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Policy Solution

How to Fix Long Lines

By modern­iz­ing voter regis­tra­tion, provid­ing more early voting oppor­tun­it­ies, and setting minimum national stand­ards for polling place access, Amer­ica can fix the long lines that plague elec­tions and bring our voting system into the 21st century.

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There were many images typical of Elec­tion Day last Novem­ber 6, includ­ing the usual confetti and tears that accom­pan­ied the victory and conces­sion speeches at the end of the night. Unfor­tu­nately, there was another image that is increas­ingly common on Elec­tion Day, espe­cially during pres­id­en­tial contests: long lines. While it was inspir­ing to see so many Amer­ic­ans endure hours of stand­ing to exer­cise their most funda­mental right, it was also troub­ling. We admire the voters in Miami who waited for hours and “refused to leave the line despite faint­ing.” But should this kind of forti­tude be needed to vote?

Excep­tion­ally long lines were not isol­ated to a single city or state. One news­pa­per ran photos of “incred­ibly long lines,” in polling places nation­wide, from Mary­land and Minnesota to North and South Caro­lina. There were similar reports from states as diverse as Indi­ana, Color­ado, Rhode Island, Wiscon­sin, and Texas. In several polling places in Flor­ida and Virginia, voters were still cast­ing ballots at midnight, long after the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion had been called. In Pennsylvania and Ohio, elec­tion observ­ers repor­ted that long lines forced people to walk away without voting. And in New York and New Jersey, still reel­ing from Super­storm Sandy, there were reports of hundreds of voters, stand­ing in lines that barely moved after many hours.

Long lines have consequences on turnout and elec­tion results. A recent analysis by Professor Theodore Allen of Ohio State Univer­sity estim­ates that in Flor­ida alone, more than 200,000 voters may have been discour­aged from voting because of long lines on Elec­tion Day. Stud­ies of lines in other regions, from other elec­tions, have simil­arly shown that chronic long lines can lead to the loss of tens of thou­sands of votes.

Although long lines are a national prob­lem, not all groups are affected equally. For instance, stud­ies of the 2008 and 2012 pres­id­en­tial elec­tions suggest that black and Hispanic voters were more likely to exper­i­ence long wait times than non-Hispanic whites.

What Can Be Done?

Amer­ic­ans of all polit­ical persua­sions agree that lines of this magnitude are a disgrace. As Pres­id­ent Obama said on elec­tion night, “We have to fix that.” But what — precisely — should be done? How do we fix that?

There are three reforms that would dramat­ic­ally reduce the excess­ive lines that plague voting, and have the added bene­fit of creat­ing a more effi­cient and secure elect­oral system:

  1. Modern­iz­ing voter regis­tra­tion
  2. Provid­ing early voting during a fixed national time period
  3. Setting minimum stand­ards for polling place access

As the world’s lead­ing demo­cracy, the Amer­ican voting system must be free, fair, and access­ible. This nation was foun­ded on the prin­ciple that all are “created equal.” Every citizen has a respons­ib­il­ity to vote on Elec­tion Day. But it is the govern­ment’s respons­ib­il­ity to make sure the system works effi­ciently for those who exer­cise this respons­ib­il­ity. Those who take the time to parti­cip­ate in demo­cracy are owed at least that much.  

Much of our current elec­tion system was developed more than 100 years ago. It is long past time to offer Amer­ic­ans the conveni­ence, flex­ib­il­ity, and secur­ity that they demand in the 21st century.