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"We Have to Fix That": Will Long Lines Be the Next Major Focus for Election Reform?

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[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.

5 Comments


  • Well, there are rarely lines with mail-in voting like we have in Oregon. I know some people like the Brad Blog think it is an insecure method of voting, but it certainly is more secure than ubiquitous voting machines that are unverifiable (no paper print out). The big cost in Oregon is ballot printing -- not training and paying hundreds of poll employees, or maintaining and storing and moving thousands of machines -- and turn-out is higher. The only people who seem to dislike Oregon's mail-in voting system are Republican politicians...which, to me, only says how great the system works.

  • I was struck by exactly the same thing in the President's speach. As you said, every presidential election produces the exact same problems and I'm always amazed that nobody seems to take on the issue. I'm just floored when I hear that precincts have "run out of ballots." How is it possible that too few ballots are printed - this is basic stuff.

    There are all kinds of process analysts that solve much more complicated process issues than this one.

    As you said, it's a very simple capacity issue: I think there should be federal standards to ensure enough days, polling places, machines and ballots for everyone to vote in a reasonable amount of time.


  • Long lines are merely a symptom of a much larger problem. Long lines, more provisional ballots etc. are all symptoms caused by innovations to a system (needed innovations) that is not designed to handle them. We keep adding things (early voting, vote by mail, online ballot marking) without investing to improve the infrastructure itself (including training election officials to manage it). If we treat the symptom like Prof. Hasen suggests (http://electionlawblog.org/?p=43847) the disease will continue to spread. I don't want to take cough medicine for my throat cancer.

  • The New York State Board of Elections adopted a regulation which requires that polls be staffed so that lines are no longer than 30 minutes. 9 NYCRR ยง 6210.19(c)(1). We now have address enforcement of that regulation for the 2016 presidential election. There are a number of steps that can be taken to make the procedures more efficient, particularly to reduce the bottleneck when voters sign the registration book. In addition, it is time for local boards of elections to recognize that additional staffing is needed for the "rush hours" when voters typically go to the polls, and that it is inefficient to have the same level of staffing for the entire election day, particularly in New York, which has the longest hours in the nation, from 6 am to 9 pm.
    Douglas Kellner
    Co-Chair, New York State Board of Elections

  • Small counties and rural areas aren't where the long lines are. My polling place, for example, in central NJ has just 2500 registered voters in 3 districts. The long lines are in urban areas - places where there are a lot of voters in each precinct or district.

    It's not just about dividing the number of voters by the 14 or so hours of Election Day, but thinking about when people vote when the work -- in the evening -- and planning for peak times.

    And, we need to think about how long it takes to actually vote, especially in states with many ballot questions. They are rarely written in plain language, so that just reading and marking the ballot takes a long time - often much longer than the legal time limits (2 minutes in New Jersey, for example).

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