The long waits — often two hours or more, in freezing temperatures — at early voting sites in Cleveland and other Ohio cities are both a sad and hopeful sign. Sad, because the sluggishness of the voting system seemed to reflect the partisan cat-and-mouse game that exists in some states over voting rules; election officials in Ohio, working under a Republican secretary of state, failed to provide enough resources to Democratic areas. The long lines are also a hopeful sign, though, because they attested to the lengths to which people will go to exercise their franchise — and the strong demand for weekend voting hours for those whose family and work schedules make voting difficult on Tuesdays.
It's a lesson that should resonate in Massachusetts, one of only 13 states that allows neither early voting nor absentee balloting without an excuse, such as being out of the country. It's time to allow some form of weekend voting for those who are simply unable to abandon their work or family responsibilities for an hour or two to vote on Tuesdays.
Thankfully, Massachusetts has been free of the partisan football that goes on in some other states over voting rules. And any expansion of voting times in the Bay State would have to allow for no political advantages — access must be substantially equal in every community, whether urban, suburban, or rural.
Essentially, the goal should be to provide a convenient means of voting for every legitimate voter. That does not require the weeks-long, open-ended voting of a state like Iowa, which can strain state resources. In addition, allowing voting before the main events of a campaign — such as debates — would only encourage mindless partisanship: Campaigns would organize supporters based on party affiliation before anyone had a chance to look closely at the candidates.
On the other extreme, which is where Massachusetts currently sits, restricting voting to one day prevents certain people — those who work late, or far from their homes, for instance — from participating in the election. One weekend of early voting would open the door to thousands of new voters.
Even after seeing huge crowds for early voting four years ago, both Ohio and Florida seem to have been ill-prepared to handle the numbers of people showing up this year — which strongly suggests that election officials weren't much concerned about turning people away. Both states are run by Republicans, and Democratic constituencies such as the poor and minorities are more likely to take advantage of early voting.
Deliberate or not, the long waits are a stain on the process. Access to the ballot shouldn't be a game; it should be an effort to enable the largest possible number of voters, and that means finding ways around the practical barriers that keep so many Americans from the polls.