Talk continues about voters having to wait in lines for long periods during the November election. Comments in Chesterfield about estimated wait times range from 50 minutes to two hours. Many are pondering what to do to shorten or eliminate lines altogether.
In the General Assembly and Congress there are bills aimed at lines on Election Day: At least one bill will “demand” guarantees that voters will not have to wait beyond a certain amount of time in line to vote. Despite what our elected officials may want or demand, no guarantee of long-line-free voting can be given.
What are the factors leading to voter lines? First are the voters themselves. Consider turnout in a presidential election year versus the other three years of the four-year election cycle. Presidential election years produce a turnout of approximately 75 percent of registered voters. Where are the voters in gubernatorial elections? About a 50 percent turnout. In congressional elections? About a 40 percent turnout. In local elections? About a 25 percent.
Voters who only show up only in presidential election years contribute to the slowdown in the voting process because they do not remember how to vote. The presidential-only voters go to the wrong precinct; they are baffled by the equipment and confused by the ballot. And last November, voters faced the challenge of the decennial redistricting changes that makes the scenario more complicated.
The ballot played a role, too. Lines in November were lengthened by voters having to read the text for two proposed state constitutional amendments — creating delays of up to five minutes per voter. Despite publication of these two amendments, the voters by and large were not prepared. Yet, no proposal has been heard to exclude text-intensive issues from ballots in presidential elections.
Instead we have heard about possible “solutions” such as early voting, more precincts, more equipment or transitioning to optical scan voting. The line problem is not about a shortage of anything. Rather, it is unique to a presidential election, when there is a significant increase in the turnout of voters, albeit expected, all of whom are seeking to use a finite number of stations to cast a ballot. None of the so-called solutions will even touch this problem of presidential election-year voter lines.
There is only one solution to long voter lines: Vote by mail.
Consider a few of the popular suggestions and why they will not solve the line problem.
Early voting/early vote centers: Early voting would be new to Virginia and would eliminate the “reason” now required to vote absentee. But, this early voting will not solve the voter line issue — it will only expand it. For absentee voting in the 2012 election, there were days when it was an hour or more wait to vote absentee in the registrar’s office in Chesterfield County. This does not seem to be a solution. And lines on Election Day are still likely.
Another problem is that no one is willing to pay the price for early voting. Many proponents say that polling place resources can be reduced based on the number of voters who vote early and thus money can be saved by early voting. Those who say that, and many of them are elected officials, have absolutely no idea how an election is run.
Resources for polling places are not committed the night before the election. Those decisions begin in the July/August timeframe prior to the election and are usually completed, or near completion, by mid-October, three to four weeks prior to Election Day. Early voting, as proposed, would significantly increase, not decrease, the cost of elections because additional resources would be needed without reducing polling place standards.
Early vote centers are locations where registered voters from multiple precincts may go to one location to vote. Careful attention must be given to the potential total number of voters converging on a single location, creating concerns about parking and space. Vote centers are good ideas in that they minimize needed resources and can save significant money when they are used on Election Day. But early vote centers, like early voting in general, will only move lines from the polling place to the vote center. For example, in North Carolina early vote center officials have reported three-hour waits in lines to vote during presidential years.
More precincts: What is a manageable size for a precinct? Suppose there are only 500 people in a precinct but they all come at roughly the same time. In 2008, there were precincts with 500 voters in line when they opened. This being the case, lots of money could be spent on additional polling places and there would still be lines! (The cost to open a new polling place is $25,000.)
More equipment: How much voting equipment is enough? Having to find locations to vote is no easy task, but schools, churches, community centers, libraries and fire stations all have finite amounts of space for voting. Complexities in voting and changes in laws — such as allowing more candidate observers — all consume space. Short of a one-to-one relationship between voter and machine, there will always be voters waiting in a presidential election year.
Optical scan is a great voting system and the one used in Chesterfield County. It does add another step beyond a touch screen: inserting the ballot into the counter. So the optical scan system does not reduce lines, but actually adds another line.
With none of these popular suggestions offering hope of success in eliminating or reducing lines, consider vote by mail, which solves many problems that can affect voters and election officials, including those related to long lines, parking, accessibility, ID issues, provisional ballots, training, officer of election recruitment, as well as concerns about the number of ballots, political observers, absentee voting, poll books, electricity, weather, security, the number of voting machines and machine malfunctions — and on and on.
From the fiscal perspective, vote by mail will cost no more than is currently spent — and will probably cost less. Consider a scenario where every registered active voter is mailed a ballot 30 to 45 days before the election and is given the option to return it by mail or at specified drop-off locations around the locality. The voters vote in their own private space, not having to travel to a traditional polling place. Vote by mail has been used by Oregon for many years and is a proven model to study. Other western states are adopting this concept because of the rising costs and difficulties of elections.
Would there be new problems with vote by mail? Undoubtedly. But let’s not let “perfect” be the enemy of “better.” Given all the problems it solves, vote by mail has got to be better than what we are doing. Vote by mail should receive serious consideration, and it is the only way to avoid people standing in line to vote.
Lawrence C. Haake III is general registrar of Chesterfield County. Contact him at HaakeL@chesterfield.gov.