Last month, more than 120 million Americans participated in the orderly and peaceful selection of the country's leaders. But, as the thousands who had to wait in freezing, hours-long lines can attest, the process wasn't as orderly and peaceful as it should be.
Voters at polling places across Northern Virginia were among those who suffered. In Fairfax County, Va., the last voter to cast a ballot did so at 10:30 p.m. 3 1/2 hours after the polls were meant to close. The chairman of the Board of Supervisors in Prince William County, Va., said that he had to wait two hours to vote. Others found their names missing from voting rolls, maybe because they forgot to update their registrations after moving.
Richard H. Pildes, a senior legal adviser to the Obama campaign, has identified some of the biggest sources of Election Day misery. Local control over election procedures leads to too little money spent on voting machines. Poorly trained poll workers get confused by constantly changing laws and procedures. Voter registration and record-keeping are getting more high-tech, but there are still many kinks. Many states lack policies that could take some of the pressure off, such as early voting.
One response is for Congress to mandate policies such as online voter registration, early voting and minimum numbers of machines and staff at every polling place, as a bill from Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., would do. That should begin a bigger debate about setting more stringent national standards for national elections.
Two other Democratic Virginia lawmakers, Sen. Mark R. Warner and Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, have a more comprehensive but less prescriptive approach: use the logic of President Obama's successful education initiative, Race to the Top, to encourage states to reform themselves.
Along with their co-sponsor, Sen. Christopher A. Coons, D-Del., Warner and Connolly would dangle the possibility of grants to states that put together election reform programs that embrace any or all of nine sensible improvements, including more flexible registration rules, early voting for at least nine of the 10 days before Election Day, more training for poll workers and better accessibility for voters with disabilities.
Expanding early voting, making absentee voting easier and investing more in election equipment and training are obvious paths for states and localities. They can also try more ambitious reforms, such as universal registration and online voting.
They should be doing all that without congressional interference, but many have not. A strong, careful, federal push could help.