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Voting Problems Renew Efforts to Overhaul System

Election experts and activists are calling for an overhaul of the voting system after hours-long lines, machine malfunctions and other obstacles plagued polling places around the country last week and in some cases delayed the results of races for days.

Buoyed by President Barack Obama’s promise to “fix” the system in his acceptance speech, interested parties are coalescing around a campaign to retool the registration and voting process to avoid a meltdown in tight contests down the road.

Though there were no debacles reminiscent of the 2000 elections, voters in Maryland, South Carolina, Florida and a handful of other states reported waiting three hours or more to cast ballots. In southern Virginia, the waits were as long as seven hours. Media outlets called the tight U.S. Senate race before some people waiting there had voted.

“We are still in a kind of 19th-century registration system,” said Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Democracy Program at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice. “We dodged a bullet with it not being close,” he added, referring to the presidential race.

A coalition of voting rights advocates, including unions and civil rights organizations, on Monday issued a set of nine recommendations to the state of Florida, where elections were particularly chaotic.

“Clearly for a place like Florida — and other states — we are looking at early voting as a fix and tweaking the laws that exist, expanding the number of sites and the number of allocated machines,” said Judith Browne, co-director of the Advancement Project, a nonprofit dedicated to improving access for minorities. “There’s a lot of power and discretion at the local level,” she added, noting that in Florida, more than 60 election supervisors manage voting.

Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine, is working to drum up support for a bipartisan congressional commission that would draft narrowly focused legislation aimed at alleviating long lines at polling places. The temporary commission would be made up of Republican and Democratic lawmakers, election scholars and local officials.

“I don’t trust Florida to fix its own problems; I don’t trust Ohio to fix its own problems. I would like to see a federal role,” Hasen said. “I think we could achieve some bipartisan agreement. … The fight over voting has reached the public consciousness in a way it did not in 2004 and 2008.”

It is unclear whether lawmakers would embrace such a role. Congressional Republicans and secretaries of state of both parties have largely opposed moving election oversight from the states to the federal government.

There are, however, clearly problems to solve.

Floridians dealt with confusion over early voting and the misreading of ballots. A Doral, Fla., polling place opened the Sunday before Election Day and continued accepting ballots after the early voting period had ended, only to close with hundreds of people waiting in line. Complaints followed, and the polling place reopened soon after.

There were also problems on Election Day in St. Lucie County, just up the coast from Palm Beach, where GOP Rep. Allen B. West has challenged his apparent loss to Democrat Patrick Murphy. Election officials initially and erroneously reporting having a more than 100 percent turnout rate thanks to two-page ballots that were counted twice, which led to charges of widespread voting fraud.

In Arizona, election officials are still struggling to count hundreds of thousands of provisional ballots, in part because of the state’s voter identification law. As a result, the results of three congressional races were not immediately known.

As of late Tuesday, Democratic Rep. Ron Barber, who replaced former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords after winning a special election earlier this year, clung to a narrow lead over Republican Martha McSally. Advocacy groups have called on the Justice Department to investigate and have staged protests where the votes are being counted in Maricopa County.

Efforts to modernize the system have for years been blunted by partisan suspicions over motivations for change, said John Fortier, a political scientist who studies electoral institutions at the Bipartisan Policy Center. Democrats tend to focus on expanding access while Republicans are primarily concerned with voter fraud and removing ineligible voters.

“Both sides have different world views,” he said. “It’s possible we will do something at the federal level, but I think it is more likely we will do something at the state level.”

Advocates of overhauling the system, especially on the political left, support legislation that would require states to offer online voter registration, institute measures to combat deceptive practices and promote registration through early voting and same-day registration programs, which exist in almost a dozen states. But the bill, sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., has little Republican support.

Tanya Clay House, chief lobbyist for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing voter access, has already been working to revive interest in the bill but acknowledged it would be an uphill battle. At minimum, she would like to see federal action on registration.

As a model, activists point to a system developed by the Pew Center on the States, the Electronic Registration Information Center, that has been adopted by seven states: Colorado, Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, Utah, Virginia and Washington.

“Our goal is to at least have the big bill there and then to extend that. We can pull out pieces and push them through,” she said.

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