As Maine goes, voting should go

By Editorial Board
Published November 5th 2008 in Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel
They lined up before sunrise outside churches, town offices or schools. They stood with neighbors and strangers, talking about their children, sports and, of course, the election itself. Some arrived in wheelchairs, others pushed babies in strollers, still others were driven to the polls by party volunteers.

Voters, all of them.

The epic two-year campaign that featured more than a dozen contenders for president, that corresponded to an extraordinary dive in the nation's fortunes, that brought Americans an historic choice of candidates came down to the simple act of filling in circles, connecting arrows on a ballot.

That's what it was like for voters in Maine, who waited in line for a while, if at all, and then proceeded smoothly to the voting booths and ballot boxes. While there were reports of long lines at some polling places, it was, according to state election officials, an election with few problems.

That's probably because Maine's town clerks and their assorted volunteers who run election sites are accustomed to large turnouts. The state has consistently been at the top of national tallies of voter turnout.

But elsewhere in the United States, voting didn't go nearly as well as in Maine. Even before Election Day, lawsuits had been filed in a variety of states challenging the counting of ballots. Voter registration purges were challenged by national voting rights groups.

On Election Day, large -- in some cases, historically large -- turnouts resulted in equally large problems. In Kansas City, computer problems meant poll workers couldn't find registered voters' names. There were broken touch-screen machines at polling places in Virginia.

According to the New York Times, voting machines at one place in Philadelphia were not working because there was no extension cord to plug them in. In a number of states, rainy weather resulted in wet ballots that could not be read by scanners. At many voting places across the nation, purges of voter registration rolls meant that some eligible voters' names could not be found on registration lists when they arrived.

A sizeable number of voters across the nation were using voting machines that they had never used before, causing delays. In some areas, there weren't enough machines or poll workers to keep the lines moving.

All these problems point to the fact that where you live in America determines how difficult it is for you to vote. Live in Maine, and it's relatively easy. Live in Florida or Ohio or Colorado and you may have a lot more trouble exercising your franchise.

And that's not right.

America has long held itself to be a beacon of democracy. But when our own voting system makes it hard for some Americans to vote, then we've got a problem.

The problem isn't hard to diagnose. According to the folks at FairVote -- an electoral reform organization headed by former congressman and presidential candidate John Anderson -- because there is no single voting system in the United States, "voting policies and procedures are set by each state and in many cases by each voting precinct. As a result, 13,000 independent voting districts administer elections."

Instead of a centralized election commission setting policy that will apply to all voters, we've got independent -- and often partisan -- state and local election officials making up the rules as they go along.

While we have respect for states' rights to run elections, we believe that it's folly at this stage in our nation's evolution to continue the fiction that voting is a local affair. Not when you've got more than a hundred million people voting.

Among the many items Congress should take up in the new session, we urge lawmakers to consider establishing a centralized election commission that has the power and authority to set minimum standards to benefit all voters and ensure that elections are conducted fairly and with equal access in every city, town, village and nook and cranny of this country.

Just don't mess up the states where it usually goes well -- like Maine.