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It's time to put the spotlight back on America's voting crisis

2/7/2013, 3:46 p.m.
On the night President Barack Obama gave his victory speech after the November election, he...
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On the night President Barack Obama gave his victory speech after the November election, he spoke extemporaneously--and forcefully--about the difficulties of voting in the United States. When thanking Americans for standing in long lines for hours, he added a admonition: "We have to fix that."

Fixing the crisis of voting should now become one of the administration's top priorities. The November election demonstrated precisely how much of a calamity voting has become, especially for Black and Latino Americans.

An analysis by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology of the voting patterns from last year's presidential election revealed some alarming findings. It demonstrated that Black and Latino voters waited nearly twice as long to cast their ballots as white voters. It further revealed that Florida had the longest lines in the country, followed by Washington, D.C., Maryland, South Carolina and Virginia. In fact, there is evidence that long lines help to diminish voter participation.

Another study by a professor at Ohio State University indicated that more than 200,000 voters in Florida simply gave up in frustration and left the polling places without casting their votes. Add to that the effort by Republican-led legislatures in several states to reduce Black voter participation by enacting strict voter identification laws and it's clear that the United States has a catastrophe at the ballot box.

In a country where voting is at the very core of its democratic values, the United States is falling far short of the mark of equal access to casting ballots. It is simply preposterous that Americans should be forced to wait in lines for hours simply to cast their votes. The question is, what do we do about it? For one thing, the president should use the bully pulpit to call upon states to provide the funds and personnel to allow extended early voting periods across the nation. It is no secret to boards of elections around the country that a presidential election occurs every four years. Yet, states like Florida senselessly cut in half the duration of its early voting period.

As a result, states should anticipate the surge of voters and allocate the necessary funds to make sure that there are adequate means of accommodating voters. Nowhere is this more important than in Black and Latino communities, where the problem is most dire.

It is time to modernize voting in the United States. In an era where Americans do their banking, their gift shopping, license renewing and bill paying online, voter registration and record maintenance should be done electronically, too.

Then there is the thorny problem of race. It is clear that many voting problems in this country are designed to suppress the voting strength of Black and Latino citizens. And even those who would deny that as the intention of state officials must at least acknowledge that it is the impact.

It would be a bold and important step in the national discussion for the president to raise this as an issue in his upcoming State of the Union message. Meanwhile, it is important for the Democrats to use the issue of long lines and burdensome voter registration as planks in a coordinated strategy to block Republican efforts to make voting more challenging for people of color.

Since the founding of the nation, the United States has always--if under great strain and pressure--expanded access to voting to an ever-widening swath of Americans. That pattern should continue, and the president, the state governments and all people interested in fairness should apply all available pressure to make sure this problem is truly and permanently "fixed."