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A Look At America's Election Day 2012 Report Card

Melissa Block talks with Charles Stewart of the Voting Technology Project at MIT about Election Day 2012, how it compared to past Election Days, and how the process could improve for 2016 and beyond.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Arizona isn't the only state that ran into trouble on Election Day. In Florida, some voters stood in line for four, five, even six hours after polls had technically closed. Long lines were reported as well in a number of states, including New York, Texas, Virginia and Ohio, which had long lines and last-minute legal wrangling over the counting of provisional ballots. In Pennsylvania, there was confusion over a new voter ID law. Are these isolated problems or do they point to broader weaknesses in America's voting system?

Well, here to help answer that question is Charles Stewart of the Voting Technology Project at MIT. Professor Stewart, welcome to the program.

CHARLES STEWART: Thank you.

BLOCK: When you see long lines, like we had on Election Day, and you think what can we do to fix this, what's the solution that comes to mind?

STEWART: Well, there's going to be a couple of solutions. The main one, I think, is making sure that you've matched the capacity of the voting stations to what you know is going to be the traffic, either during the early voting period or on Election Day. That's going to be thing number one. And thing number two probably is going to make sure that you actually have good buildings, lots of parking lots, things like that. It's very prosaic.

BLOCK: And typically, this time around, were you finding that places simply didn't have enough machines to handle the number of voters who turned up? They underestimated the turnout.

STEWART: It looks like they did. Although the numbers in most of these places that were experiencing lines were roughly the same size as in previous years. And even in Florida, where they reduced the number of days for early voting, the total number of people who turned out to vote early was down only a little bit. So these should be planable episodes. And you would hope that there are plans in place to deal with them when contingencies do arrive. And it appears those plans weren't in place or were not implemented.

BLOCK: We did a lot of stories about new voter ID requirements, lawsuits over those requirements. There were fears that those would inhibit voting. Do you think those played a role in confusion and long lines also on Election Day?

STEWART: Well, they very well could have, although it should be said that in many of the places where we saw the reports of the longest lines, new voter ID laws were not necessarily at issue. It could've been though that in places like Pennsylvania and in South Carolina, where there were laws that were altered significantly by court rulings, that you could've had voters not knowing what they were supposed to do and then local polling officials trying to figure out exactly what the law was.

BLOCK: We've been talking, Professor Stewart, about states that have had problems. But what's the counter to that? What are the states that do elections really well and what can we learn from them?

STEWART: Two states that rise to the top are Minnesota and Wisconsin. Both of them have a strong tradition of clean government and a good government ethos throughout the states. And so that's one of the things that you really need is a dedication to running elections in as nonpartisan fashion as possible and as professionally as possible, trying to overlook the natural partisan aspect of the elections.

BLOCK: More and more of us are voting early, right? Voting before Election Day itself, that should help ease the bottlenecks. Do you think more and more states are going to expand early voting?

STEWART: I mean, that would seem to be a direction to go. If you expand early voting, what you then need to do is think about how you handle the capacity that's been freed up. What I've noticed some states and localities doing when they expand early voting is that they take the voting machines and the precincts that used to be used on Election Day and they downsize. And so, oftentimes, you don't get any better of an experience on Election Day because you now have fewer resources.

BLOCK: One other idea you hear is to make Election Day a national holiday.

STEWART: Yeah. You know, I hear that a lot, and it's not clear to me that making Election Day a national holiday would necessarily solve the problems that we observed in 2012. What we should do is do the boring stuff of, you know, figuring out how to organize our precincts, make sure our machines work, make sure the registration lists work, and make sure that the election officials in the polling places know what the law is.

Those things will make elections better regardless of whether or not we have a holiday for Election Day.

BLOCK: Charles Stewart is a professor of Political Science at MIT and co-director of the Caltech-MIT Voting Technology Project. Professor Stewart, thanks so much.

STEWART: Thank you.

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