WASHINGTON – Responding to frustratingly long lines in the last national election, a presidential commission on Wednesday encouraged expansion of early voting and said no American should have to wait more than half an hour to cast a ballot.
The Presidential Commission on Election Administration was presenting President Barack Obama with a list of recommendations to reduce the wait and make voting more efficient. The commission warned of an "impending crisis in voting technology" as machines across the country purchased after the 2000 election recount wear out with no federal funds on the horizon to replace them.
"We could have even more problems in the future if we don't act now," Obama said after receiving their 112-page report in the White House's Roosevelt Room.
But fixing the problems will be easier said than done, since no federal commission can force changes to balloting run by about 8,000 different jurisdictions. Funds for upgrades are scarce. Not only that, there have been sharp differences in recent years between the parties on what approach to employ. Fights over voting process can — and sometimes have — been as partisan and bitter as those associated with the redrawing of political boundary lines.
The commission also recommended that states expand online voter registration and clean up outdated voters lists. And it encouraged more schools to act as polling places, with students staying home to address security concerns in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shooting a year ago.
"Long wait times at select polling places result from a combination of mismanagement, limited or misallocated resources, and long ballots," the report says.
The report comes after the 2012 election where, despite all the technological advances of the 21st century, voters often had to wait in long lines to cast ballots. Problems included a shortage of paper ballots in Hawaii, not enough voting machines for large crowds that turned out in Ohio and human error from poll workers. The report cited election workers in California who overslept and didn't open polls on time and Pennsylvania poll workers who inaccurately told some voters they needed photo identification.
In some places, voters were still in line hours after voting was scheduled to end. Even as Obama delivered his re-election victory speech, voters in places including Florida, Virginia and Tennessee, were waiting to cast ballots in overtime.
Obama announced the commission in his State of the Union address last year. The commission did not weigh into the debate over minority voting rights, including the fight over voter identification, but was instead a nonpartisan effort to improve election administration. Obama appointed his campaign lawyer, Bob Bauer, and the lawyer from Republican rival Mitt Romney's campaign, Ben Ginsberg, as chairmen.
The 10-member commission held public meetings last year across the country and concluded unanimously that the "problems that hinder the efficient administration of elections are both identifiable and solvable." The commission said long lines can be solved through planning, improved training and recruitment of poll workers and more efficient use of resources. It doesn't suggest new federal spending to upgrade technology but instead says the next generation of equipment can come from widely available and affordable off-the-shelf technologies and software.
One new issue that came up in testimony to the commission was a move by schools across the country to stop serving as polling places because of security concerns of opening up to the public after the December 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. The commission encouraged more use of schools since they are often best-equipped to handle voters with large rooms, parking and accessibility, and said security concerns can be addressed by scheduling in-service training on Election Day so students aren't in the building.
The way voters cast ballots is changing in some parts of the country.
Tens of millions of people took advantage of early voting and mail-in absentee ballots in 2012 — in some states, a third or more ballots were cast well before Election Day. Oregon and Washington use entirely mail-in voting systems. The commission said voters are increasingly seeking these options and are more willing to wait in line when they choose to vote on a day that's convenient for them.
The commission was making available on its web site, www.supportthevoter.gov, on-line tools, recommendations and best practices to help elections officials prevent the long lines.