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Long lines, confusion reveal flaws in U.S. elections

WASHINGTON – Even as President Obama was about to give his victory speech early Wednesday, dozens of Florida voters waited in line waiting to cast ballots more than five hours after the polls officially closed. Thousands of people in Virginia, Tennessee and elsewhere also had to vote in overtime.

Well into the 21st Century, it strikes many people as indefensible that the U.S. can't come up with a more streamlined and less chaotic election system. The president said as much at the very start of his speech.

"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," Obama said. "By the way, we have to fix that."

Easier said than done.

There's no single entity that sets the rules for voting in this country. Congress and the states enact overall election laws, but in most places it comes down to county or even city officials to actually run them. And those local systems are prone to problems.

"We have 10,000 different systems. I wish there were only 50," said Richard Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California-Irvine and author of "The Voting Wars."

On Election Day there were examples in California of polls not opening on time because election workers overslept. In Ohio, Florida and elsewhere, there weren't enough voting machines to accommodate large crowds. In other places the devices malfunctioned or jammed.

At least 19 polling places in Hawaii ran out of paper ballots. In Pennsylvania, local poll workers were giving incorrect information to hundreds of voters about whether they needed photo identification (most of them didn't).

Some people think the nation's voting system is getting worse instead of better, and that minorities such as African-Americans and Hispanics tend to bear the greatest brunt of any problems.

""There is no excuse for elections officials in many states to fumble the ball, to be unprepared for large turnouts," said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League and former mayor of New Orleans.

That certainly appeared to be the case in Miami-Dade County, where extremely long lines of voters at the 7 p.m. poll-closing time meant ballots were still being cast well after 1 a.m. Wednesday. Democratic operatives even brought pizza to voters to keep them from giving up. County officials blamed an exceedingly long ballot for the problems.

Voters also endured long lines in several urban Tennessee counties and in South Carolina, where some people waited four hours. In some places in Virginia, the final votes were not cast until after 11 p.m. Long lines were also reported in Rhode Island, Montana and other states.

It was a frustrating experience for Fred Gonda, a 64-year-old retired Memphis teacher. He said his longtime address was incorrectly listed and he was forced to cast a provisional ballot he feared might not count.

"It's such an important election, how hard is it to check addresses and stuff before they send the stuff out, especially for people who have been voting here for 30 years?" Gonda said.

Voting experts say political tampering with elections is a major cause of chaos and ballot problems, particularly this year. Several states tried to enact new photo ID laws, while others wanted to change early voting rules, purge rolls of supposedly ineligible voters or alter the timing of voter registration.

These and other changes can confuse voters and make elections more difficult to administer. And opponents, including many voting access and civil rights groups, saw the changes as attempts by Republicans to disenfranchise minority groups who overwhelmingly supported Obama and other Democrats.

"Politics should be competitive and it is a team sport. We want that," said Edward Foley, who runs the election law program at Ohio State University. "Partisanship doesn't work if you're fighting over the rules of the game."

Opponents of the new election laws, many of which were blocked or blunted by the courts, said they may have had an opposite effect by boosting enthusiasm among groups who believed their right to vote was being threatened. That in turn could have boosted turnout in many places.

The way America votes is changing, however. Tens of millions of people took advantage of early voting and mail-in absentee ballots – in some states, a third or more ballots were cast well before Election Day. Oregon and Washington use entirely mail-in voting systems.

Some people think email or secure Internet voting may be the wave of the future. But not yet.

"That might be something to dream of down the road," Foley said. "I would hope that a goal will be to come up with a rational set of days and hours and locations."

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