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Election system needs an overhaul, but it's not that easy

Voters line up to cast ballots in the U.S. Presidential election in Boca Raton, Florida November 6, 2012. REUTERS/Joe Skipper
Voters line up to cast ballots in the U.S. Presidential election in Boca Raton, Florida November 6, 2012. REUTERS/Joe Skipper

By Deborah Charles

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Voters in Florida were still waiting to cast their ballots more than six hours after polls closed on Election Day, registered voters in Ohio were told they were not on voter rolls and new voter ID laws in Pennsylvania led to confusion at voting places.

Election Day problems have become commonplace in the United States in recent general elections. But a comment by President Barack Obama offered a glimmer of hope that problems that have dogged voting for years might finally be addressed.

In his election victory speech, made while some people still waited in line to cast ballots in Florida six hours after polls closed, Obama took a moment to point out that he was aware of problems with the electoral system.

"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," Obama said in Chicago. "By the way, we have to fix that."

That heartened supporters of election reform, who have called for streamlining election laws, updating antiquated registration systems and even expanding early voting to ease Election Day crowding at the polls.

But state governments are fiercely protective of their control over election law and are resistant to any sort of national system. Republicans and Democrats have also balked at a national voter registration system.

A backlash against new election laws like strict voter IDs passed by dozens of states this year may offer a possibility for change.

"I've generally been pessimistic, but I'm a bit more optimistic now that it got mentioned in the president's acceptance speech - at least that it will be a priority of the administration," said Rick Hasen, the author of "Voting Wars" and a law professor at the University of California at Irvine.

MORE EARLY VOTING

Change could start with an expansion of early voting and possibly vote-by-mail to alleviate overcrowding at the polls, Hasen said.

Early voting was the subject of several lawsuits this year after the Republican-led legislatures of states like Florida and Ohio passed laws cutting back on the number of early voting days in order to cut back on fraudulent voting.

Democrats and voting rights groups said there were few cases of fraud and argued the new laws unfairly targeted Democrats and specifically minorities who disproportionately voted early. The courts threw out some of the changes. But in the end, Florida cut early voting to eight days from 14 and Ohio got rid of voting on all weekends but one.

The result of reduced early voting was long lines that stretched around blocks and lasted for hours. Lines stretched to six and seven hours in Florida even during early voting. Lengthy waits were also reported in the swing states of Ohio and Virginia as well as New Jersey and New York, which had been hit hard by superstorm Sandy.

The delays were exacerbated by problems with registration at some polls, while other voting stations ran out of ballots or had malfunctioning machines. Lengthy ballots up to 12 pages long added to the problems and nearly 89,000 complaints were registered to the Election Protection hot line.

In some states, like Pennsylvania and Ohio, confusion over new voter ID laws or questions over registration added to delays as voters were held up or told to vote via provisional ballots.

The Election Day problems "prove that our system of elections is in need of repair," Eric Marshall and Marcia Johnson-Blanco, leaders of the non-partisan Election Protection coalition of more than 100 organizations said in a statement after voting ended late on Tuesday.

Election Protection urged the government to adopt a new voter registration system that uses modern technology and moves with voters as they do.

"States need to invest more in their elections and they need to learn from the past and prepare for the future," the statement by Marshall and Johnson-Blanco said. "Our hope is that in 2016, the Election Protection program will no longer be necessary because all eligible voters will be able to exercise their right free of obstacles."

(Editing by Alistair Bell and Peter Cooney)

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