On television and in newspapers across the country, we saw countless photos of long lines of voters waiting to cast their ballots. This was Election 2004, both during early balloting and on Election Day. The biggest news item--long lines and long waits. In addition, voters encountered polls that opened hours late and other inadequate polling place procedures and problems with voter registration systems, provisional ballots and voting machines. At the same time, however, voter participation was higher with voter mobilization (see youth vote sidebar, p. 6) and voter protection making big contributions.
Overall, as LWVUS President Kay J. Maxwell noted, "this was far from a perfect election ... the election system showed signs of stress and voters faced real problems." In the months before Election Day trouble was brewing, and on Election Day (see sidebars on LWV pre-election HAVA survey, p. 5; election protection, p. 7; and League Election Day survey, p. 6) with so many voters turning out, serious difficulties arose that accentuated failures in the voter registration system; problems stemming from the lack of standardization of rules for casting and counting of provisional and absentee ballots; inadequate polling place procedures, including poll worker related problems; and problematic voting machine operations.
The major new issue emerging from Election 2004 is long lines. Voters stood in line for more than two hours in many jurisdictions across the country, in both battleground and non-battleground states. And, there is no count of how many voters didn't vote because of the long lines. USA Today reported that one polling place in Gambier, OH, did not close until 4 a.m. to accommodate 1,179 voters on two machines.
Factors being examined as likely causes for long lines and waits are inaccuracies in voter registration databases, not enough voting machines, poorly organized and inadequately staffed polling places, special needs arising from registration problems, and large numbers of provisional ballots being cast.
Reform of polling place operations is in order given reports of multiple lines at polling places with some lines empty or very short, while others were long. Perhaps the alphabetical division in lines needs to be adjusted based on the actual names on the rolls for a given precinct. There were numerous cases in which there were too few machines for the number of voters assigned to a particular polling place. Some have noted that long lines were seen more often in minority and student precincts than rural and suburban ones. Was this the case? If so, it is imperative that there be a thorough examination of such cases as well as all the causes for long lines. Whatever caused the long lines, asking voters to wait several hours to vote poses an unacceptable barrier to citizen participation.
Voter registration problems were evident in the months preceding Election Day. The issue of applicants not checking a box affirming citizenship, although they affirmed citizenship upon signing the form, arose in some stares including Florida, Iowa, Ohio and Washington. But the biggest problem appears to be the inaccurate voter registration databases themselves. There were questions about proper processing of applications as well as inaccurate list maintenance procedures. Some of these issues were still being resolved in late October, along with challenges regarding the eligibility of newly registered voters. The huge number of new voter registrations, a cause for celebration, nevertheless created difficulties in many states as registrars worked overtime to input new voters in time for Election Day.
By 2006, all states are required to implement statewide registration databases. The Election Assistance Commission (EAC) has made providing guidance on these databases one of its top priorities. There are serious issues that need to be resolved along the way, including privacy concerns and the interface of various databases, including those from the Department of Motor Vehicles and public assistance and disability agencies. Accurate list maintenance procedures must be implemented as well. These include timely notice to voters before removing them from the rolls and setting an early deadline for these procedures so that errors can be corrected before...