By Barbara Arnwine
Executive Director and President, The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law
From the perspective of the command center at the voting-rights coalition Election Protection, last week's election was the story of a system badly in need of reform - of voters who did everything right but were turned away due to registration problems; of rights being deliberately misconstrued or obstructed; and of hours and hours of waiting.
Call after call came in to our hotline - more than 89,000 on Election Day alone - from confused and concerned voters. Voting machines were jamming in Ohio, and ballots were being stored in boxes marked "provisional." Pennsylvanians were being wrongly turned away for lack of government-issued photo identification, even though the voter-ID law was not in effect. North Carolina voters were told that voting for one party would be held on Wednesday instead of Tuesday.
Unthinkably long lines were commonplace - in some places, scandalous. The last vote in Fairfax County, Va., was cast 3 1/2 hours after the polls officially closed. Faulty machines, ballot shortages, registration errors, poorly trained poll workers, and overwhelming demand were to blame - no doubt deterring thousands from voting.
Yes, there were situations we could not have planned for. Hurricane Sandy's devastation in the Northeast left states scrambling for ways to allow people to vote. But the storm's impact was compounded by the fact that these states have very limited early voting options and deeply flawed voter registration systems.
States such as Ohio and Florida not only did an insufficient job preparing for Election Day; they made the problem worse by restricting early voting options. In Pennsylvania and other states, meanwhile, legislation requiring voters to present government-issued photo ID created unnecessary hurdles and widespread confusion.
We also saw voters with incredible determination and patience, boards of elections that responded quickly to reports of inefficiencies, and volunteers who offered their time and expertise to help break down barriers and clear up confusion.
But the United States is the world's leading democracy. Our elections should be free, fair, and accessible to all eligible Americans - not something we accomplish against the odds. And our elected officials should be passing legislation that makes it easier for citizens to cast ballots, not harder.
In his victory speech last week, President Obama paused briefly to mention voting problems. "I want to thank every American who participated in this election," he said, "whether you voted for the very first time or waited in line for a very long time - by the way, we have to fix that."
Let's all take that to heart, whomever we voted for, and become champions of a secure and accessible voting process for all Americans. Voting reform is long overdue, and the timing couldn't be better, with a reenergized administration and a new Congress taking office. We need a bipartisan effort to look closely at our election infrastructure and make some big, important changes.
We need to bring voting and registration into the 21st century, taking full advantage of the technology available. Registration systems shouldn't rely on paper, registration should be permanent, and early voting should be an accessible option in every state. We can't afford to mar another election with insufficient preparation, legislative obstacles, and antiquated registration systems.
In other words, yes, Mr. President, we need to fix that.