Maghan: Early voting in need of more space

CHARLES TOWN – The county’s chief elections official says she’s looking for solutions to the long waits that occurred at the Jefferson County Courthouse during the 10-day early voting period that preceded the general election last week.

“Early voting is wonderful and our numbers reflect that, but big turnouts create problems,” said Jennifer Maghan, who has served as Jefferson County Clerk since her initial election in 2004. “We have a historic courthouse where there isn’t a lot of space for voting booths.”

County officials may soon discuss how to ease long waits for early voters.

Citizens hoping to take advantage of what’s been nicknamed “convenience voting” this year were surprised to find a snaking line and a wait of an hour or more many days as unprecedented numbers of county residents turned out for the early voting period, which began Oct. 24.Though Superstorm Sandy forced early voting to be cancelled on Oct. 30, Maghan extended hours for voting from 5 p.m. as planned until 8 p.m. through the rest of the week.

Turnout exceeded expectations each of those days before the early voting period ended Nov. 3, Maghan said.

“We were so pleased to see so many people turn out,” she said. “Going in, we weren’t even sure if the word would get out to people that we were offering the longer evening hours, but it did.”

Maghan said that many county residents who commute outside the area particularly appreciated the later evening hours. “When early voting ends at 5 o’clock on a weekday, it isn’t an option for someone who commutes to D.C. or Northern Virginia, but with our extended hours, suddenly they had the chance to get to the courthouse.”

While Maghan said she would love to see a supersized early voting period happen for every election, that decision would have to come from Charleston. “Early voting hours are set down by the Secretary of State’s office,” she said. “We have to follow the hours that are determined for the whole state.”

Maghan said she does plan to talk with members of the Jefferson County Commission about options for making early voting easier – and faster – for residents, perhaps by finding additional space for voting booths in the courthouse or by purchasing new booths that use space more efficiently.

Another idea would be to create a satellite voting site, perhaps in Shepherdstown so that voters there wouldn’t need to drive cross-county to early vote.

“But it may not be easy to find a space that’s big enough and that would be available to us for the entire 10-day early voting period,” Maghan said.

If the county were to add another voting site or lengthen the hours the polls are open, there likely would be additional costs involved for renting space and paying poll workers.

“There aren’t easy answers, but we’re very happy to see that more and more West Virginians want to take advantage of early voting,” Maghan said. “Our goal is to see voter participation increase and so we want to do what we can to make the process as painless as possible.”

Another problem meriting consideration in the months ahead, Maghan said, will be to make the county’s early-voting site or sites ADA-accessible. The ideal early voting location is accommodating to elderly voters and others who may have trouble standing in line for extended periods, she said.

Early voting in West Virginia dates to the spring of 2002.

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