Election Day, Cleveland, Ohio 2004. I participated in an election observation trip for the newly established U.S. Election Assistance Commission, travelling around Cuyahoga County, Ohio, from dawn until dusk. The goal was to observe as many different kinds of polling places as possible—more than a dozen locations that spanned Cleveland’s diverse neighborhoods. One polling place in particular sticks out in my mind as emblematic of the difficulties that we faced, then and now, in improving election administration. It was in a location in the east side of Cleveland—one with a higher percentage of African-American voters. Rain had started to fall, and while the line was long when we arrived—just before the lunchtime rush—it grew, snaking around the block so that the entrance to the polling place was no longer visible at the end of the line. What was the problem? After observing the polling place and talking to some of the frustrated poll workers, the answer soon became clear. More than half of the voting stations—where voters were allowed to complete their ballots—were not set up and sat abandoned at the corner of the room. The chief poll worker saw that there was a greater number of voting system plugs compared to the electrical outlets in the polling place, and believed they only had power to assemble half of the machines. Sadly, no-one recognized that: (a) the voting machines could be plugged, one into the other, ‘daisy chain’ style and (b) that because the system of voting was the last of the ‘punch card’ system—the purpose of the electricity was not to ‘power’ the machine, but to operate the light on the top of a movable, privacy-enhanced portable table.
These problems were not intractable. The first element of the problem could’ve been solved by clear instructions, better pollworker training, or clearly labeled election equipment. The second element of the problem could’ve been solved by ensuring that the polling booths were more closely placed near the ample windows in the polling place, using backup, battery powered lights, or asking voters to cope with the existing light inside the facility. There was no apparent effort to suppress the vote at that polling place—there was just poor education, poorly designed election equipment, and limited ‘fail-safes’ built into the system to fix the problem once it had been identified. If it could be identified.
Some have asked: what’s the harm with long lines? Isn’t democracy worth waiting for? Sure, and we all should be willing to put up with some level of inconvenience in order to cast our votes. No-one should expect voting to be instantaneous, but it is also unreasonable to suggest that voters must undergo a ‘red badge of courage’ –extreme personal inconvenience while waiting in line—in order to prove their patriotism. Many working men and women do not have schedules that allow them to wait for hours to vote.