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Assignment: Election reform

Here's what 'we have to fix' for America's voters

ON ELECTION DAY, millions of Americans stood in long lines at crowded polling stations to exercise their right to vote. Although most were ultimately able to cast a ballot, the long lines were a disgrace. As President Obama said that night, "We have to fix that."

I spent Election Day helping to field calls from voters across the country on behalf of the Election Protection Coalition, which runs the nation's largest non-partisan voter-protection hotline. I also monitored the election process and its problems throughout the lead-up to Nov. 6. These are the key takeaways.

We need to modernize our voter-registration system.

By far the biggest problem with voting in America is our ramshackle voter-registration system. Year after year, millions of eligible Americans show up at the polls on Election Day only to find that they cannot vote because their names are missing from the voter rolls.

Whether this is because of unfair purges of the voter rolls, deliberate subterfuge or just plain error, the effects are the same: delays and long lines at the polls, and eligible voters being left out. We have to fix that.

We need to modernize our voter-registration system. Technology exists to put in place a more accurate system in which the government makes sure that all eligible citizens who want to be registered are actually signed up, that voters stay registered when they move, and that citizens can still vote if there are mistakes on the rolls. All we need is the political will.

We need to set minimum standards for voter access and early voting.

Americans across the country were kept from voting for hours, and even for good, because their polling places could not handle the number of people who tried to vote. We have to fix that.

One simple way to ensure that every citizen has adequate access to the voting booth is to set minimum standards for voter access and early voting. Fair and equal allocation of polling places, polling hours, voting machines and election staff will go a long way toward smoothing out election administration and reducing long lines. Early voting can ease the pressure and the lines on Election Day by spreading out voters over a longer period of time. Expanding the hours and days for voting can also provide voting opportunities for those who have work or child-care obligations.

An investment in better poll-worker recruitment and training would also go a long way. Indeed, voters in virtually every state complained about poll workers who didn't know the rules or the voting equipment.

We need to stop the voting wars.

Over the past two years, we saw a massive number of new laws that would have made it harder for eligible Americans to vote - 25 new laws and two executive actions in 19 states. This kind of partisan manipulation is unacceptable. The bulk of the most restrictive new laws were blocked or blunted by courts well before Election Day. But even where new laws were blocked, they created confusion at the polls.

The incredibly long lines we saw in Florida and Ohio were in part a legacy of this movement to restrict voting. Both states had cut back substantially on early voting days and hours, just as that form of voting was becoming especially popular. African Americans in particular used early voting at twice the rate as white voters in Florida in the days eliminated by the new laws. On the Sunday before Election Day in 2008, African Americans made up a full third of those who voted early, but only 12 percent of the electorate. Not surprisingly, with the reduced early-voting times, African-Americans and Hispanics had to wait far longer than white voters this election, according to two recent analyses.

In Pennsylvania, a court blocked a controversial new voter ID law, but that law still caused havoc on Election Day. Election Protection received numerous calls from Pennsylvania voters who were turned away from the polls because they didn't have the right kind of state-issued photo ID - in clear violation of the law. There were also reports of fliers posted in minority communities and of voters receiving official mailings from state election officials falsely stating that photo ID would be required to vote.

The battles over voter ID caused confusion and harm even in states that did not pass new requirements. Voters from many states reported being inappropriately asked for ID or turned away if they did not have it.

In other words, despite the dramatic string of victories pushing back against most new restrictive voting laws this year, efforts to limit voting still hurt voters. It is simply wrong for politicians to manipulate the rules of elections to make it harder for some Americans to participate.

We need strong courts willing to protect basic voting rights, as they did this year. We need more state legislators who are willing to stand up for what is right. And we need more citizens to tell their legislators, "Enough is enough."