On the Voter Experience

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(Photo: Blend Images/Hill Street Studios/Getty)

I like to vote. It’s very satisfying when I hit that final button and my voice is heard. And I always think my vote matters, even when there’s a huge gap between the winner and loser. But it’s not always an easy or convenient process, as I found out June 5 in Jersey City, New Jersey.

I have voted all my adult life, casting my first presidential ballot in 1976 in New York City. I loved the swish of the curtains and the clank of the old lever machine as it registered my views. I relished the camaraderie of a community activity, though the lines were rarely long; only later in life did I realize that not everybody who could vote did so.

So on this past primary day, I headed out to vote at 6 a.m. before going to work. I was first in line at my polling place in our local public housing development, but at opening time they were not ready for me. They were still setting up, the voter registration books had not yet been delivered, the touch-screen machines were not yet assembled, and a window blind fell down when a volunteer went to open it.

The two volunteers were cheerful, however, and called election central to locate the errant voting rolls. No luck. The line of five of us waiting to vote now included one in pajamas. The volunteers suggested I come back later, but I had an evening commitment, so I waited.

And I wondered how many other voting places around New Jersey or elsewhere were also unready. How many voters would have to leave to get their kids to day care or school, or go to work or otherwise get on with their lives? How many wouldn’t come back? And how will it work in November?

The Caltech/MIT Voting Tech Project, funded in part by Carnegie Corporation of New York, has been working since 2001 to prevent a recurrence of the problems that threatened the 2000 presidential election. After studying all aspects of the election process here and abroad, writing eight books and scores of academic and working papers, one of the project’s leaders, R. Michael Alvarez, observed recently that Estonia now has a more reliable voting system than we do.

This is not encouraging. He said persistent voting-place problems mean a close presidential race this November and could produce contested results in several key states, including Florida (long lines), North Carolina (new voter ID requirements and restrictions on advance voting), Ohio (provisional ballot difficulties) and Virginia (restrictive voter requirements and aging voting machines).

In the United States, we talk a lot about democracy (we are the greatest), elections (we have many), and the importance of voting, although our voter participation rate is among the lowest of all industrialized countries — and New Jersey’s rate is near the bottom among states (39th in 2012). I get it: elections are only periodic, so they are poorly financed, often held in dismal venues like my polling place, using a volunteer workforce that is aging and not technologically advanced.

But why does any suggestion to ease voting get resistance from most elected officials? Fraud, it has been repeatedly proven, is really very rare. New Jersey modernized the motor vehicle agency experience for drivers, but last year Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a law that would have required automatic voter registration for everyone renewing or applying for a driver’s license unless they opt out.

It would be nice to have a better voter experience. The bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration recommended expanding online registration, cooperation among states on voter list accuracy, and offering many ways and places to vote before Election Day. It called for reforms to standards and certification for new voting technology to address aging voting machines and encourage innovation, and raising poll place efficiency with more training for poll workers, among other changes.

After a 25-minute wait, I was finally able to vote in New Jersey’s June 5 primary. It was very satisfying to touch that screen and press the vote button. But I was lucky. I had the time to wait, and things eventually worked. I wonder how many other voters didn’t make it?

The author is director of the Strengthening U.S. Democracy Program at Carnegie Corporation of New York.