Voting Rights Watch: Long lines -- a voting rights issue

Everyone knew 2008 was going to be big. Since early spring, when voter registrations started zooming up during the hard-fought primaries, election officials across the South and country have known they needed to be ready for an election with potentially record-setting turnout.

Then why are we hearing stories like this, out of Georgia:
Voters in Cobb County stood outdoors in line for two hours to cast ballots Tuesday. One elderly woman collapsed in the sun in the early afternoon. Other voters made it through line with the help of books, magazines, Cokes, and red Twizzlers.

Lines for early balloting were long all over metro-Atlanta Tuesday as the volume of voters in the upcoming presidential election continued to rise.
Or this, out of Florida:
Spurred by a close contest that could inspire even a centenarian to go to the polls, Florida's early-voting crowds swelled Monday with two- and three-hour waits for many people who wanted to vote on the first day possible before the Nov. 4 election [...] Lines were so long in South Florida that U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, D- Miami, said he may file a lawsuit to have additional voting machines placed at early-voting locations.
And more from Florida:
Long lines and one- to two-hour waits continued into the second day of early voting in Palm Beach County on Tuesday.
And more from Florida:
Day three of early voting looked an awful lot like days one and two: Large throngs gathered at some sites where South Floridians waited to cast their presidential ballots. [...]

Those waiting until the afternoon to vote in hopes of avoiding long lines should think again, said Miami Gardens Councilman Oliver Gilbert III.

Elections office workers have been turning away people who show up to vote after 3 p.m.On Monday and Tuesday, those people at the end of the line didn't actually reach the voting machines until 8 p.m.
Or this, from Arkansas:
Turnout in Arkansas was heavy on the first day of early voting for the Nov. 4 general election, with long lines forming at some polling places ... In Pulaski County, some voters waited an 1 1/2 hours or even two hours to vote, said Susan Inman, director of elections for the Pulaski County Election Commission.
Or this, from North Carolina:
The number of early voting sites in Forsyth County jumped to four yesterday but the polling places couldn't keep up with the deluge of voters.

People lining up to cast ballots before Election Day on Nov. 4 found themselves with two and two-and-a-half-hour waits in some cases, said Rob Coffman, the director of elections in Forsyth County.
Remember, this is early voting -- the election reform that was supposed to help voters avoid the long lines and two-hour waits.

The news stories have a familiar pattern: each dutifully quotes a local election official who is "shocked" and "surprised" by the "unprecedented" turnout. But how is it that these officials -- people who are supposed to know a few things about voting -- seem to be the only ones "surprised" by the turnout? Why are they so unprepared?

In Florida, many are laying the blame on the Republican-controlled state legislature which intentionally restricted the capacity of early voting sites in 2005, as the Miami Herald reports:
Saying early voting cost too much money with rules that weren't uniform, Republican legislators led a charge three years ago to set new statewide standards limiting the number of polling sites and their hours of operation.

Those revamped rules trimmed early voting from 12 hours per workday to eight.

During the first presidential election since Gov. Jeb Bush signed the bill in 2005, the new law's impact can be seen throughout South Florida: exhausting lines at polling sites in Miami-Dade and Broward that led voters to miss work, senior citizens to beg for chairs and voting advocates to question whether some are being disenfranchised.
The specter of voter disenfranchisement is real. Anecdotal evidence is cropping up across the South and country of voters -- especially those with jobs or with families to take care of -- leaving after waits get too long, like this voter in Miami:
James Gardner, a community college supervisor from North Miami, tried to vote there Monday but left. ''I thought it might take me an hour. It's already been 2 Ω,'' he said.
Democrats are especially concerned, given that the problems are concentrated in urban centers with a large concentration of African-American, Latino and working-class voters who traditionally vote Democratic. There is at least some evidence that limits put on polling places in Ohio cities may have hurt John Kerry's chances in the 2004 elections.

Florida is one of seven states singled out in a recent report by The Advancement Project that "are not prepared to meet the challenge of administering the general election." The other six are Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, Ohio and Virginia -- all battleground states.