It's been a few years since Fairfax County got through an entire election cycle without a piece of voting equipment breaking down, a handful of votes vaporizing or an election result being delayed.
When hiccups occur in races that are decided by 20 or more percentage points, few notice and questions are rarely asked. When things break down in a high-profile, hotly contested congressional race -- as was the case in this year's 11th District contest between Democrat Gerry Connolly and his Republican challenger, Keith Fimian -- it warrants more than a shrug of the shoulders and a "we'll do better next time" response.
Connolly wasn't officially declared winner of the 11th District until Nov. 9, nearly one week after the last vote had been cast.
Part of that involved Fimian mulling his options for a recount. Most of the delays, however, could be traced to concerns about absentee ballots being rejected and electronic voting machines failing to register votes in the race from voters who cast ballots. Battery problems and an operator error were cited for delays at two precincts in southern Fairfax which were unable to produce final numbers on Election Day.
In March 2009, election officials in Fairfax County came under fire during a special election to choose the successor to Sharon Bulova (D) for Braddock District supervisor. In that race, which saw Republican John Cook defeat Democrat Illyrong Moon by just 89 votes, officials were unable to determine a winner for more than 24 hours while trying to retrieve votes from a defective electronic machine.
We understand that there are a lot of moving parts during elections involving 200,000-plus votes and 50-plus precincts. Mistakes are going to happen. That's reality.
Less understandable, however, is not having a reliable backup system in place when computer hardware or software malfunctions at 5:30 p.m. on Election Day.
With Fairfax and many other counties across the country relying more on electronic voting equipment and less on optical scan machines, the safety net election officials relied on for years -- a tangible paper ballot -- is slowly disappearing from the scene.
Fairfax County will have its most active election cycle in 2011. In addition to every position on the School Board and Board of Supervisors, every seat in the House of Delegates and state Senate will be on the ballot next November. For those keeping score, that's more than 40 races being contested in a single night.
Based on what election officials went through during the Connolly-Fimian and Cook-Moon races, those numbers should elicit more than a passing glance.
Yes, processing 100,000 votes on paper ballots is more expensive than the electronic alternative, but it pales in comparison to having a three-day wait to determine the next Sully District supervisor or Mason District School Board member.
Offering voters the option of using paper ballots and scanning machines for the foreseeable future is a good start. So is investing in a back-up system that kicks into gear the moment a problem occurs rather than sending out a trouble signal three hours after the last vote is cast.
Few things in our society are more critical than preserving the integrity of our voting system. Let's get this thing right.