How to Fix the Voting System

December 19, 2013

Long lines marred the 2012 election. But these delays were nothing new there were similar lines in other recent presidential contests. The time has come to take a hard look at the business of running elections. This report offers four key fixes to improve our voting system and bring it into the 21st century.

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Introduction

In the 2012 election, too many voters across the country waited in hours-long lines to cast a ballot. The problem was so acute that as he gave his victory speech, President Barack Obama took time to address the scores of voters still waiting in line to vote: “We have to fix that.”

The problems were not limited to a single state or region. Newspapers ran photos of “incredibly long lines” in Maryland, Minnesota, and the Carolinas. Long lines were also reported in Colorado, Indiana, Rhode Island, Wisconsin, and texas. In Florida and Virginia, voters were still casting ballots at midnight, well after the presidential race had been called. Election observers gave disturbing accounts of would-be voters walking away because of long lines in Ohio and Pennsylvania. In storm-ravaged New Jersey and New York, voters stood in lines that did not move for several hours.

The long lines of 2012 were visible evidence of longstanding flaws in our current system of election administration. Although the delays we saw 2012 were nothing new — there were similar lines in other recent presidential elections — they rightly served as a wakeup call to policymakers. The time has come to take a hard look at the business of running elections.

In March, President Obama responded by forming the Presidential Commission on Election Administration. The Commission’s charge is to “promote the efficient administration of elections and ensure that all eligible voters have the opportunity to cast their ballots without undue delay,” “improve the experience of voters,” and remove “obstacles in casting their ballots.”

The Brennan Center submitted comprehensive testimony to the Commission outlining best practices to improve election administration and the voting experience — and to ensure, once and for all, that American elections are no longer marred by long lines. The following paper, which has been adapted from that testimony, outlines policies that should be adopted by all jurisdictions. Although initially presented to the Commission, these recommendations will assist all election officials and citizens seeking to improve their election systems. Everyone agrees that the long lines of 2012 were a disgrace. This is a plan for how we can “fix that.”

What follows are practical, evidence- and research-based best practices regarding four areas of reform — each of which will improve election administration and the voting experience:

  1. Modernizing voter registration;
  2. Expanding early voting;
  3. Improving management of polling place resources; and
  4. Improving the simplicity and usability of ballots and voting machines, and publishing data on machine performance. 

How to Fix the Voting System