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G-Sync: How Long Must They Wait?

How long would you wait? This was the question I posed to a few folks last week. I already knew the answer.

It wasn’t about the morning coffee a hipster barista creates as she slowly pours hot water in a thin stream over ground (and often fair trade) beans, and it wasn’t about traffic on one’s route home after work.

No. My question regarded how long would you wait to vote in an election. And unlike the examples above, which have a plethora of options, voting in its current form in our city and state is woefully in need of an overhaul.

Each election cycle for some time now, we have seen over and over again the images of people waiting in longer than normal lines. It is easy to simply write off the long lines as just another part of our democracy in action and what we can expect in a Presidential election year, but have you ever stopped to wonder why we just accept this for some voters while others just breeze right in and out?

Since I believe all things flow up in politics, we have to start here locally with the question of why the long lines of last week at many polling stations. This year, while people stood outside in thankfully warmer than usual weather for November in Michigan, we were treated to media images of people in lines extending outside of polling stations. Too many voting locations were woefully unable to handle (yet again) the weight of a fired up electorate, a fact we saw coming earlier this year in the primary voting in Grand Rapids.  

One of the worst offenses the choice from our City Clerk’s office to select Community Revival Church (3-62) for placement of a voting station. The church would not only see 3-4 hour waits, but also provide the media with exasperating images of African Americans seated in pews and lining the aisles waiting to vote.

And here I circle back. “How long would you wait to vote?” Before you answer, consider this: why should anyone be made to wait an excessive amount of time in an era and in a city that prides itself again and again as the new birthplace of innovation in Michigan?

One of my friends from East Grand Rapids remarked that while she had to wait nearly an hour to vote at her precinct, she was happy that sample ballots were offered to those in line. She was also treated to a visual reminder that her time to vote was arriving soon as her line actually moved.

Unfortunately, nearby in Grand Rapids, some machines failed while other precincts were simply way understaffed, suffering setbacks like confused poll workers or a shortage of supplies or voting booths.

This is not to say that all of our precincts in the city failed. Mine, for example, had a 60+ minute wait in the morning, but by nightfall, I was able to walk right in and vote while the folks who shared this voting location from the neighboring precinct had lines winding through the building.

During the waning hours of the election, I was able to witness firsthand (and read about, via accounts coming into my phone in real time) the realities of what happens when we do not prepare properly or seek to protect the vote.

And protecting the vote is my real issue today.

Lawyer Elizabeth Welch Lykins outlined a dismal overview of election missteps in a letter she delivered to Grand Rapids City Clerk Laurie Parks on Nov. 13. Lykins presents a shocking assertion in the second paragraph that should have all people of the city alarmed.

“The City [of Grand Rapids] had 5000 less voters than in 2008,” writes Lykins. “While some drop-off I’m sure was anticipated, I think we can safely assume that many people could not afford to wait three hours in a line because they had obligations that prevented them from doing so.”

Lykins' observations not only give examples of how she and others have addressed these concerns since 2004, but she is firm in her pronouncement that these issues “have continued without remedy.” The last few elections around really good ideas that would benefit the city for generations and thus impact our future have often been decided by just a handful of votes.

TV journalists and social media channels broadcasted the news of long lines throughout the day. We may never know how many people just said, “’Bag it,” when they saw, yet again, people standing in ridiculously long lines. We do know that in a city experiencing record growth rates from that of a year ago, our City Hall did not deliver on the service expected.

As I tracked the events of the night, there appeared to be no plan B as empty voting booths flashed on the TV at the same time as long lines. It is clear to see where part of the problem -- and potentially a solution -- begins. The images do not lie here; it appears Grand Rapids was not really ready for this election.

So, are there solutions we should consider?

One could argue that a mistake this large in the private sector would surely result in Parks being fired or asked to resign, citing her statements that voters in some precincts took longer to vote. (WOODTV8) But I will be quick to admit it is not necessarily the correct choice, as there are plenty of examples where Parks has served the city well. We just need better oversight in the Clerks’ area to make sure certain these types of mistakes do not happen again.

Another choice is glaringly obvious: Be realistic about our polling places. Know their capacities. If we are wedded to our current way of voting, then let’s staff properly for surges of voters. It should be a matter of simple math at this point, where all elements of a location -- like space capacity, number of polling workers, and other “what ifs” -- are taken into account.

Poll workers at many precincts worked long hours and they went above and beyond, as did a lot of our elected officials, who worked long into the night to ensure people got to vote and were not deterred by the long lines.

As poll workers struggled to check people in certain precincts (a big part of the long lines), it became abundantly clear in all wards of the city that we need to begin to think about splitting the book up into more categories than A –L and M – Z in certain high-traffic polling stations.

Finally, a radical idea being shopped around town by folks like Commissioner Ruth Kelly is Colorado’s Vote Center Model (VCM).

In this form of voting, centers are placed in highly visible locations that are easily recognizable and well communicated. We do away with these crazy precinct locations that change when maps are redrawn to resemble nothing like a grid-based neighborhood plot.

This model means that regardless of what precinct you live in, when you stop in a voting center, your ballot is ready for you. And instead of a book with your name at just one station in the city, the VCM works off one central book that the poll worker can accesses from wherever the voter chooses to vote. So on your way to work, if you see a voting center, well, just pull over to the curb, hop out, vote, and get back on with your day. Voting powered by you. Clean, simple, and it has performed very well so far, which is why we should explore new ideas at the State level.

The argument can also be made that VCM saves the city money because it significantly reduces the number of workers needed to run an election. It is a more efficient use of government funds.

For those who are worried about losing their right to cast a paper ballot, no worries, as VCM uses them. Paper ballots are a form of voting that even banking and government encryption system service provider RSA’s Ronald L. Rivest agrees is still the best way to protect the vote. (New York Times)

VCM encourages more people to vote, too. Larimer County, Colorado tried this system in 2004 and was able to accommodate a high voter turn out of 94.6 percent of the registered voters.  

“People with jobs, kids, and health conditions cannot wait hours in line, oftentimes in the cold, to vote,” said successful ballot proposal Decriminalize Grand Rapids' Tyler Nickerson. “We need to create the environment so everyone’s voice can be heard in the political process.”

While we have much to celebrate, whether it is the workers who invested long hours to make sure our city’s residents votes were counted, or our elected officials who rolled up their sleeves to find quick solutions, or a group of voters who stood up to be counted in the face of sometimes overpowering reasons to say home. Yet we need to make this issue crystal clear. After eight years of asking for changes, we are tired of seeing groups of people on our television disenfranchised by a lack of concern about accessibility.

It is time to open our minds to new ways of voting and how we approach the vote. When 2016 arrives, the news media should be reduced to covering the weather, because inside, our polling stations are all clear for voting.  

“Step right up. You’re next.”

If you have a suggestion for modernizing the state’s voting system, I encourage you to visit www.facebook.com/RespectMIVote or email respectmivote@gmail.com. For those who wish to address specific concerns about Grand Rapids voting, please write Laurie Parks, City Clerk: lparks@grcity.us

The Future Needs All of Us.

Tommy Allen
Lifestyle Editor

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