RICHMOND (AP) - The nation’s first elected black governor asked Virginia‘s governor on Wednesday to keep Election Day polls open for three extra hours to accommodate an expected huge turnout.
Virginia is a battleground state with 13 of the 270 electoral votes needed to clinch the presidential election. That, combined with a record spike in voter registrations, has officials bracing for an overwhelming number of voters Tuesday.
L. Douglas Wilder, who was Virginia governor from 1990-94 and is now Richmond’s mayor, said the surge in voters because of the historic election between Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama needs to be accommodated at the polls. He asked Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a fellow Democrat, to extend hours until 10 p.m. Polls are now set to be open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.
“The presidential election of 2008 is expected to generate historic turnout,” Wilder said in a statement released by the mayor’s office.
State officials, however, say state law does not empower a governor to alter the hours of a presidential election.
Nancy Rodrigues, secretary of the State Board of Elections, said only a federal court has that authority. The U.S. District Court in Richmond is set to address that question in a Thursday hearing on a lawsuit the Virginia National Association for the Advancement of Colored People filed Monday demanding longer voting hours and more voting machines in minority precincts.
Rodrigues declined to speculate on whether the current hours would be sufficient.
“That is the law in Virginia,” she said. “I don’t get to have an opinion outside the law of Virginia.”
Wilder argues that voters will come out in record numbers to be heard in an election that could result in the first African-American president in Obama or the first woman vice president in Sarah Palin. An Associated Press-GfK poll published Wednesday showed Obama with a slight lead over McCain in Virginia.
In its federal lawsuit, the NAACP maintained that the state failed to provide enough voting machines to handle the crowds, particularly in majority black precincts. The complaint asks a judge to order the state and three large cities to obtain more voting machines, reallocate existing ones, make paper ballots available to people in long lines and extend voting hours to 9 p.m.
More than 436,000 new voters have registered in Virginia since Jan. 1, a 10 percent increase in just nine months, boosting Virginia’s registered electorate past 5 million for the first time.
Much of the increase results from an aggressive and well-organized voter registration drive by Obama’s campaign, particularly among young, first-time voters.
Over the past 60 years, Virginia has supported a Democrat for president only twice, backing Harry S. Truman in 1948 and Lyndon Johnson in 1964.