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Election Academy

No Small Stuff (cont.): California's Debate About Time Limits for Voting

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[Image courtesy of andrewsinclair]

Back in March, I discussed how Illinois' experience with oversized ballots demonstrated the idea that there is no such thing as small stuff in elections.

Thanks to Los Angeles County's Dean Logan, I have a newer story that illustrates the problem in a different way. The issue is a new bill in the Assembly that would clarify state law about the maximum amount of time that voters have to cast their ballots. From the Sacramento Bee:

California law says voters have up to 10 minutes to mark their ballots -- but it also says they do not.

A conflicting provision of the state elections code sets the limit at five minutes, creating a discrepancy that has sparked legislation, headed to the Assembly floor, to resolve the matter.

The setting of a time limit decades ago was designed to help elections officials keep voters moving on election day, lowering prospects that long lines form and discourage Californians from casting ballots.

The issue potentially could be significant in a presidential election year, such as 2012, in which turnout is expected to be high and perhaps a dozen initiatives will be decided, along with state, federal and local races.

Assembly Bill 1724, by Cupertino Democratic Assemblyman Paul Fong, would repeal the five-minute limit, thus setting the bar at 10 minutes.

Under current law, neither the five- nor the 10-minute limit could be enforced unless necessary to avoid inconveniencing other voters.

AB 1724 takes a different tack, eliminating the mention of inconvenience and simply stating that voters can stay in the booth for longer than 10 minutes if they tell a precinct board member that they need more time.

At first look it doesn't seem like this should be an issue - indeed, former Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed a similar bill in 2009 because he failed to see any evidence it was a problem - but in an election year with high turnout and a long ballot time might actually be a limiting factor for those who go to the polls.

And yet, expanding the amount of time available for voters to cast a ballot raises issues as well. First, there is enforcement; how do pollworkers ask voters to "move it along" and will they be willing to do so? In addition, removing or relaxing time limits opens the door to a "denial of service" attack at the polls if a large group of voters decide to occupy voting booths and lengthen the wait for everyone behind them in line. [Rep. Fong has acknowledged this latter issue and is planning some amendments to address such concerns.]

This whole problem is the result of two factors over which election officials have no control: limited physical space for voting and a firm window of time that ends when polls close on Election Day. It is possible to mitigate these factors somewhat by giving voters more room to vote, but those approaches can then weaken the commitment to voter privacy and open up polling places to concerns about electioneering and voter conflict. Of course, vote by mail ballots eliminate these concerns but introduce others.

The bottom line: even little things like the amount of time a voter has to mark her ballot can implicate much larger issues that end up complicating the process of election administration.

No small stuff, indeed.

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