The worst-run government program in America is Election Day

If someone can sign up for health insurance on Healthcare.gov as easily as he or she can cast a vote, the website will still be an embarrassment.

Voter ID laws can be as frustrating and time-consuming as anything related to Obamacare, as noted in an earlier post about the problems for some married women in Texas with driver’s licenses that don’t exactly match their other forms of ID. (Also see the National Conference of State Legislatures’ roundup of the different voter laws in each state, and a separate site for the different registration deadlines in each state.)

Now a report by the Advancement Project details a “Time Tax” in the form of long voting lines in areas with high numbers of minority and young voters. Think Progress’s Josh Israel flags the report and notes that some voters in strongly contested states like Florida and Virginia had to wait more than five hours to cast ballots last November:

[…] while strict voter photo ID laws and other voter suppression techniques made it harder for minorities and young people to vote at all, the report found that they had to bear some of the longest lines of anyone, especially in those two states. Nationally, African Americans waited 23 minutes to vote on average, Latinos 19 minutes, and White voters just 12 minutes. In Miami-Dade, Florida, the polls had to remain open for an average of 73 minutes past closing to accommodate all of the voters still in line—but the closing times were latest in the precincts with the most voters under age 30.

It’s nearly impossible to eliminate long lines in urban areas, especially if they are growing in population, and it can be tough to predict turnout among younger voters. The “time tax” is never going to be zero on Election Day, but the principle of equal voting rights means that the federal government should assist municipalities in ensuring adequate polling places in areas that constantly suffer from unusually long lines.

Another possible solution is early voting, but the major parties don’t agree on the desirability of this reform. For example, Wisconsin Republicans are trying to put a stop to voting on weekends, even as other groups say moving Election Day(s) to the weekend would be more convenient for everyone. The Washington Postreported last week:

Voters in Wisconsin would have less time to cast early ballots under a proposed bill that passed the Wisconsin Assembly on Thursday, the latest move in a nationwide string of Republican-led efforts to tighten voting rules.

The measure would require county clerks to limit early voting to 40 hours per week, between 7:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. It would end weekend early voting hours, which Democrats have used to turn out the vote in heavily urban areas such as Milwaukee and Madison.

One of the sponsors of the bill, Sen. Glenn Grothman, essentially told MSNBC that people should quit asking for a more consumer-friendly voting system:

“Between [early voting], mail absentee, and voting the day of election, you know, I mean anybody who can’t vote with all those options, they’ve really got a problem,” he said. “I really don’t think they care that much about voting in the first place, right?”

(Florida state senator Mike Bennett, quoted in The New Republic in 2012, went further in his belief that the government shouldn’t kowtow to the people when it comes to running elections: “I want the people in the state of Florida to want to vote as bad as that person in Africa who is willing to walk two hundred miles for that opportunity he’s never had before in his life. This should not be easy.” Does he feel the same way about gun permits?)

There is some skepticism about how well early voting works. In September the Pew Research Institute summarized a report concluding that states with early voting are associated with lower overall turnout:

Why should turnout go down when people are allowed to vote early—and why do more people cast ballots in states that permit people to register and vote on Election Day?

These researchers say it’s because early voting robs “Election Day of its stimulating effects,” reducing social pressure to vote and gives less reason for campaigns to motivate their supporters and get them to the polls.

Voters are less motivated to cast ballots because early voting has the effect of “dissipating the energy of Election Day over a longer period of time….[S]ocial pressure is less evident, guidance on how or where to vote is less handy, and the prospect of social interactions at the polls is decreased,” they wrote.

This report seems to vindicate the idea that people get more apathetic about elections when they’re divorced from a secular holiday celebrating the rites of democracy. (The study did not consider mail-in voting systems.) For this reason, it explicitly endorses same-day voter registration, noting that Election Day is “abuzz with discussion, media coverage, and last-minute contacts from parties and candidates” that can motivate first-time candidates (which is exactly why many Republicans, who don’t rely so much on younger voters, hate it).

It’s also possible that early voting can work if it’s accompanied by the same social pressure to vote as is applied on Election Day. “Souls to the Polls” is term for the practice of many African-American churches that help parishioners vote after Sunday services. This tradition is threatened in North Carolina by a new law, that among other things, bans voting on the Sabbath. (The law is now being challenged by the U.S. Justice Department, as well as the state’s Democratic attorney general.) The Nation’s Ari Berman reported on the law in April:

New legislation would reduce the early voting period in North Carolina from two-and-a-half weeks to just one week and would eliminate voting on the last Sunday of early voting, when African-American churches hold “Souls to the Polls” get-out-the-vote drives. The legislation would also limit early voting locations to one site per county, which is a recipe for much longer lines. In Charlotte’s Mecklenburg County, for example, there were 22 early voting locations in 2012.

Fifty-six percent of North Carolinians voted early during the 2012 election. Blacks used early voting at a higher rate than whites, comprising a majority of those who voted absentee or early. According to Public Policy Polling, 78 percent of North Carolinians support the current early voting system and 75 percent have used it in the past.

When it comes to election law, the United States has a patchwork of rules and regulations that are constantly changing and often fly against constituents’ wishes. Forms are often badly designed, as noted by Next City: "shoddy design helped explain why a full quarter of the million-plus New Yorkers who voted for mayor didn’t vote for even one of the six measures on the ballot’s back side." People moving from one jurisdiction to another often face unfamiliar requirements (“deadline shock”) in order to exercise a constitutional right, and many local governments show a lack of concern when residents have to spend hours on what should be a simple task. Can we spare some outrage for this debacle?

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