By MARSHA MERCER
At 10 a.m. on the first day of early voting in Florida last October, Desiline Victor showed up at her polling place in North Miami. The wait to vote was estimated at six hours.
Other voters might have left immediately, but Ms. Victor, 102, stood in line for three hours. A poll worker then suggested she come back that night. Ms. Victor did, and when she finally put on her “I voted” sticker, people cheered.
The nation cheered when President Barack Obama told Victor’s story last week as she sat with first lady Michelle Obama at the State of the Union address.
“When any American – no matter where they live or what their party – are denied that right simply because they can’t afford to wait for five or six or seven hours just to cast their ballot, we are betraying our ideals,” Obama declared.
In his inaugural address, the president also decried long lines at polling places: “Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote,” he said.
Perhaps it’s a sign of the impatience of our times that the president has declared war on waiting.
No one should have to wait for hours to vote, but that is hardly a poll tax or literacy test. Every state should have no-excuse early and absentee voting.
Yet long lines are just one strand in a tangle of impediments to voting. Recently passed state voter ID laws can discourage and even suppress the vote.
To improve “the voting experience in America,” the president announced a bipartisan commission. Ho hum. In Washington, commissions are where good ideas go to die.
In a memorable line from Charles P. Pierce in Esquire’s politics blog: “A bipartisan commission is the Washington policy equivalent of a sock drawer.”
The League of Women Voters said it was “surprised and disappointed.”
“Setting up a commission is not a bold step; it is business as usual,” the league said in a statement.
Besides, while lines were long in a few polling places, especially in Florida, most voters did not endure long waits.
One poll found 83 percent of voters either didn’t wait at all or waited less than 30 minutes to vote last November, about the same percentage as in 2004 and 2000. Nearly three in four voters said the voting process in their area was managed very well, the Pew Research Center also reported.
Long lines both during early voting and on Election Day were just one problem in 2012 identified by Caltech-MIT’s Voting Technology Project, which evaluates the election process.
Researchers called on state and local officials to improve voter registration so fewer provisional ballots are needed and to make contingency plans for voting after a disruption like Hurricane Sandy.
Obama didn’t comment on those proposals or on Democratic efforts in Congress to reform the voting system or on a challenge to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that has reached the Supreme Court.
The court will hear oral argument Feb. 27 in a case from Alabama on whether the Voting Rights Act is still needed. Section 5 of the law requires some states and jurisdictions, mostly in the South, to have state voting law changes pre-approved by the U.S. Justice Department.
At issue is whether Congress exceeded its constitutional authority in 2006 when it reauthorized Section 5 for 25 years. Officials in Shelby County, Ala., argue that the law exacts a “heavy, unprecedented federalism cost” on covered states and localities as they have to prove to the federal government that changes do not undermine minority voting rights.
The Justice Department, defending the law, argues Section 5 has blocked more than 2,400 discriminatory voting changes since 1982. Absent Section 5, it would have been necessary to go to court on a case by case basis, “a system that would have resulted in years of discriminatory treatment of minority voters and required an enormous expenditure of resources on all sides,” it says.
Some court watchers predict that the Supreme Court will strike down Section 5 before summer. That puts waiting to cast a vote in a new light.
© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.