Short Answers to Long Lines: February 2013 | STATE LEGISLATURES MAGAZINE
Lawmakers are working now to improve voters’ experiences at the polls.
By Wendy Underhill
During his November acceptance speech, President Obama thanked everyone who voted, particularly those who voted for the very first time or waited in line for a very long time.
“By the way,” he added, “we have to fix that.”
All of a sudden the country was a-twitter with what “fix that” might mean. Never mind that long lines were a local phenomenon, affecting just a handful of jurisdictions in a few states, and that overall, November’s voting went fairly smoothly.
Still, policymakers are reacting. Shortly after the election, Democrats introduced election reform bills in the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate. Both would give the federal government a larger role in establishing election procedures—a job that the U.S. Constitution expressly assigns to state legislatures (see Article 1, Section 4).
Those bills are unlikely to gain traction. The real “deciders” of election laws—state legislators—often see the year after a presidential election as exactly the right time to make adjustments. Some may see reducing waiting times for voters as a worthy goal in 2013, along with ensuring that elections run smoothly from start to finish, from registering to vote-counting.
So what might help? Money. It can’t buy you love, but it can buy shorter voting lines. State law can require more polling places and voting equipment. Yet, in most states, local jurisdictions pay for elections, and they already are squeezing their nickels. The cost of new equipment—$3,000 to $6,000 per machine—is a big expense in small towns.
Adding poll workers can also speed things along. Even though these quasi-volunteers are paid something like minimum wage, the price of poll workers overall is the second-highest expense for most jurisdictions. Since money continues to be tight at both the state and local levels, legislators are looking for ideas that don’t necessarily fit the “more money = shorter lines” equation. Election experts suggest that lawmakers consider:
Would more hands-on practice or online training help? How can the state assist local administrators to ensure consistency?
Some places use “electronic pollbooks” that require just a few clicks on a keyboard to check in voters. If these systems are not well-designed or user-friendly, however, they can slow down the process, as happened in some Virginia polling places.
Florida voters faced a very long ballot with a dozen statewide constitutional amendments. The longer the ballot, the longer it takes to complete (and the more expensive it is to print). It makes sense that legislators want to bring forward constitutional amendments during a presidential election year, when more citizens come out to vote, but that choice slows down the voting process.
A user-friendly ballot results in voters spending less time in the booth.
If the only goal is to reduce lines on Election Day, then adopting early voting, all-mail elections or no-excuse absentee voting could be solutions. But other goals are important, too. Issues such as voting security, administrative expenses and tradition must be weighed before stretching the voting time frame.
Looking for “fixes” in any of these places may make sense, but changes always bring some amount of discomfort, too. Lawmakers hope to make positive changes that ultimately will ease the voting process—for both elections officials and voters.
Wendy Underhill tracks elections issues for NCSL.