the time, Beverly Cosham, met with Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) about security issues with a mail ballot.

The 2003 governance panel was also formed to look at ways to better incorporate the business community. The panel’s recommendations, which did not include a designated business representative to the board, prompted the Greater Reston Chamber of Commerce to come out in opposition to “an expansion of the RCC or additional capital projects under the present system of selecting the governing board.” In 2004, businesses became eligible to vote in the preference poll, but voter turnout has been low. In 2004, 22 businesses voted, and in 2005, 28 voted.