Five ways to make long elections lines shorter

November 8, 2012

"I want to thank every American who participated in this election," President Obama said in his acceptance speech Tuesday, "whether you voted for the very first time or waited in line for a very long time." At the mention of long waits, Obama paused. "By the way, we have to fix that."


Election Day saw news story after news story about interminable lines at polling stations. In some areas, people waited for two hours, three hours, or more. To many observers, it seemed ludicrous that a country as advanced and as wealthy as the United States can't figure out how to hold a decent election.

So what was the problem? Why do long lines persist? And is there anything Obama and Congress can do to make our voting system more efficient? I put this question to a couple of experts, and got back five broad suggestions for ways that both the states and even the federal government could improve our voting infrastructure and reduce long waits.

1) Modernize voter registration. Over and over, vote-watchers said that this was one of the biggest problems Tuesday. Voters would get to the front of the line and find out that they weren't on the registration lists, for whatever reason. That caused confusion and delay. In some cases, it meant people couldn't vote. In most cases, it meant longer lines.

The good news? "This is a very solvable problem," said Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center for Justice. "We have the technology to do it." States can reduce errors by improving their online registration systems or by making registration automatic at various points, as when people receive their drivers' licenses. Many states are moving in this direction, but not all. An upgraded system could also help keep track of voters' registration status when they move.

Congress could also chip in. The Voter Empowerment Act, sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) would upgrade voter-registration standards across the country and make same-day registration more common. It would also create more ways to register voters automatically, such as students at public universities.

2) Make sure local jurisdictions keep their polling stations well-equipped. Another reason that many polling stations had long waits Tuesday was that they were simply ill-prepared, said Mary Boyle of Common Cause. Stations ran out of ballots. Their machines broke down. The poll workers were unprepared. "We had reports of stations where people were voting on one machine when ten were supposed to be working," she said. Likewise, said Pamela Smith of VerifiedVoting, many states use older machines that are prone to glitches — when they break, that bogs everything down.

Congress is well within its rights to set national standards for federal elections and provide enough money for stations to upgrade their infrastructure and train poll workers. This happened in 2002, when Congress passed the Help America Vote Act to help states replace their outdated punch-card and lever systems. But that money has since dried up — even as new problems have arisen with the newer electronic machines.

3) The Senate could actually confirm nominees to head up the Election Assistance Commission. Back in 2002, Congress set up this nonpartisan federal commission to aid local jurisdictions with things like certifying electronic voting machines or coming up with contingency plans in case of a disaster. But to date, the panel has no commissioners sitting on it, as Republicans in the Senate have blocked the nominees. (The commission is supposed to have two Democrats and two Republicans.) Having a functioning commission, said Weiser, might have helped states such as New York and New Jersey that found themselves scrambling to set up voting alternatives after Hurricane Sandy.

4) Expand early voting. Allowing people to vote early can help alleviate the pressure on Election Day. But not all states allow early voting. And this year, some states, like Ohio and Florida, cut back on early voting at the last minute, causing chaos and longer waits. Here, too, Congress could set national standards on early voting, so that the process isn't left to state officials who may often have partisan reasons for mucking with the schedule. "When we see such broad problems across so many states as we did this year," said Weiser, "it may be appropriate for Congress to act."

Another related, long-proposed idea would be to make Election Day a national holiday. That way more people can vote at different times throughout the day, easing the wait.

5) When all else fails, declare some states an election disaster area. In recent elections, Florida has seen a slew of problems. This year alone there were ballot snafus, long lines, sudden cutbacks in early voting. Some people were waiting seven hours in line to vote. Over at Election Law Blog, U.C. Irvine's Rick Hasen writes, "Let’s declare Florida an election disaster area and bring in the feds."

As Hasen explained to me, Congress is well within its rights under the Constitution to overrule the states when it comes to federal elections. Congress could set up a national nonpartisan agency to administer elections, impose rules on ballots, set registration standards and hash out the rules on polling times. "That's all constitutional," Hasen said. "Now, whether there's the political will for any of that in Congress is another matter."

Indeed, these measures could be politically contentious. The conventional wisdom is that making it easier to vote tends to help poorer voters and minorities — and hence benefit Democrats. Note that 16 percent of Obama voters had to wait longer than thirty minutes to vote Tuesday, versus only 9 percent of Romney voters, according to a survey by Hart Research.

Still, if Obama wants to get rid of long voting lines, there's no shortage of ideas out there.

Further reading:

--A quarter of Americans will vote by electronic machine. Is that a problem?

--Estonia can vote online. Why can't America? (Fears of hacking, mostly, although there are some advocates of this idea.)

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Ezra Klein · November 8, 2012