Call it the sentence that spawned a thousand ideas for election reform. When President Obama stood on stage in Chicago last month delivering his victory speech, he thanked the millions of Americans who cast their ballots on Election Day. He especially noted those who “waited in line for a very long time” just to vote. “By the way,” he added, “we have to fix that.” There’s a lot to fix. Reports from diverse parts of the country detailed all sorts of problems at polling places. Ballots were misprinted, poll workers were unclear about certain laws or regulations and long lines greeted many voters at the polls.
In some parts of Virginia, voters reported waiting as long as four hours to cast their ballots. Florida was worse. Some voters in Miami encountered lines seven hours long, according to local news accounts. Florida’s secretary of state, Ken Detzner, promised to dispatch staff on “fact-finding” trips to areas that saw long lines, failed ballot counts and other malfunctions.
As soon as Obama called for change, election reform advocates saw an opportunity. The president was vowing to address a long-standing flaw in the American voting system, just after a campaign year that saw more focus on election administration than any before it. The country’s haphazard way of casting ballots was finally on Washington’s agenda.
But the opportunity for change also comes at a time when Washington’s authority over the states – and in particular over state election law – is under increasing fire. Some see an expanded federal role as the best path forward, while others are vehemently against it. How those differences are resolved will determine the shape of election administration throughout the country for years to come.