Graphic by Marshall Cohen/Medill

Graphic by Marshall Cohen/Medill

WASHINGTON — “Elections have consequences,” politicians often say, but the long lines at polling places in November have triggered a debate on voting reform that could outlast the re-elected president and his agenda.

In the wake of problems on Election Day, President Barack Obama pointed to flaws in the voting system during his victory speech and in his inaugural address. He raised the stakes at the State of the Union when he announced a presidential commission to study the issue, marking the first time in a decade that it will be addressed on the federal level.

“We must all do our part to make sure our God-given rights are protected here at home. That includes our most fundamental right as citizens: the right to vote,” Obama said on Capitol Hill last month. “When any Americans — no matter where they live or what their party — are denied that right simply because they can’t wait for five, six, seven hours just to cast their ballot, we are betraying our ideals.”

Though the November election was not burdened by systematic failures nationwide, a handful of isolated yet serious issues like long lines left many convinced the system needed reform. It won’t happen overnight. Amid partisan tension in Washington, election law experts and voting rights advocates wonder if Obama’s commission can fix flaws in the system in time for the next presidential election in 2016.

Blacks and Hispanics waited nearly twice as long in line to vote on average compared to whites, according to analysis by Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Charles Stewart III. The average voter in Florida waited for 45 minutes, and voters in Maryland, South Carolina and Virginia were not far behind.

The nonpartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration will be led by two veteran election attorneys: Bob Bauer, Obama’s former White House counsel, and Ben Ginsburg, who served as Mitt Romney’s top attorney for his two presidential bids. Bringing two top lawyers together, one from each party, could help the panel operate above partisan politics.

Over the next six months, the commission will name five more members — including election officials and customer service professionals — and search for ways to improve the efficiency of the voting process and reduce long lines. Ultimately, the commission will issue broad recommendations instead of proposing specific legislation.

Problems at the Polls

November saw its fair share of hiccups, some more serious than others. Election Protection, a coalition of voting rights groups, received more than 69,000 calls to its national voter protection hotline on Election Day, as 129 million Americans went to the polls.

Florida yet again emerged as the poster child of flawed elections.

The Republican-controlled legislature reduced early voting days in Florida from 14 to eight, a change that overworked polling place volunteers and forced early voters to wait in lines for hours. A few counties opened precincts on extra days so voters could submit absentee ballots, but the last-ditch effort was quickly overwhelmed and forced to shut down.

Problems continued on Election Day. The polls closed in Florida at 7 p.m., but many were still in line at Miami-Dade County precincts, some until 1 a.m. More than 200,000 Florida residents may have given up on voting because of the long lines throughout the day, according to an analysis by the Orlando Sentinel in conjunction with Ohio State University.

Obama highlighted the problem by inviting Desiline Victor to his State of the Union address in Washington. Victor, a 102-year-old Miami resident, waited for hours to cast her ballot.

Long lines were reported in other counties in other states across the country, including South Carolina where turnout records were shattered and some voters waited more than two hours to cast their ballots. Wait times exceeded 30 minutes in Maryland and 25 minutes in Virginia, according to a Pew study. Almost two-thirds of voters stood in line at least briefly, a higher rate than in 2008.

“When voters did have to wait a long time, they ended up having to wait a really long time,” said Stewart, the MIT professor who researched voting lines.

The states with the longest lines last year also had the longest lines in 2008, Stewart said. Excessive wait times, which affected five to 10 percent of voters, were largely caused by a lack of resources or technical glitches in precincts.

Critics on Both Sides

Although both parties agree there are shortcomings in the voting system, the commission has already come under fire from liberals and conservatives alike.

GOP lawmakers have criticized it as federal overreach, arguing that state and local election officials should handle the issue as they have in the past. More outspoken conservatives have accused Obama of trying to change the country’s voting system to benefit the Democratic Party.

“I don’t think we need a commission,” Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., said. “I haven’t spent much time investigating the issue but if you compare our long lines to other countries, the definition of long lines are relative.”

On the other end of the spectrum, voting rights advocates have said the commission is not a bold enough step toward improving what they call a broken election system. Elisabeth MacNamara, president of the League of Women Voters, said that the commission’s focus on Election Day problems — rather than systemic issues such as expanding voter registration accessibility — would not lead to meaningful reform.

“We saw an opportunity after the president had many such ringing statements identifying this as an issue,” MacNamara said. “To then have a commission that’s going to be operating for six months and not looking at the root causes of the problem is very disappointing to us.”

Still, some advocates say the commission is part of an important national dialogue and could pave way for meaningful electoral reform in the future. However, details of the U.S. voting system are complex and finding common-sense solutions might be easier said than done.

Legislative Efforts

After the controversial 2000 presidential election recount in Florida, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, which authorized more than $3 billion to create new national standards for administering elections and to help states improve their procedures.

Parts of the law — such as phasing out old cards and lever-based machines for new models — have proved successful. It also required states to purchase voting equipment that allowed voters to review their selections before finalizing their ballot.

Other portions of the law have been less productive, like the new U.S. Election Assistance Commission, which serves as the national clearinghouse of information on election procedures, Republicans have blocked all four commissioner positions since December 2011 in protest of federal involvement in the voting system, an issue traditionally handled by states.

Lawmakers have offered a handful of bills to address these issues. Most of them didn’t gain much traction and died when the last congressional session ended. In the aftermath these unsuccessful attempts, analysts say that the commission’s recommendations may face similar opposition.

“It has a relatively modest goal to provide practices to try to get states and localities to implement them,” said Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine. “But I expect there will be some resistance in some places who feel that the federal government shouldn’t be telling the states and localities how to run their elections.”

House Democrats previously proposed a bill requiring every state to make early voting available for 15 days before the election. The practice, which varies by state, is designed to increase participation in elections, while reducing Election Day congestion at polling stations.

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a civil rights icon, introduced the Voter Empowerment Act in January. His legislation would allow online voter registration, require same-day registration and create new training programs for poll workers. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., plans to introduce a companion bill in the Senate in the coming weeks.

“It will be a comprehensive approach about how to end long lines, how to fix the voter registration problem and make sure Americans get to exercise the right to vote,” Gillibrand said

Other proposals offer incentives for states to independently take action to reduce waiting times and make voting more accessible. Simplifying registration and reducing bureaucracy in elections could disproportionately benefit groups that tend to support Democrats — low-propensity voters such as minorities and the working poor.

The Road Ahead

As the president’s commission begins its work, its bipartisan leadership may be its strongest attribute. Ahead of the 2012 election, the voting rights debate turned political when several Republican-led state legislatures passed voter ID laws that, Democrats asserted, sought to discourage liberal-leaning voters such as students and minorities from casting ballots.

Voter ID bills are still pending in 24 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. New initiatives are also aiming to have voters verify their citizenship and to curb registration drives, proposals that sparked controversy in last year’s election.

But a desire to reform the voting system is not unique to one political party, experts say.

“There’s been a conflation of election reform with partisan politics,” said Jonathan Brater of the Brennan Center for Justice, a New York-based public policy institute that focuses on promoting voting rights. “What we see now is both parties sort of put that aside to improve the process.”

States will be most receptive to the commission’s ideas if its recommendations are information-driven, said David Becker, director of the election initiatives project at the Pew Charitable Trusts.

“If the commission does focus in a very non-ideological, bipartisan way to look at hard data where the solutions may be, I think they’ll find the states are ready to listen,” Becker said.