In a way, Sandra James' trip to the polls in November was like a trip to Disney World: interminable lines followed by a payoff that made it all worthwhile.
James, one of a number of voters who waited several hours to cast a ballot, spoke Monday at a congressional forum on voting problems. The event was sponsored by U.S. Reps. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and Gerry Connolly, D-Va.
Connolly is sponsoring a bill in Congress designed to encourage states to adopt early voting and same-day registration by providing funding for additional equipment, such as voting machines.
James, an assistant pastor at a Baptist church, said she had anticipated long lines and went to the polls prepared: She wore comfortable shoes, dressed warmly and arrived at 7 a.m.
She was undaunted when she saw the long line snaking outside Potomac Middle School in Woodbridge, a predominantly African-American precinct that turned out to have some of the worst lines in the region. She and her 21-year-old daughter, a first-time voter, got in line and waited.
After an hour in the cold, they finally made it inside. And that's when, like theme park attractions that obscure the true length of the line, she realized her wait had only just begun.
"It was chaotic,'' she said. "You couldn't tell where the lines were beginning or ending. It was then we realized we were going to be snaking up and down corridors the next three hours.''
She finally cast her ballot after a three-hour wait "but it was worth it,'' she said. A few people who confronted the long lines bailed out, but the vast majority endured the delays.
Elections officials blamed a number of factors on the long lines.
Keith Scarborough, a Democrat and chairman of Prince William County's electoral board, said two ballot questions with complicated wording confused and slowed voters. He suggested such ballot questions be deferred in the future to off-year elections.
Virginia's newfound status as a presidential battleground pushed turnout to record and near-record levels, and new state laws tightened ID requirements. Primarily, though, he said the county had grown in population and lacked either the financial will or ability to buy enough voting machines.
Delegate Luke Torian, an African-American Democrat who represents Prince William County, said the problems seemed to be exacerbated in minority precincts.
"It looked like voter suppression to me,'' Torian said of what he saw at Potomac Middle School. He said he told elections officials that "you may not have deliberately participated in voter suppression, but you left the impression that's what happened.''
Cummings said the country saw "a wave of efforts to suppress the vote.''
"Anybody with a little bit of sense can figure it out,'' he said.
After the hearing, Cummings said he believed the problems in Virginia stemmed from a combination of a lack of resources and voter suppression.
Republican Corey Stewart, chairman of the county's board of supervisors, was particularly angered that Cummings saw fit to pass judgment on Virginia's process. Stewart accused Maryland of being one of the most corrupt states in the nation.
"You have these two disgusting congressmen trying to spread their partisan poison from Washington to Virginia,'' Stewart said in a phone interview. He was not at the forum, which did not feature any Republican participation.
Stewart, who is running for lieutenant governor, acknowledged that the long lines were unacceptable and said the county has appointed a bipartisan election commission to look at the problems. He said state law may need to be changed to give counties more flexibility to use paper ballots, though some counties such as Fairfax already do so.
Stewart, who has frequently been at odds with Connolly, said he does not support any kind of federal legislation.
"The last thing we need to fix the problem is interference from Washington," he said.
Connolly said he does not believe the problems are unique to Prince William County -- the forum also featured testimony from an Arlington County voter who also waited three hours. But he said Virginia and other states have a legacy of running elections in ways that discourage participation, and that the issue is too important for Congress to ignore.