Discrepancies in voter waiting times draw scrutiny

Jeremy W. Peters / New York Times News Service /


Published Feb 6, 2013 at 04:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

WASHINGTON — With studies suggesting that long lines at the polls cost Democrats hundreds of thousands of votes in November, party leaders are beginning a push to make voting and voter registration easier, setting up a likely new conflict with Republicans over a deeply polarizing issue.

White House officials have told congressional leaders that President Barack Obama plans to press for action on Capitol Hill. House and Senate Democrats have 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 considering whether to expand early voting, including the battlegrounds of Florida, Ohio and Virginia, according to FairVote, a nonprofit 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.

Several recent polls and studies suggest that long waiting times in some places depressed voter turnout in the 2012 election and that lines were longest in cities, where Democrats outnumber Republicans. In a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted shortly after Election Day, 18 percent of Democrats said they had waited at least a half-hour to vote, compared with 11 percent of independents and 9 percent of Republicans.

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology analysis determined that blacks and Hispanics waited nearly twice as long in line to vote on average as whites. Florida had the nation’s longest lines, with a wait time of 45 minutes, followed by the District of Columbia, Maryland, South Carolina and Virginia, according to Charles Stewart, the political science professor who conducted the analysis.

A separate analysis, by an Ohio State University professor and The Orlando Sentinel, concluded that more than 200,000 voters in Florida “gave up in frustration” without voting.

“When I got there, the line was around the building,” said Jonathan Piccolo, 33, who said he waited nearly eight hours to cast a ballot in Miami-Dade County.

As the Supreme Court prepares to hear a major challenge to the Voting Rights Act this month, election issues seem likely to become even more of a flash point.

Republicans in several states 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 to reduce spending.

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 Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who is sponsoring the Senate voting bill and expects to have the support of the White House.

But getting anything passed without Republican support will be impossible, Democrats acknowledge. And so far, conservatives have complained that Democrats are politicizing an issue that should be handled by the states.

A flawed system

The flaws in the U.S. election system are deep and widespread, extending beyond isolated voting issues in a few locations and flaring up in states rich and poor, according to a major new study from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

The group ranked 50 states based on more than 15 criteria, including wait times, lost votes and problems with absentee and provisional ballots, and the order often confounds the conventional wisdom.

In 2010, for instance, Mississippi ranked last overall. But it was preceded by two surprises: New York and California. “Poor Southern states perform well, and they perform badly,” said Heather Gerken, a law professor at Yale and a Pew adviser. “Rich New England states perform well and badly — mostly badly.”

— New York Times News Service