We Have to Fix That

November 9, 2012

On Tuesday, millions of Americans stood in long lines at crowded polling stations to exercise their right to vote. It was heartening to see that so many Americans care so deeply about their democracy that they were willing to endure considerable inconvenience to have their say. Although most were ultimately able to cast a ballot, the long lines were a disgrace. As President Obama said that night, “We have to fix that.” And we have to do so now.

Long lines were the most visible manifestation of the problems with our voting system; unfortunately, those problems run deeper. I spent Election Day helping to field calls from voters across the country on behalf of the Election Protection Coalition, which runs the nation’s largest non-partisan voter protection hotline. I have also been monitoring the election process and its problems throughout the lead-up to November 6th. These are the key takeaways.

We Need to Modernize Our Voter Registration System

By far the biggest problem with voting in America is our ramshackle voter registration system. Year after year, millions of eligible Americans show up at the polls on Election Day only to find that they cannot vote because their names are missing from the voter rolls. According to a Harvard/MIT study, in 2008, an estimated 2 to 3 million eligible Americans tried to vote but could not because of voter registration problems, and millions more were thwarted by registration deadlines and residency requirements.

This problem was acutely apparent on Tuesday. Longtime voters all across the country, including in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Connecticut, and Colorado, called Election Protection from the polls because their names were not on the rolls. New voters who registered before the election also reported being missing from the rolls in states like Virginia, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and elsewhere. Whether this was because of unfair purges of the voter rolls, deliberate subterfuge, or just plain error, the effects are the same: delays and long lines at the polls, and eligible voters being left out. We have to fix that.

To do so, we need to modernize our voter registration system. The good news is that the technology exists to put in place a more accurate system where the government makes sure that all eligible citizens who want to be registered are actually signed up, that voters stay registered when they move, and that citizens can still vote if there are mistakes on the rolls. All we need is the political will. Bringing our voter registration system into the 21st Century will not only help voters, it will also save millions of dollars and reduce the opportunities for fraud and abuse. There is simply no excuse not to do it.

We Need to Set Minimum Standards for Voter Access and Early Voting

When a citizen takes responsibility to show up to vote, the government has a responsibility to ensure that she actually can cast a ballot. Unfortunately, too many states failed to meet that basic democratic responsibility for far too many voters. Americans across the country were kept from voting for hours, and even for good, because their polling places could not handle the number of people who tried to vote. Long lines weren’t only a problem in hurricane-ravaged parts of New Jersey and New York; Election Protection fielded reports of long lines in Virginia, Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Georgia, and elsewhere. With the estimated 2012 turnout lower than that in 2008, there is no excuse for states not to be ready for the voters who showed up. We have to fix that.

One simple way to ensure that every citizen has adequate access to the voting booth is to set minimum standards for voter access and early voting. Fair and equal allocation of polling places, polling hours, voting machines, and election staff will go a long way toward smoothing out election administration and reducing long lines. Early voting too can ease the pressure and the lines on Election Day by spreading out voters over a longer period of time. Expanding the hours and days for voting can also provide voting opportunities for those who have work or childcare obligations that would make it difficult for them to vote on a Tuesday.

We Need to Invest in Our Election Infrastructure and Professionals

Once we set the minimum standards for holding an election, we need to invest to make sure that states meet those standards: that there are enough polling places, with enough machines and ballots, and enough support. Unfortunately, that was not the case in many jurisdictions this year. We have to fix that.

An investment in better poll worker recruitment and training would also go a long way toward reducing problems on Election Day. Indeed, voters in virtually every state complained about poll workers who didn’t know the rules or the voting equipment. Increased professionalization would also make a difference.

We Need to Stop the Voting Wars

Over the past two years, we saw a massive number of new laws that would have made it harder for eligible Americans to vote — 25 new laws and 2 executive actions in 19 states. This kind of partisan manipulation is unacceptable. Fortunately, the bulk of the most restrictive new laws were blocked or blunted by courts well before Election Day. But Election Day made it clear that those new laws keep far too many eligible Americans from voting. Even where new laws were blocked, they created confusion at the polls and made it harder many eligible Americans to vote.

The incredibly long lines we saw in Florida and Ohio were in part a legacy of this movement to restrict voting. Both states had cut back substantially on early voting days and hours, just as that form of voting was becoming especially popular. African Americans in particular used early voting at twice the rate as white voters in Florida in the days eliminated by the new laws. On the Sunday before Election Day in 2008, African Americans made up a full third of those who voted early, but only 12 percent of the electorate. Not surprisingly, with the reduced early voting times, African Americans and Hispanics had to wait far longer than white voters this election, according to two recent analyses.

In Pennsylvania, a court blocked a controversial new voter ID law, but that law still caused havoc on Election Day. Election Protection received numerous calls from Pennsylvania voters who were turned away from the polls because they didn’t have the right kind of state-issued photo ID — in clear violation of the law. The problem wasn’t only poll worker misinformation. There were also reports of fliers posted in minority communities and of voters receiving official mailings from state election officials falsely stating that photo ID would be required to vote.

The battles over voter ID caused confusion and harm even in states that did not pass new requirements. Voters from many states, including Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, New Jersey, reported being inappropriately asked for ID or turned away if they did not have it.

In other words, despite the dramatic string of victories pushing back against most new restrictive voting laws this year, efforts to limit voting still hurt voters. It is simply wrong for politicians to manipulate the rules of elections to make it harder for some Americans to participate. Unfortunately, the push to make it harder to vote shows no signs of abating. We have to fix that, too.

To do so, we need strong courts willing to protect basic voting rights, as they did this year. We need more clear-sighted state legislators who are willing to stand up for what is right. And we need more clear sighted citizens to tell their legislators, “Enough is enough.”

America dodged a bullet this year when the presidency was decided by a wide enough margin that litigation was not an option. But we did come perilously close to a nightmare situation in a handful of states where the presidential election could have been thrown into the courts and where the outcome of the election could have turned on these problems. If we don’t fix them now, that could happen next time.

As the leading democracy in the world, we need a modern voting system that works for all Americans. It is not too much to expect a voter registration system that uses 21st Century instead of 19th Century technology. It is not too much to expect there to be enough times, places, and equipment for voting to accommodate all Americans who show up. And it is not too much to expect that the election system will have fair ground rules so that all eligible citizens can participate, and that politicians will not be able to manipulate those rules for their own political ends. This modest investment is needed to ensure that every American who takes responsibility to vote can actually have the opportunity to do so, without hardship. We owe our democracy no less.