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Deborah J. Vagins Headshot

Who Really Won the Election? Democracy

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Who was the real winner on Tuesday? Democracy.

Overcoming a wave of voter suppression laws, misinformation, long lines, longer lies and Hurricane Sandy, millions of people still had their voices heard and ensured their votes counted.

Many of the voter suppression laws took different forms -- voter ID and citizenship requirements, limitations on early voting, restrictions on third-party voter registration, purging, and criminal disfranchisement laws -- but their impact and intent are the same: a cynical attempt to push certain constituencies out of the electorate in advance of an election. This is particularly true for voters of color, students, voters with disabilities and the elderly.

In the end, groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, along with other civil rights groups, and the Department of Justice, were able to stop, limit, or postpone the implementation of many of the laws, in critical states such as Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, and South Carolina. The people also fought back: in Minnesota, where voters soundly rejected the state's voter ID ballot initiative.

Still, attempts to restrict voting rights still led to confusion at the polls. On Tuesday, I was working at the command center of the nonpartisan volunteer coalition Election Protection, and our hotline received more than 88,600 calls from voters reporting concerns involving long lines, inappropriate use of provisional ballots, broken machines, and poorly and wrongfully trained poll workers, among other concerns.

For example, extremely long lines were reported in states like Florida, Virginia and Ohio. In Miami-Dade County, Florida, voters waited for well over four hours past the 7 p.m. closing time, even after networks began to project a win for President Obama. Just before Election Day, a judge extended early voting in Florida to accommodate the huge numbers of early voters, some of whom waited more than seven hours to cast a ballot.

And in Pennsylvania, where the voter ID law was halted in court, voters and poll workers were not properly informed about the status of the law Many voters reported being incorrectly required to show ID at polling places and were forced to vote provisionally or be turned away.

Deceptive practices also were reported. For example, thousands of Florida voters received misleading phone calls saying they had until "tomorrow" to vote.

Finally, Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on Election Day, in spite of an emergency plan to ease the burden of voting on those affected. Voters, many still without power or water, scrambled to find their moved or mobile polling places amid major destruction. In New Jersey, this resulted in record low turnout, as well as election officials being overwhelmed by faxed and emailed ballots.

It is yet unknown how much higher voter turnout would have been absent the new voter suppression laws in states where they did go into effect, as well as the confusion on Election Day across the country. But, despite all this, people persevered and stood up for their rights and, literally and figuratively, for democracy.

In his victory speech, President Obama recognized the sacrifice many people made in order to vote on Tuesday, and called for a fix to the problem of long lines. I agree. There are steps we can take to avoid this chaos in the future:

  • Provide better training for poll workers and election officials. Polls are often run by dedicated, civic-minded volunteers. We need to ensure that everyone who works in our polling places have up-to-date and detailed information on the often rapidly changing voting laws in their jurisdictions. But there must also be enforcement of state and federal voting rights laws, where poll workers or state election officials are still not complying with the law.
  • Uniform standards in federal elections. Congress must enact federal standards that make uniform rules for longer early-voting periods, the distribution, casting and counting of provisional ballots, and mandatory poll worker training, thereby eliminating the confusing patchwork of state laws in federal elections.
  • Better utilize current resources and increase funding for election administration. We need to ensure that long lines are never caused by a lack of paper ballots or a lack of or inequitable distribution of electronic voting machines.
  • Broaden and strengthen voter empowerment. Voters must continue to educate themselves and advocacy groups must help, but it is also the responsibility of federal, state, and local officials to ensure that voters know what their rights are and what they need to do in order to cast a ballot.

Instead of appealing to voters with the power of their ideas to broaden the base of voter participation, some legislators felt the path to victory was pushing groups out of the electorate through suppression tactics. This election was a referendum for rejecting that path.

Ultimately, for any party to prevail in an America of changed demographics, elected officials must learn to appeal to voters on the merits to win, not engage in cynical tactics to prevent them from voting for opponents. This election, the voters fought back. Democracy was the clear winner.