Reynolds is an ordained minister, a columnist for TheRootDC and the author of six books, including “Out of Hell and Living Well, Healing From the Inside Out.” She is a former editor and columnist for USA Today.
In the exhilaration of his victorious moment, newly reelected President Obama not only cheered those who voted for the first time but also those “who waited in lines for a very long time.” And to loud cheers he added: “By the way, we have to fix that.”
I hope the president indeed will fix this system of long lines that rolled on for hours. The voting infrastructure is a national disgrace that can rob thousands, especially the elderly, of their right to vote.
To some, long voting lines extol the hallmark of effusive democracy: After all, we vote rather than flood the streets with tanks. No argument there, but voters still deserve better because too many voters are paying a “wait tax,” where voters, often disproportionately black or Latino, are forced to wait in lines so long it is difficult not to give up and not vote.
All too often, those long lines are not flaws but intentionally created infrastructure.
For example, the number of voting machines in Democratic-leaning districts was reduced in key Ohio counties from 2000 to 2004, despite a sharp rise in registered voters. In Franklin County, which includes my hometown of Columbus, according to Huffington Post, 65 of its 146 Democratic-leaning wards had fewer voting machines, while 45 of the GOP-leaning wards had more. This occurred within the county’s Democratic wards despite a 25 percent increase in registered voters there.
Four years later in 2008, the flawed system plagued my father. He lived in a heavily Democratic-leaning section of Columbus and was ecstatic about voting for a black man, his party nominee. It was a cold, wintry voting day, and my father, fresh from a knee replacement arrived early to vote, but he could not brave the four-hour wait at the polling place. The decision really hurt him, especially when he heard reports that in the white, suburban areas, voting was swift and uncomplicated.
My father died in July 2010 and did not get to fulfill his desire to vote for President Obama. As I stood in line at a Prince George’s County polling place Tuesday, I felt the pain of the hour wait almost bearable. Nevertheless I was joyful as I saw the hundreds of African Americans, many who came directly from work, others carrying babies, who were determined that neither long lines nor anything else would deter them from voting. Nevertheless, in 2016 I will be 74. Can I stand for hours to vote? Should I have to?
My discomfort , however, was nothing compared to those waiting in Virginia, mainly in Richmond and Prince William County, where thousands of African American voters stood as late as midnight, after the election was already called for President Obama.
Some lines are purposefully created as just one more instrument in the burgeoning toolbox of voter suppression, says Sonia Gill, counsel for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, who is assigned to Ohio.
“I am happy about the effort so many put forth to vote, but we have had thousands of calls into our hot line from voters who said they had applied for absentee ballots but had not received them or found they were not on the rolls when they showed up to vote,” Gill said. “And we are finding that the elderly and the handicapped are the most under-served in this whole process.”
Gill added that her sister in Florida, who was five months pregnant, had to stand in a line for three hours, only to be turned away when she reached the head of the line, even though she was a properly registered voter.
The problems that create long lines and other blocks to voting could be chalked up as just flaws in the system. However, when the flaws hit hardest people of color, the youth, the poor, the handicapped and the elderly, it is difficult to believe voters are being innocently disenfranchised. In 32 states, under mostly GOP leadership, confusing rules, limitations on ex-felons and limits on early voting erect barriers to voting. These barriers are reminiscent of the poll taxes used to prevent voting in the pre-civil rights era. Voters should not have to withstand suppression, intimidation and high-stakes confusion to exercise such a basic constitutional right.
Whether the voting snafus are caused by broken equipment, poorly trained polls workers or the GOP suppression efforts, the flawed system must be fixed.
On Tuesday, Wade Henderson president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights said “When you look at the lines that formed in Ohio, they are longer than the lines in Baghdad and Kabul.”
One often mentioned fix is to jump start the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, which was created after the embarrassing 2000 election, but has been allowed to remain dormant. All four commission positions are vacant. If the commission is not the right fix, the president must find another way. Too many activists have fought and died for the right to the ballot, a victory that was an essential contributor to the election of Barack Obama as president.
The president’s promise to fix the system is the right step to ensure that constitutional right continues on.
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