Voting-rights groups offer solutions to Nov. 6 problems

| Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012, 5:40 p.m.

President Obama has yet to say how he will fulfill his election night pledge to fix voting problems that caused hours-long waits to cast ballots on Nov. 6 — but plenty of other people have suggestions.

“All of the groups in Washington that work on voting rights have seized this opportunity to put forth our agenda for reform,” said Susannah Goodman, head of the election reform program for Common Cause, a Washington-based advocacy group.

Six-hour waits to cast votes in Florida, confusion over identification requirements in Pennsylvania and crashed computers from hurricane-displaced voters trying to email ballots in New Jersey all drew attention to the difficulties of state voting systems in a closely contested presidential election year.

Though the outcome of the presidential race wasn't delayed — as it was by vote-counting problems in 2000 — the problems were sufficiently severe that Obama mentioned the long voter lines in his victory speech. “We have to fix that,” he said.

“Some of the concerns really pierced the public consciousness in this election that they have not before,” said Deborah Vagins, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.

The solutions, say voters-rights groups, are for states to expand early voting, especially over the weekend before Election Day, to avoid a crush of people trying to vote in one day. States should streamline voter registration and allow voters to receive absentee ballots without restrictions.

Voting machine breakdowns also caused long lines at polls. While many states bought new voting machines with funds from a 2002 law, those machines are now aging, said Pamela Smith of the Verified Voting Foundation. Poll workers need more training to handle emergency ballots, backup paper ballots and provisional ballots.

The ACLU wants federal legislation to create uniform standards for voting in federal elections, including the length of early voting.

However, one standard does not work for all states, said Nevada Secretary of State Ross Miller, president of the National Association of Secretaries of State. “We've learned that it is very difficult, if not almost impossible, to implement a national electoral administration process.”

The decentralized authority over voting is one of the reasons things get confused at the polling place, Goodman said. “That's a problem and it's also the solution,” she said. With each jurisdiction setting its own rules, “you don't get uniformity of problems and the same mistakes across the board. You get innovation.”

That's the thinking behind legislation proposed last week that would give grants to states that improve the efficiency of their voting systems in a competition similar to the Race to the Top federal educational grants. The bill would encourage states to make voter registration more flexible, expand early voting, allow no-excuse absentee voting, train poll workers and create contingency plans for voting after natural disasters.

“There were challenges and problems in voter access all over the country. I don't think we should be satisfied with that,” said the bill's author, Sen. Christopher Coons, D-Del.

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