A polarized and gridlocked Congress is taking its first look at problems voters had in November, including long lines that left many waiting for hours to cast ballots.
The problems went well beyond lengthy waits. A rise in the number of provisional ballots delayed the results for days in some cases. Growing photo ID requirements placed on voters by Republican-controlled state legislatures sparked intense partisan fights. And the time allowed for early voting was too short for many, too long for others.
The Senate Judiciary Committee was to examine last month’s balloting during a hearing Wednesday on the Voting Rights Act. But with Congress expected to adjourn within days, any focus on possible fixes won’t occur until next year — if at all. The 1965 law is the federal government’s most potent weapon against racial discrimination in elections, requiring all or parts of 16 states with a history of discrimination in voting to get U.S. approval before making election changes.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the committee chairman, described the long lines and new tools for policing voter fraud as evidence of abusive practices intended to disenfranchise minority voters. He said he wants to figure out “how we can make sure that problems we saw in the recent election are never repeated.”
The courts also have a major role in deciding election issues.
The Supreme Court this term will consider a challenge to the Voting Rights Act from Shelby County, Ala., which argues that state and local governments have made significant progress and no longer should be forced to live under oversight from Washington.
The high court ruled in 2008 that states can require voters to produce photo identification. Seventeen states have passed photo ID laws, although not all were in effect for the 2012 elections, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Democrats argue that photo ID laws will keep some poor, older and minority voters from casting ballots.
Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on Leahy’s committee, hinted at potential political divisions that could lead to future gridlock in Congress on election reform.
“Voters overwhelmingly recognize that in a society in which people must show photo ID to board a plane, they should have to show some form of ID to vote,” he said. “Americans should not have to worry about their legitimate votes being diluted by those who cannot legally cast a ballot.”
There were voting issues in November in numerous states.
Some Miami-Dade County, Fla., voters, in line at the 7 p.m. poll closing time, didn’t cast their ballots until after 1 a.m. Democratic operatives brought pizza to keep them from leaving.
There were long lines in several urban Tennessee counties and in South Carolina. In some places in Virginia, final votes were not cast until after 11 p.m. Long lines also were reported in Rhode Island, Montana and other states.
Some California polls did not open on time because election workers overslept. At least 19 polling places in Hawaii ran out of paper ballots. Some Pennsylvania voters were given incorrect information about whether they needed photo identification; most didn’t.
Edward Foley, a law professor at Ohio State University and director of the law school’s election program, said there’s a potential disaster lurking in the increase in provisional ballots provided to voters whose eligibility is questioned.
“One should have faith in the system,” Foley said. “Rules should not be set for one party for its own advantage. What surfaced between 2010 and 2012 was use of the legislative process for what appears to be partisan advantage that we hadn’t seen previously.”
Richard Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California-Irvine, said the number of provisional ballots can be reduced by improving the voter registration system. He said the system is poorly managed by many states.
“The federal government can provide carrots” in the form of federal grants, Hasen said. “It’s a small price to pay to avoid election meltdowns.”
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