2008: Voting delayed is voting denied

Small thing, but the long lines at the polls, problem enough when we thought there had been substantial leaps in the numbers of citizens registering and voting, become even more puzzling when you consider this from Curtis Gans, director of the non-partisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate:
Despite lofty predictions by some academics, pundits, and practitioners that voter turnout would reach levels not seen since the turn of the last century, the percentage of eligible citizens casting ballots in the 2008 presidential election stayed at virtually the same relatively high level as it reached in the polarized election of 2004.
Increased absentee voting. Increased early voting. And, finally, only a marginal increase in the actual number of voters. So why the long lines? Could such a small overall bump be enough to jam the system on election day?

Possibly. It may be that, like the rest of our infrastructure, the mechanisms of voting are so creaky that the slightest stress overcomes them. But I doubt it. I think the problems are endemic. I blame the electoral college.

Our method of choosing presidents assures that the franchise is meaningful only for voters who reside in states where the outcome is in doubt right up to election day. In this year's contest, as in 2004, especially long lines were generated in those places where voters were told their votes would count. Some people in California, for example, have said that they skipped voting because they felt their choice for president was moot. Leaving aside districts with large African-American populations (who were doubly motivated to vote), because of the barrier of the electoral college it mattered whether you voted or not in only the few purple states.

Still, given the high numbers of people who cast ballots in advance -- which must have eased the pressure on election day -- and the repeated warnings over many months of an impending ballot deluge, it seems odd that election workers weren't better prepared. Not being much of a conspiracy theorist, I'm reluctant to conclude that the inconveniences were intended to depress the tally. Besides, most of the documented efforts at voter suppression were aimed at keeping voters away from polls with threats or frauds or purging them from voter rolls altogether. By comparison, exasperating them with long waits hardly seems worth the trouble.

Nonetheless, it would be useful to the proper management of future efforts of this sort if we knew what happened. Even if the delays were nothing more than the result of increased turnout in particular districts, there might be ways to prepare for such eventualities in coming contests.

And, whatever is discovered about the causes of long lines this time, we have to get rid of the electoral college. In election after election, the continued use of this relic of two-hundred-year-old political compromises disenfranchises minority voters in electorally non-competitive states and focuses campaigns on a handful of constituencies. It's past time for every citizen's vote to count equally: Big thing.

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