Thanking voters on election night, President Obama noted that some had stood in long lines, then added: “By the way, we have to fix that.” Yes we do. It’s an outrage when citizens are forced to wait in line for hours to cast their ballot. Regardless of whether one sees voting as a duty or a privilege, it shouldn’t consume a significant part of one’s day. That discourages participation, particularly if would-be voters are hard-pressed for time because of family or work obligations.
No one expects voting to be instantaneous, certainly. But at the most, it shouldn’t take more than half an hour to cast a ballot. Indeed, limiting voting waits to 30 minutes should be a consensus national goal. That means addressing issues such as whether there are enough polling places, whether those sites are adequately staffed, and whether they have enough voting equipment to keep the lines moving in a reasonably expeditious fashion.
But how could that be achieved? One way could be through federal legislation. It’s usually national elections that are plagued by long waits. There, Congress has clear authority to act.
Sadly, however, the chances of that happening seem slim. After all, partisan tensions have already undercut other attempts to make voting easier. In 2002, Congress established a nonpartisan Election Assistance Commission to help states improve the process in federal elections. But because of Senate inaction, the four-member EAC board currently has no commissioners in place, which has helped neuter the agency. If the Senate won’t confirm commissioners to an agency it created, it’s hard to envision voting legislation passing.
Still, there are routes around Congress. One would be for the National Association of Secretaries of State, a bipartisan organization, to take on the task of shortening lines. The association could and should develop a list of best practices; the secretaries of state could then push their jurisdictions to enact those practices. They could be assisted in that effort by the National Association of State Election Directors, a bipartisan group of administrators dedicated to promoting “accessible, accurate and transparent” elections.
It’s well past time for policymakers to make voting quick and efficient. Both federal lawmakers and secretaries of state should devote themselves to achieving that goal.