Election 2012 provokes heated talks of what we can – and must – do better
Barry M. Horstman reports:
Long lines have almost become an Election Day fixture in Ohio and across the country, a sight that voters can reliably expect to see at the polls along with American flags, candidates shaking a few final hands and campaign teams making one last pitch.
Do they have to be? The answer, many experts believe, is no.
“We have to fix that,” President Barack Obama said in his victory speech early Wednesday, referring to the lengthy lines that greeted many voters at the polls.
On that and other facets governing the logistics of how Americans vote, Election 2012 offered some lessons that, if acted upon, perhaps could smooth future elections. Among the topics under discussion to ease the process are early voting hours, absentee voting, registration updates and ballot formats.
• Election 101: Bigger building + more hours = shorter lines
During last weekend’s early voting, hundreds of voters waited outside the board of elections in eastern Downtown from two to four hours to cast in-person absentee ballots.
One reason for the long lines is that, unlike recent elections when the board was open multiple weekends in the weeks leading up to Election Day, last Saturday and Sunday were the only weekend days available this year. And it took a federal lawsuit filed by the Obama campaign, the Democratic National Committee and the state Democratic Party to obtain even that over Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted’s opposition.
When Husted agreed – under intense nationwide pressure – to set uniform early weekday voting hours across the state, he curtailed evening hours from previous years, arguing that his plan to send absentee ballot applications to all registered Ohio voters that could be mailed back over a 35-day period eliminated the need for boards of elections to stay open later.
Many voters, though, prefer to vote in person – some because they like the experience, others because they feel more comfortable turning in their ballot at the elections board than putting it into a mailbox.
“When I vote here, I know my ballot’s not going to get lost,” Melvin Childs, a 59-year-old maintenance worker from Roselawn, said while standing in line in the rain Saturday.
The elections board building itself, described in one national story as “bordering on decrepit,” also contributed to the long waits. Once voters who had waited outside in lines snaking for blocks finally got inside the building, limited floor space produced an immediate chokepoint: a counter where only six to eight workers could process voters.
In the next major statewide election, said Tim Burke, chairman of both the Hamilton County Democratic Party and county elections board, early voting perhaps can be held in a much larger facility such as the Duke Energy Convention Center.
• Absentee ballot plan a clear winner
Husted’s initiative that put absentee applications in the hands of all registered voters was one of the major successes of the election, producing nearly 1.8 million early votes – a third of the turnout and more than any other election since “no-fault” absentee voting began in Ohio in 2006. In previous years, only some counties – Hamilton County among them – mailed out unsolicited absentee applications.
“I definitely think it should continue, because I’d hate to think what some of those lines would have looked like without it,” Burke said.
The heavy early voting offered convincing proof that the new normal in American politics has transformed Election Day into election month. Although there is talk that Ohio Republicans may try to further restrict early voting, Burke and others say voters would not tolerate turning back the clock.
• Forget a better mousetrap, we need better ink
On Tuesday, lines of 45 minutes to an hour were common at some polling places. Of the various factors responsible – among them, poll worker confusion and jammed voting equipment – one of the biggest is perhaps the most basic: how long it takes to actually fill in the ballots.
With the county’s old punch-card voting system – which saw its reputation gutted by the 2000 Bush-Gore “hanging chad” debacle in Florida – voters who knew how they intended to vote when they arrived at the polls often could be in and out of the voting booth in only a minute or two.
The paper ballots now used, however, require voters to dust off their draw-between-the-lines talents from childhood, a laborious process that often takes 10 minutes or so.
Voters must use ballpoint pens to completely fill in boxes next to candidates’ names or ballot issues, taking care not to go outside the lines, which could bounce their ballot, as could failure to fill in a sufficient portion of the box.
Felt-tip pens or ink stamps that would permit the boxes to be marked more quickly cannot be used because they tend to bleed through the two-sided ballots. And going to ballot pages printed on only one side would be costly.
“This is something we continue to talk about but no one has been able to come up with an answer,” Burke said.
• At least they didn’t use carbon paper
One last-minute headache that county boards of elections could have done without stemmed from needing to quickly review and update registration records for about 33,000 names statewide. More than 2,100 of them were in Hamilton County, where officials had only about one day to revise their records.
The problem resulted from up to a three-month time lag between when drivers changed their address with the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, which in turn updates their voter registration, and when that information reached Husted’s office.
“Absolutely inexcusable,” said state Sen. Eric Kearney, D-North Avondale. “How can it take three months for something to get from one state computer system to another?”
Even Husted’s staff admits it shouldn’t, attributing the glitch to the growing pains that come with instituting a new program. The fact that the BMV is not under the control of the secretary of state, as is the case in many other states, also creates logistical hurdles, said Husted spokesman Matt McClellan. Regardless, all parties vow that next time, things will work better – and faster.
• In the end, it’s worse in Florida
While few question that Ohio’s electoral procedures can be improved, Tuesday – after the unprecedented absentee effort raised the prospect of more provisional votes, fears that tea party-linked groups might disrupt the polls, and a last-month flood of court decisions and Husted directives – turned out to be comparable to recent past elections in terms of how Election Day unfolded.
With up to 325,000 provisional and absentee ballots yet to be counted, Husted and Ohioans can take comfort from the fact that none of the major statewide contests is close enough for those votes to alter the outcome, barring them breaking in an extremely unlikely lopsided manner.
Because if the nation had been waiting on Ohio to learn who the president would be, as seemed quite possible in the final days before the election, then Ohio truly would have been the new Florida.
In the end, though, it looks like Florida – where the election’s result was not known until Saturday – will keep that title for itself.