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.
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:
- Modernizing voter registration
- Providing early voting during a fixed national time period
- 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.