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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Long Lines and Voting Rights

One of the theories behind the proliferation of liberalized early voting is that it will reduce the risk of overwhelmed voting systems on Election Day itself. But this year early voting is being plagued by inadequate numbers of voting places and poll workers, long lines, and system breakdowns. Here’s a disturbing assessment from Evan Perez in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal:

Millions of voters are braving long lines, delays of two to four hours and sometimes confusing rules to cast their ballots ahead of Tuesday’s election….
At polling stations near Miami, residents have endured waits up to four hours in relatively cold 50-degree weather. Florida and North Carolina have extended polling hours to accommodate large crowds. In Georgia, officials report that more than a quarter of all voters have already cast ballots, despite scattered voting-machine malfunctions that at one station kept people waiting in line until after midnight.

As J.P. Green noted here a few days ago, much of this situation is attributable to Republican-administered election systems, and is disporportionately affecting minority voters. And even if it’s not directly attributable to conscious voter suppression, the only alternative explanation is incompetence born of indifference, or of cynical assumptions about the civic engagment of minority citizens.
It’s also a situation that begs for a national solution, if not this year, then as soon as is possible. In a Washington Post op-ed last week, Christopher Edley Jr. made a simple but elegant case for action:

In 2001, former presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford led a commission, of which I was a member, to dissect the previous year’s voting fiasco in Florida. Many of our recommendations found their way into the Help America Vote Act of 2002. Disappointingly, Congress failed to create an explicit and easily enforceable prohibition against grossly disproportionate resource allocations between polling places in the same state or even the same county — the level of government at which, preposterously, we typically finance and administer elections. This localism means that the infrastructure of democracy vies for resources with potholes, parks, sheriffs and firefighting. It also means that locally powerful communities get better service on something that — above all else — is supposed to be scrupulously equal in this country.
Even without a new statute, there are enough plausible legal theories on this to boggle the mind. Voting is a fundamental right, but as I saw on the Carter-Ford commission and again as a member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, Election Day resource disparities have enormously different racial and class impacts that are based on the dynamics of power and poverty. In election cycle after cycle, registrars act surprised when problems crop up disproportionately in poor neighborhoods. If there isn’t enough money to run decent elections everywhere, Americans should share the pain equally.
We have the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution, with a rich history of helpful Supreme Court rulings, including even Bush v. Gore’s solicitude in 2000 for Florida voters being treated differently and arbitrarily in the administration of elections. We have the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Individual states have their own constitutional provisions guaranteeing “equal protection” and “due process,” so state attorneys general can and should add pressure.

I’m all for lawyering up on Election Day if the absurd and discriminatory inadequacy of voting administration matches what we’ve seen both in the past, and in some of the early voting sites. But without question, if despite the best efforts of the GOP we wind up with a Democratic president and a strongly Democratic Congress next Tuesday, true election reform at the national level finally needs to happen.

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