While President Obama was delivering his victory speech in the early hours of Wednesday, Nov. 7, people were still standing in line in Florida to vote. Thousands had waited hours to vote in New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio, some in the cold, some giving up wages to do so. In a spontaneous aside — “by the way, we have to fix that” — the president acknowledged the unnecessary hardship of casting a vote in the United States and established a goal that he now has an obligation to address.
Congress can play a role. It has the power to establish a nonpartisan federal elections board to maintain a national registration database, mandate the choice of voting machines and set standards for counting provisional ballots. A federal law, such as those proposed by Representatives George Miller of California and John Lewis of Georgia, could require a clear early-voting period, removing the issue as a political football in states like Florida and Ohio, and standards for absentee voting.
Congress also can provide financial incentives to the states to do the job right. A bill introduced recently by Senator Christopher Coons, a Democrat of Delaware, would give grants to states that make registration easy, including allowing same-day registration; allow early voting; require no excuses for voting absentee; properly train poll workers; and provide sufficient polling places.
But states don’t have to wait for a resolution to the inevitable partisan struggles over these bills. Seventeen states already send electronic registration data from motor vehicle departments to election agencies, and 10 allow people to register online. These paperless systems have the potential to enroll significantly more people.
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