Millions of Americans stood in long lines on Tuesday to exercise their right to vote. In Florida, some stood in line for 5–7 hours on early voting days, and on Election Day, until 1 a.m. in Miami-Dade County.
It is heartening to see that so many Americans were willing to wait in line so long just to exercise their fundamental right to vote, to have their say in our democracy. But the fact that they had to do so is a national disgrace.
A long and confusing ballot was certainly part of the cause, but it was not the only one. It is not acceptable that in America there are simply not enough times and places for citizens who take responsibility to vote actually to vote.
Instead of making sure that all citizens can participate, this past year, the Florida legislature actually cut back on voting opportunities, reducing the early voting days from up to 14 days to no more than eight. Floridians essentially lost an entire workweek of voting, as well as the Sunday before Election Day.
And now we see the devastating effects. Across the state, and especially in southern Florida, lines snaked around blocks for hours. Some groups were especially hard hit by the early voting cuts. In 2008, African Americans used early voting at twice the rate as white voters on the days that were cut. They made up a full one-third of early voters on the Sunday before Election Day.
Florida’s cutback on early voting was part of a broad national movement to restrict voting rights this past year. Luckily, most of the harshest new laws that would have made it harder for eligible Americans to participate were blocked or blunted before the election. But damage was still done.
One important takeaway is that it is not acceptable for politicians to be able to manipulate the rules of elections to make it harder for some citizens to vote, just for their own political gain. To ensure that our elections are free, fair, and accessible, we need to expand opportunities for voters to participate, not cut back on them.
As the leading democracy in the world, we need a modern voting system that actually works for all Americans. That means we need to upgrade our ramshackle voter registration system, which also causes delays at the polls. Every year, several million eligible Americans show up at the polling place only to find their names not on the voter rolls. This can slow things down, as poll workers look for names or as voters are shunted into the more time-consuming (and less reliable) provisional ballot process.
If we use computer technology to modernize our voter registration system, we can make sure that every eligible American who wants to be registered is actually signed up, and stays registered when they move — all while saving money and reducing the opportunities for fraud and abuse.
Also, despite the radically decentralized nature of our voting system, there should be minimum national standards to ensure that every American has a meaningful level of access to voting, without too much hardship.
It is not too much for Americans to expect that every eligible voter who wants to be registered is actually on the list, and every voter who shows up at the polls to vote can actually do so.
Now is the time to fix the system — when the wounds caused by the problems in our voting process are still fresh, and when there isn’t a major election on the horizon.
The election may be over, but our fight for our democracy is ongoing.