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Voting Problems Renew Efforts to Overhaul System

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Long lines to vote on Election Day in places such as Columbus, Ohio, have spurred activist groups and election experts to call for an overhaul of the voting 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.

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