In his State of the Union address in February, President Barack Obama introduced Desiline Victor, who, at 102 years old, had waited in line three hours to vote in North Miami, Fla. The president lauded Victor’s commitment to democracy, but he left out a key fact about her hardship: Compared to some voters, she hadn’t stood in line all that long. In 2008, for example, students at Ohio’s Kenyon College waited as long as 10 hours to vote, with some casting ballots at 4 a.m.
The 2000 election meltdown in Florida pulled the curtain back on our dysfunctional system of voting, offering a primer on just about everything wrong with American elections, from burdensome voter registration to faulty vote tabulation. The crisis inspired repeated efforts at reform. A few, such as the Help America Vote Act of 2002 — which, among other things, provided funds for better voting machines — even made a modest difference. Yet three presidential elections after the 2000 fiasco, the basic mechanics of our democracy remain deeply flawed.
One reason so little has changed, clearly, is that plenty of powerful people prefer a system that makes it hard to vote. But there have been some real reforms in the states, many won with bipartisan support, and there is room for well-crafted compromises. Improving elections may not be easy, but it is possible.
As the president recognized, long lines — the most camera- ready of election dysfunctions — are a good place to start. Every four years, CNN and other television networks blanket the airwaves with grim images of voters waiting in the hot sun or driving rain. While other voting problems quickly get arcane — should officials count provisional ballots cast at the right polling place but the wrong precinct? — it takes no specialized knowledge to understand that a five-hour wait to vote is unacceptable. It’s similarly no great secret that, as a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study recently confirmed, blacks and Hispanics wait longer than whites, poor people longer than the well-off.
When we look beyond poll lines, however, it becomes apparent how many other aspects of the election system need to be reformed. Washington — or at least one corner of it — is now giving it another look. Obama has created the nonpartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration, co-chaired by Robert Bauer, a Democratic lawyer who served as his campaign counsel, and Benjamin Ginsberg, a Republican lawyer who was counsel to the Mitt Romney campaign.
One obvious issue they should address is that, in many states, political partisans are in charge of elections. In 2000, many Americans were shocked to learn that the official who supervised voting in Florida, Secretary of State Katherine Harris, was also co-chair of George W. Bush’s state campaign. In many states, overseeing elections is not about encouraging eligible voters to cast ballots or making sure that every valid ballot is counted. It is instead an opportunity to interpret the rules to favor one party over the other. In 2004, Ohio’s Republican secretary of state, Kenneth Blackwell, issued rulings that were widely criticized as blatant attempts to aid the Republican cause. By 2008, Ohio had a Democratic secretary of state — and Republicans were equally unhappy with her decisions.