Scoppe: The cure for long lines on Election Day? Early voting

Associate EditorNovember 8, 2012 

At Friarsgate Park Tuesday morning, problems with a voting machines there, left voters with only two machines to use until one more was delivered. The wait for most of the early voters was over 3 hours. Inside the recreation center, the line snaked through a room and the lobby before entering the gym where the voting booths were.

TIM DOMINICK — tdominick@thestate.com Buy Photo

BY THE time I got in line to vote late Tuesday afternoon, on my third try of the day, my precinct had six voting machines. That was 86 percent of what state law required, and 50 percent more than it had for most of the day. So at just 90 minutes, my wait was relatively short.

Which is ridiculous.

It looks at this point as though incompetence at the newly reconfigured Richland County Election Commission contributed to the local debacle that kept people waiting in line for two to four hours throughout the day and held some hostage until past 1 a.m. Twenty percent of the county’s 1,000 voting machines weren’t deployed, apparently because they were broken — and many that were deployed turned out not to work. That made it impossible for the commission to obey state law that requires it to use about 950 machines, and suggests that it wasn’t paying attention to its inventory or didn’t understand that it needed to seek funding to repair them or purchase replacements.

But one- and two-hour waits were not uncommon across the state. And as the population grows, they’re only going to get longer.

A small price to pay for democracy? Well, it depends on your situation.

For me, it was an annoyance. For others, queuing up for hours carried a financial cost — if it was even possible. I got a call late Tuesday morning from a woman who was in tears because “the state has taken away my right to vote.” She had made arrangements to go to work late, but she was nowhere near the front of the line by the time she had to give up.

And we’ll never know how many others were in that same situation.

Those who decide to take the time away from work to vote could get fired, because state law does not require employers to let their employees vote. More likely, they don’t get paid — that is, they essentially have to pay for the right to vote — or else their employers pay them not to work. University of Texas economist Daniel Hamermesh told NPR on Tuesday that if two-thirds of the electorate has to wait an hour — an estimate he acknowledged was probably low — that would cost employers and workers $1 billion.

It might be understandable for our state to force us to spend so much time waiting to vote if the only way to prevent that was to buy more voting machines. After all, those $3,000 machines get used, on average, a little more than once a year. That makes buying more a hard sell when we can’t even manage to put a professional IT team in place to protect our tax records from hackers.

But stocking up on voting machines isn’t the only way to cut the wait time. There’s an easy alternative: Give voters more time to use the machines.

If voters, given 12 hours to cast their ballots, have to wait two hours, then giving them twice as long — say, two 12-hour days — should cut their wait to an hour. Four 12-hour days should cut the wait to a half hour. Those numbers assume that voters would distribute themselves evenly over the days and hours, which of course would never happen, but you get the idea.

State and county election officials long have advocated allowing early voting to address the problem. Thirty-four states and the District of Columbia already allow it, and an estimated 35 percent of Americans cast their votes early this year. Last year, the S.C. Senate passed an early voting bill by a 35-1 vote, and even House Republican leaders have paid lip service to the idea, but they’ve never allowed it to become law.

We do allow absentee voting, and this year a record 375,000 South Carolinians — nearly one in five voters — cast absentee ballots. But this is allowed only for people who meet one of 15 designated criteria, such as being at least 65, out of town on Election Day or otherwise unable to make it to the polling place.

Although it’s clear that people lie and cast absentee ballots when they don’t meet the legal criteria — something that our law encourages — it’s just as clear that on Tuesday, there were lots of people who could have voted early because they, “for reasons of employment, will not be able to vote on election day.” If only they had known.

Most people don’t think in advance that they’ll be unable to vote because of their jobs — and consider it dishonest to so claim — but once they get to the polling place and see a two- or three-hour wait, they realize that they can’t take that much time away from work.

The bill the state Senate passed would have provided an eight-day early voting period, when people could cast their ballots without giving a reason. Each county would have been required to open at least one early voting site, likely at the voter registration office, which already is open for people to cast in-person absentee ballots. Counties could have operated up to five sites.

No cost projections were made for the legislation, but if we want to cut down on the long waits — and I don’t see how we can refuse to do this and continue to call ourselves a free society — it’s going to cost some amount of money. The question is whether we buy $3,000 voting machines that sit in a warehouse 364 days a year, or hire a half-dozen poll workers per county for eight days each election. Or fewer.

The eight-day early voting period is one option. We could start out with something more limited: Allow people to cast absentee ballots for any reason. Perhaps throw in a couple of early voting Saturdays.

Of course, we’d probably want more than five polling places in a county the size of Richland, which divides voters among 124 precincts on Election Day, and even then can’t seem to find a way for all of them to vote in less than 18 hours.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571.

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