Political Animal


February 05, 2013 10:04 AM Long Lines And Voting Rights

By Ed Kilgore

In case you haven’t noticed or thought about it, the president’s fairly frequent references—most notably in his election night remarks and in his second inaugural address—to voting rights problems have invariably focused on long waiting lines at polling places. That’s a bit of a departure from the rhetoric of most voting rights advocates, who have often focused on more unambiguous and direct voter suppression measures like voter ID laws and voting roll purges (though restriction of early voting opportunities, which is related to the “long lines” problem, was a very big deal during the last election cycle).

Is this part of a conscious Obama strategy? It sure looks like it, per this report from the New York Times’ Jeremy Peters:

Republicans in several states across the country have passed or promoted measures they say are meant to reduce voter fraud, like stricter identification requirements. Some have also cited costs; Florida, for instance, had eight days of early voting in November, down from 14, after the Republican-led Legislature changed the law.
By highlighting long waits and cumbersome voter registration as issues, Democrats hope they have found a counterattack. Democrats have already tried to block the Republican efforts, noting that nonpartisan analyses have generally found voter fraud to be extremely rare.
Waiting times are “costing America a lot of votes,” said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat who is sponsoring the Senate voting bill and expects to have the full support of the White House.

Truth is, much as progressive justifiably mock it as a phantom menace, Republicans have had success in the “voter fraud” rationales for voting restrictions, which usually poll pretty well absent a very visible pushback effort. But everybody hates to wait in line, and lines long enough to deter people from voting—which unlike other vote suppression incidents are very easy to see—look more like incompetence than cost-consciousness.

It seems Obama will talk about specific federal legislation encouraging shorter voting lines in his upcoming State of the Union Address. And the good thing about that is that the president can simultaneously give a boost to action in Congress and in the states (the real source of the problem:

Democrats in the House and Senate have already introduced bills that would require states to provide online voter registration and allow at least 15 days of early voting, among other things.
Fourteen states are also considering whether to expand early voting, including the battlegrounds of Florida, Ohio and Virginia, according to FairVote, a nonprofit group that advocates electoral change. Florida, New York, Texas and Washington are looking at whether to ease registration and establish preregistration for 16- and 17-year-olds.

NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice has just issued a very timely report entitled “How To Fix Long Lines,” which has three main recommendations: (1) a modernized system of voter registration, with federal assistance for better registration technology and a state presumption that voters want to keep voting; (2) a national early voting period; and (3) minimum national standards for polling-place access.

It might be intellectually satisfying if the administration and congressional Democrats embraced a comprehensive approach to voting rights (which, as Jamelle Bouie has pointed out, would probably require a constitutional amendment). But in the very short time-frame between now and a 2014 midterm election where voting levels (especially among younger and minority voters) will probably be down significantly no matter what else happens, and with election administration in an awful lot of Republican hands, the most important thing is to maintain a high level of public attention and pressure on the states to avoid the more blatant partisan games.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • esaud on February 05, 2013 10:54 AM:

    Is there anything the Justice Department or White House can do without congress?

    To me the worst places in Obama's administration if Eric Holder's Justice Department, hand in hand with the FBI, coming down hard on whistleblowers, faked up terrorist plots, etc. It seems to me they could be doing a better job cracking down on civil rights abuses.

  • KEW on February 05, 2013 12:12 PM:

    I live in South Florida and volunteered as a poll watcher on Election Day in a pretty quiet precinct. I heard lots of people talk about how hard it was to vote this year because of the long lines and the truncated early voting options.

    That night, as I watched the results come in and saw that there were still people waiting at other Florida polls four hours and more after the polls closed, and long after Obama was known to have won, these stalwart voters made me want to cheer, weep, and rage all at once.

    So, yeah, voting lines aren't the only voting rights issue of the moment, but they are a big issue.

  • emmie on February 05, 2013 12:13 PM:

    This could all be so easily solved by using Vote by Mail as we have been doing in Oregon for years. There are no polling places open on election day -- you can vote for a couple of weeks before the election at your leisure. No need to take off work or stand for hours. We have one of the highest levels of voter participation in the nation.

  • jpeckjr on February 05, 2013 12:42 PM:

    Of all the things our government administers, elections should be the one where cost-consciousness does not apply. I'm not suggesting extravagance, just that spending money to provide generous access and assure accuracy is money well spent in the furtherance of democracy.

  • iyoumeweus on February 05, 2013 4:48 PM:

    Section 1: ARTICLE II, Section 1, Paragraphs 2 and 3 to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed and superseded by this amendment. Henceforth, the President and the Vice President shall be elected directly by a popular vote of all citizens 18 or over on Election Day, as determined by the Congress and approved by the President in accordance with the Constitution.
    Section 2: Amendment XII and Amendment XXIII shall be superseded by this Amendment except for the following sentences of Amendment XII:
    a. The person having the greatest number of votes for President shall be President
    b. The person having the greatest number of votes for Vice President shall be Vice President
    c. No person constitutionally ineligible to the office of President shall be eligible to that of Vice President of the United States.
    d. The President and Vice President shall not be an inhabitant of the same state.
    Section 3: Each member of the House of Representatives shall represent no more then 250,000 +/- 12,500 citizens. As the nationís population increases or decreases the number of House member will increase or decrease to accommodate this requirement. Congressional Districts shall be compact and drawn along state, country, city, town and village lines wherever possible to accommodate equal representation. In some instances, election district boundaries may have to be used but in no case can election districts be divided except in accordance with state, county and local laws. In cities with a population greater than one million (1,000,000) Congressional Districts need not be compact but drawn in such a manner so as to reflect the various ethnic, cultural and neighborhood interests, differences and diversities residing within our country.
    Section 4: Any state with a population of five million (5,000,000) shall be able to elect another Senator and receive an additional Senator for each additional increase in five million citizens. All Senators shall be elected at large and represent the entire state in Congress.
    Section 5: The Congress shall have the power to establish by law all procedures pertaining to the election of President and Vice President including: the certification and transmission of election results, a sorting and winnowing process of potential candidates, voter identification, guaranteeing each citizen the right to vote in secret and ensuring each vote is counted.
    Section 6: Federal judges shall have the power to review and adjust Congressional District boundaries to better reflect Section 3, but the compliant must come from within the Congressional District(s) with an accompanying petition signed by ten per cent (10%) of those residing within the district(s).
    Section 7: a. Any state having fewer than 250,000 citizens shall be guaranteed one representative and two Senators.
    b. The District of Columbia may elect representatives in accordance with its population and Section 3.
    c. The District of Columbia being once a part of Maryland may take part in electing Senators from Maryland.
    Section 8: The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

  • Doug on February 05, 2013 8:07 PM:

    We don't need no stinkin' amendment, iyoumeweus!

    I quote:
    Constitution of the United States, Article I, Section 4, para. 1: "The Times, Places and Manner of hlding Elections for Senators and Representatives shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof, but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of chusing Senators."
    That last about the "chusing" of the Senators has been overtaken by the 17th Amendment, but the rest still stands. If it so desires Congress can RIGHT NOW pass legislation covering all aspects of voting; there's no need for any amendment. True, these "regulations" would apply ONLY to Federal elections and states could still require voter IDs, etc for state/local elections, but considering how chintzy most states are, I don't see that happening in most states; they'd just go by the Federal standards.
    Note also that there is nothing in that paragraph about the Federal government having to reimburse the states for meeting the "regulations" fo Federal elections. A possible carrot?
    However, as any such legislation would have to pass both House and Senate, I'm not holding my breath...