Voters are silhouetted as they wait to vote at Woodlawn High… (Sun photo by Karl Merton…)
WASHINGTON — — Long lines that caused voters in Maryland and several other states to wait hours at polling places on Election Day are prompting a push for new laws to speed the process of casting a ballot.
Lawmakers in Congress and the Maryland General Assembly say they are considering a broad range of ideas, such as increasing the number of early voting centers available in high-population jurisdictions and offering federal grants to states that find ways to streamline the voting process.
Maryland election officials are investigating complaints about wait times in the Nov. 6 election, including reports that some people waited for hours despite lower-than-expected turnout. More than 2 million state residents voted on Election Day and 430,573 voted early.
"In this day and age, voters should not have to wait in lines for hours on Election Day," said Baltimore Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, who has been pressing for changes since before the election.
"Legislation that encourages states to utilize early voting could help with a lot of these problems," he said.
Bottlenecks at the ballot box, which were even more pronounced in Virginia and Florida, came after a highly charged presidential race between President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney. In Maryland, voters also had to decide several controversial ballot questions.
Proponents of speeding up the voting process said they hope to have some changes in place before the 2014 congressional midterm election, which will also feature the gubernatorial election in Maryland.
Much of Washington's near-term focus will be on addressing the nation's precarious finances, but a handful of lawmakers already have introduced legislation to address Election Day delays.
One bill, sponsored by Sen. Mark R. Warner, would create a federal grant program of unspecified value for states that offer at least nine days of early voting and audit wait times.
"In the greatest democracy in the world, voting shouldn't be this much of a burden," the Virginia Democrat said.
Obama acknowledged the problem in his victory speech after the election. "I want to thank every American who participated in this election, whether you voted for the very first time or waited in line for a very long time," he said.
"By the way," he added, "we have to fix that."
Similar proposals have proved controversial in the past, and it's not clear that problems experienced in some parts of the country were severe enough to provide the momentum needed to advance the ideas in a politically divided Congress.
Maryland Republican Party Chairman Alex X. Mooney said it shouldn't take federal legislation to shorten Election Day lines. And like many Republicans, he's not keen on expanding early voting — a process that began in Maryland after a long political and legal battle.
An easier fix, Mooney said, would be to increase the staff and number of voting machines available in highly trafficked precincts. That idea, of course, comes with its own challenges, namely paying for the machines and finding the extra, temporary staff.
"Early voting, to me, is not the answer," said Mooney, who acknowledged that at least some people probably walked away rather than waiting more than an hour to vote. "Instead of 10 machines, maybe you should have 15."
Republicans have been wary of expanded early voting, arguing that it opens the door to fraud. They also are thought to have a disadvantage among the group of voters most likely to vote early.
About two-thirds of early voters in Maryland this past election were registered Democrats. Obama won a significantly higher percentage of the early vote here than he did of votes cast on Election Day.
The state had scheduled six days of early voting — one of the shortest windows in the country. Then voting was suspended for two days as Hurricane Sandy came ashore in late October. In response, Gov. Martin O'Malley signed an executive order extending early voting by one day.
Maryland voters were first allowed to cast an early ballot in the 2010 gubernatorial election.
Debate about expanding early voting follows a bitter political fight in several states about voter ID laws, favored by some Republicans who say that identification requirements will help prevent fraud. Eleven states required photo identification to vote in the election.
Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, is working on state legislation to extend early voting through the Sunday before the election. He said his bill also would give the Maryland State Board of Elections the ability to open additional voting centers in highly populated counties.
State law requires counties with more than 300,000 registered voters to have five early voting centers. Rosenberg said he was moved by a long line of early voters that snaked around the Public Safety Training Facility in Baltimore on Oct. 28.
"It was just seeing the power of that moment, of people waiting to vote," he said. "It is imperative that the legislature acts."