Long lines at the polls stir calls in Congress for election reform

A growing number of lawmakers want Congress to step in to streamline voters' trips to the polls.

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Although warnings of voter fraud generated far more discussion leading up to Tuesday's elections, enormous lines in many districts turned out to be the much greater threat to the process, as hours-long waits greeted voters in Florida, Virginia, Maryland, Wisconsin and elsewhere.

The delays have stirred questions about why the United States can't make it easier to vote, stoked accusations of voter suppression in minority districts and renewed the debate over Washington's responsibility to safeguard an efficient process.

Now, just days after the polls closed, a number of Democrats say Congress should intervene to "normalize" voting nationwide and ensure the snags at the polls in 2012 don't plague elections down the line. 

"This ought not to be difficult. This is not rocket science," Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said in a phone interview Friday. "We've got to figure out how to clean up federal elections."

Rep. Jim Moran, another Virginia Democrat, echoed that message, saying the delays are "unforgivable in a modern society." 

"It's a form of voter suppression," Moran said Friday by phone. "For people to have to give up hours out of their work day ... how is that different than a poll tax?" 

The rash of delays makes it "incumbent on the Congress" to step in and "normalize the process" nationwide, Moran said.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), senior Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, also weighed in this week with a damning statement about the nature of Tuesday's elections — and a call for federal reforms.

"We need to address this problem," Cummings said Thursday in an email. "There is no reason in this day and age that we should run our elections like a third-world country." 

Although turnout at the polls this year fell short of the 2008 numbers, a long list of precincts reported huge lines that left voters standing as long as nine hours — sometimes, literally, out in the cold — to cast a ballot. 

The bottleneck was blamed on the sheer number of voters, long and confusing ballots, a dearth of voting machines and a shortage of workers available to guide voters through the process.

The problems weren't overlooked by President Obama, who in his victory speech vowed to seek a solution.

"I want to thank every American who participated in this election — whether you voted for the very first time or waited in line for a very long time," the president said early Wednesday morning in Chicago. "By the way, we have to fix that."

He didn't define "we," but Connolly, Cummings and Moran all suggested at least part of the job should fall to Congress.

Each lawmaker has personal reasons to get involved. 

In northern Virginia, voters in Connolly's and Moran's districts faced some of the longest lines in the nation. Waits extended to five hours in Connolly's Dumfries precinct, for instance, while the congressman's staff passed out water and encouraged constituents to stick it out. 

Connolly said the long lines and confusion are "absolutely preventable." He's eyeing legislation to create uniform rules governing voting in all states, including early voting standards, registration criteria and proof-of-identity guidelines.

"We just have a crazy-quilt electoral system in the world's greatest democracy," he said. Tuesday's experience, he added, "really put a fire in my gut on this issue."

Moran said he wants to craft a similar proposal, including more federal resources for voting machines, poll workers and training. But he's also clear that he'll need to find a GOP co-sponsor — "otherwise, it's dead in the water" — and he's not guaranteeing the success of that search in the hyper-partisan environment of Capitol Hill.

Cummings conceded the "challenge" of crafting reforms that would be applied to 50 different state election boards. "But one key step we can take," he added, "is to create national standards to provide greater access to early voting across the country, which would help reduce lines and enable more people to cast their ballots."

The fight over that issue was particularly pronounced in Florida. Republican Gov. Rick Scott had refused to extend early voting even as residents waited in long lines to cast early ballots. The episode led former Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican-turned-independent who backed Obama this year, to call Scott's actions "wrong" and "indefensible."

Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) said many of the delays in Florida resulted from the length of the ballot, which included "non-interpretable, page-long constitutional amendments" championed by the state's Republican legislature.

"I think they were done intentionally," Wilson said Friday by phone. 

She emphasized that Congress's role in the election process is not to try to solve every problem in every state, but, more broadly, "to make sure people are not disenfranchised."

Moran had a slightly different take. He said Tuesday's elections are clear evidence that the state problems are both widespread and, at times, politically motivated. He said they demand congressional attention.  

"If things weren't so bad in so many states, this wouldn't be an issue," Moran said. "It's not that we didn't anticipate the turnout, it's that we weren't prepared for it."