1. Opinion

Ease the way to the ballot box

Published Feb. 7, 2013

The effort it took to vote in the last election varied widely across the country. In some states, people experienced essentially no waiting, while in other states, like Florida, they waited in line for hours. This disparity has consequences for the voting rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. In Florida, where the lines were longest, hundreds of thousands of people gave up trying to vote out of frustration, an Ohio State University researcher calculates. It was the culmination of an electoral strategy by Republican lawmakers to make voting a chore. Federal and state reforms should make voting easier, more convenient and uniform.

Academics have been sifting through the problems of the last election and coming up with disturbing findings. Charles Stewart III, political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found that average wait times on Election Day were 45 minutes in Florida, the lengthiest in the nation. For comparison, California averaged six minutes. That state prepares for elections by having enough precincts to ensure that a relatively low number of voters are assigned to each. Stewart's analysis also found that across the nation, black and Hispanic voters waited in line on average nearly twice as long as white voters. That needs to be corrected.

An analysis by Theodore Allen, professor at Ohio State University, that focused on Florida's experience drew data supplied by the Orlando Sentinel. He found that for every hour of delay time, voter turnout in Florida was reduced by approximate 2.3 percent. Allen estimates that at least 201,000 voters on Nov. 6 likely gave up and left the line. In Lee County, the last precinct closed at 2:54 a.m., nearly eight hours after polls were scheduled to close.

Republicans have long understood that making voting harder tends to disadvantage Democratic candidates, and they have been passing legislation requiring extra voter identification and imposing other hurdles. The Republican-controlled Florida Legislature cut early voting from 14 days to eight, and eliminated voting on the Sunday before the election, conditions that contributed to the lengthy lines.

Federal legislation is needed to make voting more convenient, accessible and standardized. In Tallahassee, there is growing support for returning to 14 days of early voting over two full weekends and to expand the locations for early voting. But there should also be uniformity in the hours of early voting and enough precincts and voting machines so that all citizens have the same opportunity to exercise their franchise. Florida leaders cannot let another election pass with the state holding the worst Election Day record in the nation.