Election gives early-balloting initiatives a boost

— -- For voters who encountered problems at the polls Tuesday, ranging from hours-long lines to missing registrations to deceptive fliers and phone calls, help could be on the way.

State and federal officials are poised to consider a number of changes designed to make it easier for millions of Americans to get registered, stay registered and vote without problems.

Democrats, including President-elect Barack Obama, have long been in favor of reducing impediments to vote. Now that they have seized the White House and increased their majorities in Congress, they are hoping to advance some stalled initiatives.

"We're expecting that they're going to be fairly activist in 2009," says Doug Lewis, executive director of the Election Center, which represents state and local election officials.

The most likely change in the next few years, experts say, is the expansion of early voting. Lines were shorter on Election Day in battleground states that allowed any voter to cast a ballot ahead of time. In states where excuses are required, such as Pennsylvania and Virginia, lines were longer.

Thirty-four states allow some form of no-excuse early voting, including Oregon and most of Washington, where elections are conducted by mail. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia require an excuse or don't allow early voting. Voters in one of them, Maryland, approved a measure Tuesday that could lead to early voting there.

Other changes under consideration in Washington or the states:

•Universal registration. The top priority of voting-rights groups, such as the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law, is to give the government responsibility for registering citizens. Everyone eligible to vote would automatically be registered and would remain registered if they move.

•Making it easier to register. Proposals range from pre-registering 16- and 17-year-olds when they get driver's licenses to registering new citizens at naturalization ceremonies. Voting rights groups such as Common Cause want to add to the nine states that now allow Election Day registration.

•Improving election administration. This could include new standards for machine allocation at polling sites, the use of paper ballots when machines break down, and the process of casting provisional votes.

•Banning deceptive practices. A measure Obama co-sponsored in Congress that would criminalize deceptive practices, such as misinforming potential voters with phone calls and fliers, might resurface in the next Congress. "New action is needed to ensure a fair election for all," says Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

Experts on voting say the best way to reduce lines is for states to expand early voting. The percentage of voters who cast ballots before Election Day increased from 15% in 2000 to 20% in 2004 and close to 30% this year. That helped keep Election Day turnout below 100 million.

Many states that don't have early voting or that ask voters to give excuses may move to no-excuse early voting before the next presidential election. "We've already gotten calls," says Tim Storey, an elections analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Congress could try to require early voting in all states. Senate Rules Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., included that in legislation last year that Obama co-sponsored.

"In this day and age, with lines growing at the polling places and people having increasingly complicated work schedules, I believe every state should allow its voters to vote early and vote absentee with no 'excuse' requirement," Feinstein said in a statement.

Besides lines, the biggest problems Tuesday had to do with voter-registration systems. Even with new electronic databases, states often dropped would-be voters from their rolls if their names or data didn't match driver's or Social Security records.

That has led advocacy groups to push for universal registration — a system used by at least 24 other countries in which all eligible citizens are automatically able to vote and permanently kept on the rolls. "This is a way of getting politics out of the voter registration system," says Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center.

Democrats generally want to expand the voter base, while Republicans want to stop outside groups from fraudulently registering voters. As a result, universal voter registration could have bipartisan support, says Adam Fogel of FairVote.

Privacy groups might object because it likely would require proof of registration. "Some people interpret that as a national ID card," Lewis says, "and they get scared to death."