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U.S. must eliminate barriers to voting

These days, Americans are accustomed to using new technology to do things faster and easier. When it comes to voting, however, there are still barriers to overcome.

Voters standing in hours-long lines on Election Day looked more like those in a Third World country than the United States. Because of those lines, the last ballots in Florida weren’t cast until after Mitt Romney had delivered his concession speech. Elsewhere, some polling places ran out of ballots, others suffered machine failure.

The League of Women Voters says New York has one of the lowest voter participation rates in the nation, partly because the state has been so slow to embrace reforms.

There are many ways to encourage turnout, including:

• Early voting. It’s done in 32 states and the District of Columbia, and for an increasingly busy society is a godsend for those lucky enough to have the option. However, lines for early voting were too long in some states.

• Mail voting. Eligible Oregon and Washington residents can vote by mail, although critics suggest that doing so favors turnout by the more affluent and voting is subject to late delivery and a greater chance of corruption and manipulation by election officials.

• Broader absentee voting. Unlike New York, 27 states and the District of Columbia allow citizens to vote by absentee ballot without first having to offer an acceptable excuse on why the voter can’t make it to the polls on Election Day.

• Remote electronic voting. Many states allow online voting for members of the military serving away from home and U.S. citizens living overseas. And although countries such as Canada, Norway and Australia have adopted online voting systems, casting a ballot with the click of a mouse raises justifiable concerns over issues of cybersecurity.

• Same day registration and online registration.

• Better ballot design, improved voter education and more training for poll workers.

• Fewer restrictions. The most obvious in this last election involved the devastating blow Superstorm Sandy delivered to the Eastern Seaboard, displacing tens of thousands of voters.

Credit goes to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo for allowing those affected by the storm to vote in any nearby polling location for president, U.S. Senate and any other office that would have appeared on the ballot in their own precincts. New Jersey allowed residents to vote by email or fax.

Billions of dollars has been spent on new voting technology since Florida’s “hanging chad” debacle in 2000, and still there were major problems. There is an agency, the Election Assistance Commission, that is supposed to help with voting, but it has been without commissioners or an executive for more than a year. Congress needs to address the problems with the agency and get it working.

The Brennan Center for Justice suggests some straightforward ways to improve existing voting procedures. One would create a national clearinghouse of voting machine problems so that poll workers can learn from the failures of the past and, hopefully, not repeat them. The clearinghouse would also provide a searchable database similar to those for consumer products to help spot voting machine defects early. Another would gather advice on planning and preparing for emergencies such as Superstorm Sandy.

Rather than encourage voting, some states are working to suppress turnout by passing voter identification laws. Supporters of the voter ID laws, generally Republicans, say they are needed to prevent Election Day voter fraud, a problem that is virtually nonexistent and is already dealt with by other laws.

The real effect of those laws is to reduce turnout by those who lack a government-approved identification card. Those people are the poor and minorities who often vote for Democratic candidates.

The method by which Americans vote has evolved over the centuries, and recent problems show the need to embrace new technology to make the system easier and more fair for everyone. Solutions must encourage turnout while also being secure, accurate and recountable.

If we start now, the next presidential election may go more smoothly. The problems can’t just be ignored until they resurface every four years.