Americans headed to the polls in huge numbers on Election Day to exercise their most fundamental right. Unfortunately, what they encountered was not an efficient or effective voting system but a haphazard patchwork of procedures resulting in confusion, irregularities and outrageously long lines. In many places — including Virginia — voters were forced to stand in line for hours to simply cast a ballot.
This is not a Republican or Democratic problem; voters from both parties were affected. Nor is it an urban, suburban or rural problem. It is truly a national, bipartisan crisis and one, to quote President Obama, “we have to fix.”
The 2000 presidential election exposed the deep, structural problems that plague our voting system. Twelve years later, our troubles appear to have worsened. It is especially disconcerting when one considers that administrative failures at the polls are — pure and simple — a de facto form of voter suppression.
Among the litany of problems that came to a head on Election Day: Long waits in the cold or the heat. Confusing and conflicting instructions from poorly trained officials. A paucity of voting machines, or aging, malfunctioning machines with few or no backups. A shortage of paper ballots and absentee ballots that failed to reach civilian and military voters in time.
Think about the worker who gets only two hours off to vote and must decide whether to risk the wrath of his employer when the line at the polls takes longer than that. Or the working mother who worries about facing late fees if she doesn’t make it to a booth before she is supposed to pick up her children at day care. Such costs amount to a modern-day poll tax. They must be eliminated.
We saw the problem firsthand at polling places in Virginia, including in Northern Virginia and Chesapeake, where polling places reported waits of up to five hours. This is why we have joined Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) to introduce the Fair, Accurate, Secure and Timely (FAST) Voting Act of 2012.
The FAST Voting Act recognizes that modernizing the nation’s voting system will require a collaboration by federal, state and local stakeholders, and that we will need to provide incentives to accelerate change. Our legislation would authorize a competitive grant program, similar to the Education Department’s Race to the Top, to reward states that aggressively implement innovative election reforms, and it would measure their progress to ensure the money is well spent. States adopting the most comprehensive and promising reforms would receive a greater portion of the funding.
As Virginia officials with significant experience as chief executives in state and local government, we strongly believe that the federal government often works best when it leverages such “laboratories of democracy” to test innovative policies, identifying those practices worthy of being standardized at the federal level.
Consistent with this principle, our bill avoids overly prescriptive requirements. Instead, it would evaluate voting improvement plans against a diverse set of reforms with the ultimate goal of achieving uniform standards for federal elections.
Among the potential reforms put forth in our bill are: flexible voter registration, including same-day registration; early voting on a minimum of nine of the 10 calendar days preceding an election; no-excuse-needed absentee voting; assistance to voters who do not speak English; assistance to voters with disabilities, including visual impairment; effective access to absentee voting for members of the armed services; better training of election officials; auditing and reducing waiting times at polling stations; and creating contingency plans for voting in the event of a disaster.
This is not a cure-all bill to instantly repair our voting system, nor is it intended to be. From defeating the poll tax and eliminating literacy tests to the adoption of vote-by-mail in some western states, perfecting our voting system has always been an evolutionary endeavor. If enacted, however, the FAST Voting Act would be a decisive step forward, fostering the improvements that are needed to prevent repeating the dysfunction of Nov. 6 and to guarantee that every American is able to exercise his or her fundamental right to vote.
The writers, both Democrats from Virginia, are members of the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives, respectively.