No One in America Should Have to Wait 7 Hours to Vote

What's happening at polling stations in Ohio and Florida isn't some fluke of nature or breakdown in equipment. It's all part of a partisan design. 

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A line of early voters snakes around a parking lot at a voting location in Columbus, Ohio. (Michael Finnegan/Twitter)

No matter who wins the presidential race, no matter which party controls Congress, can we at least agree as reasonable adults that when it comes to voting itself the election of 2012 is a national disgrace? We ask our sons and daughters, our husbands and wives, to give their lives abroad for noble concepts like "freedom" and "democracy." And yet we are content as a nation, and as a people, to tolerate another cycle of election rules that require our fellow citizens to sacrifice a measure of basic human dignity simply to exercise their right to vote.

For example, what happened this weekend in Florida is simply unacceptable. According to a local election official interviewed by CBS News' Phil Hirschkorn, the last "early voter" in line for Saturday's truncated early voting in Palm Beach County finally got to cast a ballot at 2:30 a.m Sunday morning, which means that voter waited in line for more than seven hours. In Miami, another traditional Democratic stronghold, the wait was said to be nearly as long. On Sunday, voters all over the state were begging judges and county officials for more time to vote.

This is happening not because of a natural disaster or breakdown in machinery. It is happening by partisan design. Alarmed by the strong Democratic turnout in early voting in 2008, Republican lawmakers, including Governor Rick Scott, reduced the number of early voting days from 14 to eight. When the restrictions were challenged in federal court under the Voting Rights Act, a three-judge panel said they would have a discriminatory impact upon minority voters. But only five of the state's 67 counties are covered by the federal civil rights law.

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When the remaining restrictions were challenged in federal court, a George W. Bush appointee said there was no proof that the reduced hours would "impermissibly burden" minority voters. How many hours in line must a Florida voter wait before the burden upon her becomes an "impermissible" one? If Florida's election officials, and its Republican lawmakers, and its state and federal judges, all were required to stand in line for seven hours to vote those long lines would go away forever. You know it, I know it, and so do those officials.

How about Ohio, another "battleground" state governed by partisan fiat. Its election rules are administered by a secretary of state, Jon Husted, who just a few years ago was the GOP speaker of the state house. Like their counterparts in Florida, Ohio's Republican lawmakers sought to restrict wildly popular early-voting hours around the state. And again the federal courts blunted the impact of their new rules. So what has Husted done? He's focused his energy this weekend ginning up ways to justify discarding provisional ballots cast by his fellow citizens.

These are just two recent examples. There are more. But they all have a few core things in common. In each instance, elected officials are making it harder for American citizens to vote and to have their votes counted. And in each instance, the partisan restrictions are designed to impact the elderly, and the poor, and students. The Constitution gives power to the states to handle elections. But what we are seeing is one party's systemic abuse of that power to disenfranchise likely voters of another party. Don't believe me? Let's go to the videotape.

There is no hidden agenda here. The strategy and tactics are as far out in the open as those voters standing in line for hours waiting for their turn to vote.

In Pennsylvania, House Majority Leader Mike Turzai was caught on tape this summer boasting about his colleagues' success: "... First pro-life legislation -- abortion facility regulations -- in 22 years, done. Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done." In Ohio, the Republican Party chairman of Franklin County, which includes Columbus, was even more blunt. Doug Preisse said, "I guess I really actually feel we shouldn't contort the voting process to accommodate the urban -- read African-American -- voter turnout machine."

There is no hidden agenda here. The strategy and tactics are as far out in the open as those voters standing in line for hours waiting for their turn to vote. This transparency -- of motive and of evidence -- is also what distinguishes the complaints that Democrats have about Republican tricks on voting from Republican complaints about Democratic tricks on voting. Widespread "in-person" voter fraud or voting by illegal immigrants exists mostly in the minds of conspiracy theorists. Yet proof of voter suppression is visible to all of us with the naked eye. All we have to do is look. There is no political equivalence here -- only more lamentable false equivalence

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Indeed, we are all complicit in a regime which forces our fellow citizens to endure those long lines. We are all to blame for allowing men like Jon Husted to determine which Ohioans will have their ballots counted and which will not. We who have the luxury of voting early by mail or who can pop into a polling station on Election Day, who are accustomed to not standing long for anything -- we do nothing about these voter lines even though they are the most visible proof today that America is still terribly divided by race and by class.

In America in 2012, poor people and elderly people and students should not have to wait seven hours to vote. They should not be restricted in this fashion by elected officials who justify the hardships they impart upon black voters by calling those voters "lazy." By allowing this ugliness to endure, year after year, election after election, we don't just subvert our own democracy. We preclude ourselves from turning to the world and proclaiming that we respect the value of a single vote and the dignity of a single voter. We don't practice what we preach.

And we ought to be talking about things now, before Tuesday, because when it's all over no one will care until the next election cycle, at which point it will likely be too late. Don't want to switch Election Day to a Saturday? Fine. Don't want to make it a national holiday? Fine. But doing nothing after the election of 2012 is not an honorable option. What's happening in these states is conclusive proof that America failed to solve the fundamental problems we all saw play out in Florida during the recount of 2000. That's just not good enough.

I asked election-law specialist Rick Hasen, who wrote the book about all of this, for his view on the eve of another dubious election. He told me: "We need national nonpartisan election administration -- one that would pick rules that would allow all eligible voters, but only eligible voters, a fair chance to cast a ballot which will be accurately counted. It is national urgency but I don't see it happening any time soon. If Florida 2000 was not enough of a wake-up call, it is hard to imagine how much worse things would have to get before they get better."

But let us begin. Congress ought to pass a "Voters' Rights Act," which guarantees a mail-in option and ensures significant early-voting hours for 10 days before a federal election. That would give working people -- you know, the real "middle class" -- four full days over two weekends to cast their ballot. Congress also ought to expand the scope of the Voting Rights Act, the venerable civil-rights statute, to force local election officials everywhere in America (and not just in Southern jurisdictions) to justify restrictions on voting rights.

And the next president, whoever he is, ought to quickly empanel another Commission on Federal Election Reform to investigate these partisan state schemes and recommend ways to achieve meaningful reform. Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor should head that commission. And former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald should head up its investigative functions. 


But I won't hold my breath. If I'm around in 2016 I bet I'll be complaining about the same injustices. In my lifetime, little has changed in America but the forms of indignity we all seem to tolerate when it comes to another man's right to vote.

Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project


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