[Image courtesy of thedailybeast]
I want to thank every American who participated in this election ... whether you voted for the very first time or waited in line for a very long time.
By the way, we have to fix that. - President Obama, last night
Every national election seems to yield a storyline for election administration - and yesterday's story, hands down, was the long lines that many voters faced at the polls.
Just to be clear, when I say "long lines" I'm not talking about one-hour waits like the one I faced at my home polling place at lunchtime yesterday - I'm talking about epic waits, including those voters who, as the President was speaking just before 2am Eastern time, were still voting in Miami.
The irritation over long lines quickly rose to a crescendo throughout the day. At the New York Times' "Talking Points" blog, David Firestone said:
As they stand in windswept, hourlong lines to cast a ballot, voters might ask themselves, why are there so few polling places and workers? Why isn't the government making it easier for me to vote, rather than forcing me through an endurance contest?
I think you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who thinks that having voters casting ballots as many as eight hours after the polls close is a good idea, but if we are indeed going to focus on shortening the lines on Election Day, how should we proceed - and how far should we go?
The first thing is to figure out if this demand to reduce lines is a reaction to the extreme cases or a condemnation of lines generally. At ElectionDiary, Brian Newby saw the same thing a few weeks ago:
This anti-line sentiment is beginning to feel like a social shift and maybe the issue of 2012. If people are complaining of a line during advance voting now, when we actually do have the lines we had in 2008, I can only imagine the calls ....
It's as though the mere sight of other voters is stifling this year.
To be honest, even if the voters demand it, I'm not sure that we have the capacity to eliminate lines entirely. Slate's Rachael Larimore had a great piece musing on these questions before Election Day as she defended her home state of Ohio from accusations of vote suppression because of limits on early voting, and she makes a great point regarding the expansion of voting opportunities generally: "[Y]ou would have a hard time staffing wider polling hours. The kindly old folks who staff our precinct might look like sweet volunteers, but they are pocketing more than $100 a day. That adds up in smaller counties and rural areas with tight budgets."
In other words, to decrease lines on Election Day, we have to increase the capacity of the election system - either by widening voting opportunities at the traditional polling place or by expanding other modes of voting to relieve the pressure on Election Day. Given the sturm und drang surrounding early voting in Ohio and Florida, I'm not expecting the nation to suddenly embrace non-precinct place voting - which means that the only other avenue available is to spend more money on Election Day itself.
There may be some ways to wring a little more efficiency out of the process, but there are limits to what "working smarter" can do to address a capacity problem. At some point we're going to have to invest more resources - and in the current fiscal climate I don't know where those come from.
We also have to think about what a renewed focus on convenience will do to other goals of the election process - security, accuracy, accessibility and transparency. It's too soon to identify what the tradeoffs might be but it's fair to say there will be plenty.
Bottom line (pun intended) - I know that election officials would prefer not to see their voters spend half a day (or night) in line to vote, but addressing the problem requires 1) deciding when a line is too long 2) identifying ways to shorten those lines and 3) finding consensus and resources to put those changes into effect.
So yes, Mr. President, we do need to "fix that" - and I'm game to start right away. Here's hoping we can figure out how - and how to pay for it.