How to fix long lines at polling places

Desiline Victor

No one should have to stand in line for three hours to vote in a presidential election. But that’s just what 102-year-old Desiline Victor had to do in November 2012. And during the 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama cited her determination to vote as an inspiration and as a reason to make sure that these deliberate, anti-democracy outrages stop happening.

The President called for a bi-partisan commission to look into the problem, but we already know what caused the long lines in 2012, when some voters waited for as long as eight hours: a shameless, concerted effort by Republican state and local election officials to suppress the vote in neighborhoods that tend to vote for Democrats.

A commission is probably a political necessity. But members of that group would be wise to use, as a starting—and perhaps ending—point, a report issued by the Brennan Center for Justice. The report recommends a three-part solution, which includes:

Modernizing voter registration

In an earlier report, the center called for dragging voter registration out of the the 19th and into the 21st century by instituting:

  • Voluntary, automated registration of all consenting citizens when they interact with a wide range of government agencies.
  • “Portable voter registration” systems that would keep voters on the rolls, even when they move.
  • Fail-safe procedures to ensure that eligible voters whose information is not on the rolls or not up to date can correct the information online or at the polls.
  • Federal funding for states to make necessary technological upgrades.

How would these changes help? According to the Brennan Center, these changes would solve some of the most significant causes of long lines and voter frustration:

  • Fewer errors in the registration rolls will mean less time spent looking for misspelled names or addresses while other voters wait.
  • Similarly, less time will be spent directing voters to fill out lengthy provisional ballot envelopes, which also consumes time and requires their own, separate set of administrative procedures.
  • Finally, officials will have the ability to more precisely allocate resources to polling places, because they will have an exact and accurate number of registered voters.

Providing early voting during a fixed national time period

Before Republican vote suppressors slammed the door, early in-person voting [known in the trade as EIPV] was catching on. Voters liked the convenience and the flexibility, and election officials who cared about democracy saw that EIPV added efficiency to elections.

The benefits of EIPV are fairly obvious, says the Brennan Center report:

First, if a greater number of voters are voting early, fewer will vote on Election Day, meaning the crush of voters at particular times on Election Day will be smaller. Second, early voting provides an important safety valve against the kind of Election Day overload that can result from unexpected problems. Whether those problems are minor (like a failed voting machine at a polling site) or major (like the fallout from Superstorm Sandy), EIPV ensures that fewer voters are forced to choose between waiting in line for seven hours on Election Day and not voting at all.

The Center has found that effective EIPV includes four main elements. Each of them helps ensure that a significant portion of voters has equal access to early voting.

  • 10 weekdays of early voting and at least two weekends, including the weekend before Election Day.
  • At least some weekday EIPV hours beyond regular business hours (e.g., before 9 a.m. and after 5p.m.).
  • Establishment of a standard by which each county (or relevant voting jurisdiction) sets a minimum number of EIPV locations based on its voting population, and polling locations that are reasonably and equally accessible to all voters.
  • Establishment of “Early Voting Centers,” at which any voter from a particular county can vote, regardless of how close it is to the voter’s home.

How do these changes help? Mandating the availability of weekend voting, as well as both standard business and non-business hours during the week, frees citizens from making a choice between work and voting. Setting a uniform standard for each county to have a minimum number of EIPV outlets to serve its voting population will aid in dampening controversies over site selection, which too often in the past has led to accusations that some voters were provided less access to early voting than others. Finally, creating Early Voting Centers gives voters much greater flexibility during the early voting period to vote at locations that may be convenient, but not particularly close to their homes.

Setting minimum standards for polling place access

Rules that govern the allocation of election resources vary widely from state to state, and sometimes even from county to county. In 2012, for example, some polling precincts in Florida covered only a few hundred voters, while others had voting rolls of more than 8,000. Some precincts had too many optical scanners, while others were woefully under-supplied.

Some states do a better job than others, but the variability of the essential act of democracy—voting—from state to state and precinct to precinct underscores the need for a federal role in uniform standard-setting and oversight. This is simply too big and too important to be left to the states.  [I hear heads exploding on the right: It’s a government takeover of our elections!]

Nevertheless, the solution, says the Brennan Center, is for the federal government to set minimum standards for voting — an idea Americans overwhelmingly support.

These standards could be set with the goal of ensuring that no American must wait more than one hour to vote on Election Day. Numerous factors need consideration in setting these standards. Studies show that, to be effective, the standards should be based upon, among other things, the number and location of registered voters, turnout in previous elections, the type of voting system used, the needs and numbers of voters with disabilities and limited English proficiency, and the length and complexity of ballots. To ensure these standards are applied uniformly within each state, and enhanced when necessary, the appropriate agency and/or individuals must have the right to seek penalties and demand planning improvements when long lines persist in a particular state.

Addressing legal, political, technical and issues of civil rights

 The Brennan Center’s report also outlines a fourth grouping of issues that need to be addressed.

  • Deceptive practices and voter intimidation
  • Vacancies at the Election Assistance Commission
  • Voting machine failures
  • Restoring voting rights for those with past criminal convictions

End note: It’s hard to believe that we live in an America where we even have to talk about these things. The deliberate, cynical corruption of our voting system has brought us to an embarrassingly low point in the history of the vaunted democracy to which “patriotic” politicians loudly pay tribute. The solution is obvious: To quote Ann Romney, who said these famous words in a different context [and you know we’ve gone way too far when I’m quoting her]: “Just stop it.” It’s sad. But this, apparently, is the state of the union in 2013.