The Real Reasons You Waited Hours in Line to Vote

An Obama campaign legal adviser explains the humiliating meltdown in voting we saw around the country during this year's presidential election.

Voters in Miami on November 6 (Andrew Innerarity/Reuters)

In the coming months, proposals will abound for election reforms to address the embarrassment to American democracy -- and the indignity to citizens -- of 8-hour lines to vote. But what, precisely, accounts for these lines in places like Prince William County and the Norfolk and Hampton areas of Virginia, or Broward, Miami-Dade, and Palm Beach counties in Florida? As a Senior Legal Advisor to the Obama campaign with responsibility for these and other voting issues, I want to share the knowledge the campaign's thousands of observers on the ground generated about the underlying causes.

These causes can be grouped into three categories. I will focus specifically on Virginia, but the causes are largely similar, if not identical, elsewhere.

1. Excessive Local Control and Money Problems. Oddly enough, administration of national elections is largely run and financed not at the national level or the state level but at the local government level. Virginia has 134 local government units. Each has its own electoral board and essentially makes its own decisions about how many voting machines to buy and how much to invest in maintaining the machines. (A statewide board of elections exists, but it has almost no role on these machine issues.) Because local governments are primarily funded through local taxes -- particularly property taxes -- poorer counties and independent cities, with low tax bases, have fewer resources from the outset to devote to all public goods, including voting equipment. State law does impose minimal levels of machines per capita, but these requirements are so low as to be close to meaningless. In addition to resource-strapped local governments not being able to provide sufficient machines, lack of money leads to maintenance being put off and older machines staying in service too long. In Virginia, which holds an election every year (state and local elections alternate with ones for federal offices), this problem is exacerbated. The level of machine breakdown on Election Day is shockingly high, even if utterly predictable.

In addition, registrars typically allocate the machines they do have based on the number of "active voters" in various polling locations. "Active" means voting regularly every election, not just in presidential election years. Areas that have high turnout in presidential elections, but much lower turnout in non-presidential years, therefore have far too few machines in presidential-election years. As the difference between the make-up of the electorate in 2008 (or 2012) versus 2010 illustrates, younger voters and minority voters turn out at much higher rates in presidential elections. Thus, whether intended or not, the effect of this way of allocating scarce machines is to exacerbate their scarcity in poor areas with large minority or student populations.

These general, longstanding resource problems were dramatically enhanced in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown. Local governments suffered enormous budget crunches. Not only did they lack the resources to maintain or update election equipment, they were cutting funding for the hiring of election officials.

2. Checking In to Vote and Voting. Voting has become increasingly complex, both technologically and legally. Yet the poll workers who run the process are temporary volunteers paid $100 a day. They serve episodically and cannot develop much expertise; they tend to be older and less technologically knowledgeable; they are mostly not lawyers, but must adapt, with minimal training, to constantly changing election laws. To give you a sense of contrast, the Obama campaign had lawyers available at key polling locations to make sure poll workers were applying the law properly; these lawyers had received 2.5 hours of training and had 3-inch thick binders with the relevant election laws.

Presented by

Richard H. Pildes is the Sudler Family Professor of Constitutional Law at New York University School of Law.

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