“Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote.” ~ President Barak Obama, Inauguration Speech, January 21, 2013
When President Obama repeated his election night remark that the nation needs to solve the problem of long lines at the polls in his inauguration speech today, I could hear the collective rolling of eyeballs by election officials across the country. Every election administrator, at one time or another, has received complaints from voters about the length of time it takes to vote and the frustration engendered by waiting in a line to vote. Old news, right? Based upon the President’s comments and pundit commentary, lines at the polls have become new news and a likely subject of federal debate and legislation. I believe that this is unfortunate but not for the reasons one may expect.
I have come to conclude that there are really two issues here. The first issue is the perception that voting is slow and lines are long. The second issue is the reality that long lines routinely disenfranchise voters who can’t or don’t choose to wait in lines. Election officials tend to frame the issue as the former and voters, interest groups and parties frame it as the latter issue. Paradoxically, both perspectives are accurate; part of the problem is perception and part of the problem is reality. Lines at the polls are another textbook case of the introduction of ambiguity into the outcomes of an election.
The persistence of complaints about waiting in lines to vote, across time and jurisdictions, has it origin in three sources: 1) the paradoxical perspectives on the nature of the problem and official tone deafness to the issue, 2) the inability to measure and quantify what constitutes a line and what constitutes an unreasonable wait, and 3) the failure to recognize that the problem is adaptive and systemic and not a technical problem with a technical solution.