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We Have to Fix That

Long lines were the most visible manifestation of voting problems on Election Day, but those issues run deeper. Here are some key takeaways on the problems with our voting system.

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.