Three Virginia congressional Democrats witnessed similar scenes on Election Day: long lines at polling places around the commonwealth, with not enough poll workers or voting machines to handle the heavy turnout.
And voters, in Virginia and elsewhere, made similar complaints about waits that sometimes lasted for hours. But the three lawmakers came away with two very different solutions to the problem.
Sen. Mark R. Warner (Va.) and Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (Va.) have joined a Delaware Democrat to offer a bill that would give grants to states that make it easier for residents to register and cast their ballots. Rep. James P. Moran (Va.) went in his own direction, introducing legislation that would require states to allow early voting and online registration.
As is often the case on Capitol Hill, the debate centers on whether Congress should urge states to change their ways – or force them.
“With these two approaches, you see carrots versus sticks,” said Rick Hasen, a law professor at the University of California at Irvine, who writes the Election Law Blog.
To Moran, the need for federal mandates is clear, particularly if states are doing a poor job of making it easy to vote.
“The very communities that are the most likely to suppress the vote, either intentionally or unintentionally, would probably be the least likely ones to apply for a grant to fix the problem,” Moran said.
But Warner, a former Virginia governor, and Connolly, a former chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, are much warier of federal laws that take authority from state and local governments. And Republicans, who control the House and decide what bills move in the chamber, typically don’t like mandates either.
“I always felt if we were overly prescriptive we would not get cooperation and would not get any Republican support,” Connolly said.
At the moment, neither bill has any Republican supporters, though Connolly and Warner said they were hopeful that some would be forthcoming. In many states, Democrats have pushed for more early voting and easier registration, and Republicans have been opposed.
On Election Day, Connolly raced to the River Oaks precinct in Prince William County to urge voters who stood in line for hours not to give up. Those reports caught Warner’s attention, too.
“I heard of four-hour waits in Chesapeake and multi-hour lines when polls closed in Prince William,” Warner said. “We’re the leading democracy in the world, and we look like a Third World country when we have to wait this long to vote.”
(Last week, the Prince William Board of Supervisors voted to create a bipartisan commission to look into voting problems in the county and make recommendations.)
The bill Connolly and Warner support, known as the FAST Voting Act, was the brainchild of Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.).
Modeled on the Obama administration’s Race to the Top education program, the bill would give grants to states based on how well they meet several criteria, including expanding early voting and registration opportunities, cutting wait times at polling places and boosting training for poll workers.
Moran’s measure would require every state to create an online voting registration system and allow at least a week of early voting.
Rep. Candice S. Miller (R-Mich.), the incoming chair of the House Administration Committee, which handles most election bills, said voting problems are best handled “at the state and local level.”
Miller, the former Michigan secretary of state, noted that Congress spent billions of dollars to improve states’ election procedures through the 2002 Help America Vote Act.
“Now, after this last election, I’m very sympathetic to the folks who had to stand in long lines, but I don’t believe Congress should spend any more money because of those couple of states” where that occurred, she said.
With control of Congress split for at least two more years, Hasen said, the prospects do not look bright for either voting bill.
“Because this so directly affects members of Congress and how they get elected . . . it’s hard to see that there’s a lot of room for bipartisan compromise on election reform,” he said.