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 driver’s 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 also would 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 10 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 down everything.
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 assist states in replacing their outdated punch-card and lever systems. But that money has since dried up — even as new problems have arisen with the electronic machines.