Long Lines And Voting Rights

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

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.