[Image courtesy of postonpolitics]
Tonight, President Obama will deliver his State of the Union Address to a joint session of Congress. During that speech, he is widely expected to reiterate the call for election reform he made both on Election Night and during his second inaugural address.
According to reports, among other Americans invited to watch the address with First Lady Michelle Obama is Desilene Victor, a 102 year-old North Miami resident who waited three hours to vote in 2012. In keeping with recent tradition, it is likely that Ms. Victor's story will be used as an illustration of the problem of long voting lines and, in the words of the President, why "we need to fix that." One such "fix" is an interest in expanded early voting, which proponents believe will help ease congestion at the polls on Election Day.
But here's what's interesting about Ms. Victor's story: her three hour-wait occurred at an early voting location. From the Palm Beach Post on Politics blog:
Desiline Victor, a Haitian-born U.S. citizen and former Belle Glade farm worker... waited in line for three hours at a Miami-Dade County public library on Oct. 28. After others standing in line with the elderly woman complained to Miami-Dade County election staff, she was told to come back later in the day when there wouldn't be as long to wait and more Creole language assistance would be available. She cast her ballot later on her return trip to the early voting site.
For the record, no one - least of all a 102 year-old woman - should have to wait three hours to cast a ballot on any voting day. Moreover, a three-hour wait at an early voting location suggests other issues affecting the process (capacity, layout, election worker training, ballot length, etc.) that need addressing.
But we can't overlook the other aspects of Ms. Victor's story that highlight the complexity of the challenges facing election administration: the use of a public building, the fact that October 28 was a Sunday, and most of all the fact that Ms. Victor (who speaks only Haitian Creole) needed language assistance at the polls. Indeed, the fact that Ms. Victor was able to cast a ballot later (with no indication of a further wait) suggests that language assistance may have been a factor in the length of her original wait. That's a very important problem that won't necessarily be solved by an expansion of early voting.
The lesson I take from Ms. Victor's story is that we need to do a better job of identifying and addressing capacity issues in election administration for all voters. That requires more data on election processes as well as more advanced techniques for mining that data in order to better assist the electorate.
President Obama may be calling for an evidence-based approach to election reform - which is (in this election geek's humble opinion) what's really needed to root out the kinds of problems voters faced in 2012. I just hope he won't ask Congress to expand the availability of early voting everywhere without also asking them to think more critically about the challenges involved in avoiding experiences like Desilene Victor's.