Student-specific problems on election day aren't unknown to Montgomery County.
In 2008, a year with record-setting youth turnout, on-campus voters had to go to St. Michael's Lutheran Church to vote. A large influx of students near the end of the day clogged the polling lines.
In direct response, the county worked to create a new voting precinct primarily for students.
“We tried to work something out so we had a precinct that was solely, or almost solely, students. That's how we came up with E3,” said Randy Wertz, Montgomery County registrar.
Despite the effort, long lines persisted this past election period, when the effort to find an on-campus polling location for the new precinct failed.
On Nov. 6, voting at the new precinct, E3, took place at the Virginia Tech Montgomery Executive Airport. Students waited in the dark two and a half hours after the polls closed. The last voters didn't submit their ballots until approximately 9:30 p.m.
Alyssa Meighan, a freshman and first-time voter, was one of those students. She arrived at the polls with a group of friends at 3:30 p.m. They left almost two hours later.
“We figured it would be like a half hour, maybe,” Meighan recalled. “We were kind of shocked.”
Despite the lines and dropping temperature, the entire group ended up submitting a ballot. Others around them had similar reactions.
“I noticed (others) like us were getting frustrated with the whole thing,” Meighan said. One person behind her called into work to tell them he would be an hour late.
Just like four years prior, students arrived near the end of the day. According to Ken Farrar, who was in charge of the polling place, between 150 and 200 voters came to the airport each hour throughout the day. At the end of the day, those figures nearly doubled.
“My guess is … they were waiting... until after classes were over,” Farrar said.
In order for on-campus students without a vehicle to vote in the middle of the day, they would have needed time to get to the airport, located 1.5 miles from the nearest dorm, vote, and then get back between classes.
“Location wise, (the) airport's not great," Farrar said. "Access to get there is very hard. ... Ideally, we're right on campus.”
But students voters didn't have an on-campus polling place election day.
From Cassell Coliseum to the Airport
Ultimately, the search for a polling location for the newly created precinct led the registrar's office off-campus to the regional airport, which is 1.5 miles away from Pritchard Hall, the nearest dorm.
However, that was not where the search started.
“We tried to find a place, frankly, on campus that we could use,” Wertz said.
The Montgomery County registrar's office, led by Wertz, started the search by reaching out to Tech to see if a space on campus could accommodate the polling location. The space would ideally have a large open area for voting booths and covered spaces for lines. The space would would also need to provide parking for those citizens that did not live on campus.
E3, while composed primarily of students, also includes town residents that aren't students — although in much smaller numbers. While it's impossible to tell exactly how many registered voters in the precinct are students, because the registration process doesn't require any identification of that sort, the area of the precinct that includes off-campus housing is limited to the apartment complexes near the airport. In the primary elections held in June, when most students are no longer in Blacksburg, the precinct saw a turnout of eight voters.
The search also had a limited time span. Establishing a new polling center involves a public hearing, a vote, and also approval from the state's Department of Justice. That process can take up to 90 days.
Wertz was directed to Tom Gabbard, associate director of athletics, internal affairs, to look at spaces the athletics department could provide. He was directed there by Sherwood Wilson, Vice President for Administrative Services.
Gabbard admitted to initial surprise at being contacted.
“Because there isn't anywhere else on this 2,000 acre campus to find a place to poll and I'm thinking 'that's illogical,',” Gabbard said.
Regardless, Gabbard began to show Wertz, and some on the county electoral board who would eventually have to approve the space, potential locations for the polling center.
Cassell Coliseum was initially an area of interest, agreed on by many as an ideal choice with a huge open space and easy access to on-campus students. According to Gabbard, Cassell had no space issues.
“Cassell would have been, to us, ideal,” Wertz agreed.
The basketball coliseum, located directly across from the main dormitories on campus and next to the McComas parking lot, was dismissed as an option on the basis tha parking couldn't be provided for voters who had to drive to the polls.
“If you came on this campus at 10 o'clock this morning and tried to park in that lot, you wouldn't find a place to work, ballot day or no ballot day,” Gabbard said.
The McComas lot, between McComas Gym and Cassell Coliseum, is used on a daily basis for staff who work at the athletic facilities, career services, student services, McComas gym and Schiffert Health Center.
“The only way you're going to be able to make that work is to reserve spaces before the day starts, and you can't shut this campus down for several hundred parkings spaces, which is what I believe (Wertz) was talking about,” Gabbard explained.
Both Wertz and Gabbard agree that specific number of parking spots was never mentioned in discussions, however, when brought up with Wertz, he speculated that the necessary spots would not hit a hundred, or even fifty.
“For the number of people that are off campus in that particular precinct, you would probably need about 20 spots available,” Wertz said. “We need a very small number because there's a very small number off campus.”
Gabbard, who had personally estimated that hundreds would be necessary, was surprised to hear such a low figure.
“If he's talking about 15 cars, that's not a problem,” Gabbard said, adding that the relatively low number was an inconvenience, but not a mammoth one.
“It was never brought up that we could have had any spaces there," Wertz said. "If we knew we would have had some negotiation points on it, we would have taken advantage of that.”
Another potential location, the visiting team locker room in Lane Stadium, was looked into but dismissed as a possibility because it failed to meet strict legal requirements that those with disabilities can access the area without any outside assistance.
At this point, according to Wertz, Wilson suggested the regional airport as a potential location, and Wertz and his team jumped on it.
“The only election that would give us a problem out there would be the presidential election,” Wertz said, referring to elections on years that don't turn out huge crowds. “When the students aren't interested, it's obviously not an issue.”
When asked whether any mistakes were made in the process, Wertz denied something could have been done differently to produce a different outcome.
“Well, no, you can't say it was a mistake because everybody assumed, I guess,” Wertz said. “We assumed that the parking area... was not accessible to us. And (Gabbard) assumed that the number of spots needed was considerably more than what we did need. So I mean, nobody did anything wrong, it's just that in the discussions it never really came out that there was negotiating room. But I don't think anybody did anything wrong.”
Wertz did admit that a quick and easy study from a county engineer could have given the search team specific data on how many parking spots would be necessary.
“It wouldn't have taken long at all to do that,” Wertz said, adding that,“Decisions had to be made quickly. We didn't have a lot of time to go into a lot of detail on this.”
Erica Wood, SGA Director of Governmental Affairs, ran a campaign to help get students registered to vote this past semester.
In September, she received an email from the Campus Voter Challenge, an organization helping student groups make their campus voter-friendly. A list of specific goals for a university included having a polling location on campus for students. Wood admits that, until this time, she didn't think about the possibility or importance of an on-campus location.
“When elections are that close to the start of your term (of your SGA position), you don't have time,” Wood said.
With the limited time before election day, Wood recognized it would be unlikely they would make any headway on the issue. Instead, her group opted to continue focusing on voter registration drives.
Now, the likelihood of having a polling location on campus for the next presidential election is dependent upon contacting the Montgomery County Electoral Board, the body responsible for reviewing polling places.
“A citizen could do it; I could do it; anybody could contact the board members,” Wertz explained, saying the registrar's office would be willing to re-approach the search for an on-campus location, but only if done through the correct venue.
“If the university has changed as far as the parking, and that type of thing, then I'm sure my board would reconsider, because they, like I, want to make sure that we serve the voters regardless of whether they're students or anyone else the very best we can,” Wertz said.