Jeremy W. Peters at The New York Times reports:
With studies suggesting that long lines at the polls cost Democrats hundreds of thousands of votes in November, party leaders are beginning a push to make voting and voter registration easier, setting up a likely new conflict with Republicans over a deeply polarizing issue.
White House officials have told Congressional leaders that the president plans to press for action on Capitol Hill, and Democrats say they expect him to highlight the issue in his State of the Union address next week. Democrats in the House and Senate have already introduced bills that would require states to provide online voter registration and allow at least 15 days of early voting, among other things.
Fourteen states are also considering whether to expand early voting, including the battlegrounds of Florida, Ohio and Virginia, according to FairVote, a nonprofit group that advocates electoral change. Florida, New York, Texas and Washington are looking at whether to ease registration and establish preregistration for 16- and 17-year-olds.
Several recent polls and studies suggest that long waiting times in some places depressed turnout in 2012 and that lines were longest in cities, where Democrats outnumber Republicans. In a New York Times/CBS News poll taken shortly after Election Day, 18 percent of Democrats said they waited at least a half-hour to vote, compared with 11 percent of independents and 9 percent of Republicans.
A Massachusetts Institute of Technology analysis determined that blacks and Hispanics waited nearly twice as long in line to vote on average than whites. Florida had the nation’s longest lines, at 45 minutes, followed by the District of Columbia, Maryland, South Carolina and Virginia, according to Charles Stewart III, the political science professor who conducted the analysis.
A separate analysis, by an Ohio State University professor and The Orlando Sentinel, concluded that more than 200,000 voters in Florida “gave up in frustration” without voting.
“When I got there, the line was around the building,” said Jonathan Piccolo, 33, who said he had waited nearly eight hours to cast a ballot in Miami-Dade County the Monday before Election Day.
“It’s one of the most sacred rights you have,” Mr. Piccolo added. “They should make it as painless as possible.”
As the Supreme Court prepares to hear a major challenge to the Voting Rights Act this month — with a decision potentially giving states more freedom to tighten voting requirements — election issues seem likely to become even more of a flash point.
Republicans in several states across the country have passed or promoted measures they say are meant to reduce voter fraud, like stricter identification requirements. Some have also cited costs; Florida, for instance, had eight days of early voting in November, down from 14, after the Republican-led Legislature changed the law.
By highlighting long waits and cumbersome voter registration as issues, Democrats hope they have found a counterattack. Democrats have already tried to block the Republican efforts, noting that nonpartisan analyses have generally found voter fraud to be extremely rare.
Waiting times are “costing America a lot of votes,” said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat who is sponsoring the Senate voting bill and expects to have the full support of the White House.
She added, “We’ve talked to some of the White House staff about this from the beginning, and I think it’s something they care deeply about, and I think it’s something they will help us pass.”
Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the assistant Democratic leader in the House, said he had received similar assurances from the White House. “I think he’s going devote a pretty significant amount of his political resources to bear on this question,” he said of President Obama.
Mr. Obama, a former community organizer who worked to register poor voters in Chicago, declared waiting times a top concern in speeches both on election night and at his second inauguration. “Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote,” he said on Inauguration Day.
But getting anything passed without Republican support will be impossible, Democrats acknowledge. And so far, conservatives have complained that Democrats are politicizing an issue that should be handled by the states, not the federal government.
“It’s ridiculous to stand in line a couple of hours to vote,” said Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “But I think it’s also ridiculous to make a political issue out of it when it’s very easily handled.”
Because Democrats have been primarily focused on issues like gun control and immigration this year and have not yet devoted much time to voting rights, it is difficult to know their chances for success.
Two factors that help determine waiting times, experts say, are the length of the ballot and the number of voters per polling place. Mr. Stewart said California stood out as an example of a place that reduces waiting times by having relatively low numbers of voters per precinct.
“Despite the fact that it’s a very large state, a very complicated state, and has the longest ballots in the Western world — all these things that you’d think would complicate voting — they don’t wait that long,” Mr. Stewart said.
California’s had one of the 10 shortest average waits of any state, at six minutes, according to Mr. Stewart.
In some other places, including counties and cities run by Democrats, local officials have not spent the money to open as many polling places. The high turnout of young and minority voters in 2008 and 2012 may also have contributed to long lines.
Ashley Marie Lapadula, a student at Florida International University in Miami who said she voted for Mitt Romney in November, said she went to two different polling sites, leaving one where the wait appeared to be about three hours only to wait three hours at another.
She said she saw numerous voters, mostly Spanish speakers, leave. “Most of them said: ‘I have to get back to work. I don’t have time for this. This is incredible, the waiting is just too long,’ ” Ms. Lapadula said.
Theodore T. Allen, a systems engineer at Ohio State who conducted the analysis of Florida voting last year, said that lengthy ballots also played an important role in how long voting takes. “It’s not because people are dumb or old,” he said. “It’s just that they have twice as much to read and process.”
The average wait nationwide was 14 minutes last year, according to Mr. Stewart’s data. Blacks and Hispanics waited an average of 20.2 minutes, compared with 12.7 minutes for whites. In the most populous areas — those with more than 500,000 voters in a county — the average wait was 18 minutes, more than double what it was in counties with fewer than 50,000 voters.
According to Mr. Allen’s estimates, waiting times cost Mr. Obama a net of about 15,000 votes in Florida. He carried the state by about 74,000 votes.