Next Election Goal: Shorter Lines
Tuesday was the first major election in Travis County with the “vote center” system that allows people to vote at any county polling location on election day. Even with that convenience, some polling places reported people waiting in line a couple of hours on election night to vote.
Indeed, long lines at polls across the country were the stars Tuesday night, from polls that closed after midnight in Florida, to backups in Austin, to a mention by President Obama during his victory speech.
“Whether you voted for the very first time. Or waited in line for a very long time,” he said. “By the way, we have to fix that.”
Any fixes are going to have to start at the local level, where county election officers have the best view of what’s working, what’s not, and what changes can be made.
“I always think we can do better,” Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said. “There’s always room for improvement.”
Election Day in Travis County came and went with minimal problems. DeBeauvoir says computer systems worked and the worst line was less than two hours long. That’s not bad considering that the county was using the new vote center system for the first time on an election day with high turnout. DeBeauvoir says the goal now is to make the system work better.
“One of the things that we want to be able to do is to tell people before they show up at some place, try to avoid this vote center, go to another one,” she said.
The county used Twitter to warn of long lines and shorter alternatives this year. DeBeauvoir would like to use social media more effectively next time. She also wants to better utilize poll workers to monitor and report lines.
“Since we’re already on the line with our election judges anyway, mostly with all of the provisional ballots, I was hoping that they could tell us in the course of doing daily business with them what their status of the line was,” she said. “We may or may not be able to make that work smoothly. But we got to debrief our judges and find out how that works.”
But the math behind long lines is more than just number of people divided by number of voting booths. Registration errors can often lead to long arguments with poll workers and longer waits for everyone else in line. Myrna Perez with the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan public policy institute, says having a robust online system that allows people and poll workers to check voter registration information would help solve several of the common problems that knock someone off the voter rolls.
“One may be that there may have been typos in the voter registration rolls so people couldn’t actually find their names even though some variation of their names were on there,” Perez said. “Some may have been because timely registrations applications weren’t processed even though they may have been submitted in time.”
Texas Secretary of State Hope Andrade has pushed the state’s 12-day early voting period as a way to avoid those surprises.
“The state and local election officials are committed to making sure that every voter has an opportunity to vote,” Andrade said. “So if you vote early, we have time to check on that.”
Perez says early voting is a good idea for many reasons. It can help you avoid long lines. And yes, if a problem with your registration if discovered when you vote early, there can be time to fix it before Election Day. But that’s still not fair to the voter.
“The burden should not be on the voter to have to come back multiple times to be a guinea pig to fix a problem that is entirely predictable and is entirely known and could be dealt with in advance,” Perez said.
But some problems even the best planning can’t fix — such as the problems that arise when people wait until the last minute to vote. DeBeauvoir says her office does its best to move additional machines to high-traffic voting sites, and publicizing early voting has been a priority for her. She even went to several polling places Tuesday night and asked people in line why they were there and if there was something she could have done to help.
“Why are you voting now? Why are you voting on this particular day?” she said. “And I did get a lot of people who gave me what I think was the honest answer, that it was just plain old procrastination. It’s just human nature.”