When you see a long line outside a polling place, it's reasonable to think two things simultaneously. First: Isn't it great that so many people want to participate in the election! And second: Wait, something must be wrong.
Turnout yesterday looked to be unusually high for a midterm election, and not surprisingly, we got reports from all over about problems people are having voting. Those included: dead machines because of a lack of power cords, ballot scanning machine issues and a closed polling site closed because it's in foreclosure.
Some of these problems may be the result of what we would call malign neglect. Others are outright voter suppression; when a majority-Hispanic city with a population of 28,000 has just one polling place and just before the election, officials move it out of the center of town to a location a mile away from the nearest bus stop, it's pretty clear officials don't want people to vote. Still other times it's just the result of happenstance, inadequate preparation and inadequate funding.
But what we can say without question is that the United States' system of voting is terrible. A couple of years ago, an international comparison rated the United States' as the worst electoral system among long-established democracies, and 47th in the world overall.
Why is it like this? There are many reasons, but at the heart of most of them is the decentralized nature of the system.
We have a system run by states, counties, cities and towns. In some places they do a great job. In some places they do a terrible job. A big part of the administration is handled not by professionals but by volunteers, who may have had little training on the systems they're using and have trouble solving problems that occur on Election Day.
And of course, the decentralized nature of the system leaves it open to manipulation by people who want to make it work poorly, at least for some voters.
But imagine what it would be like if we had an election and there were almost no problems. Imagine if everyone who wanted to vote could vote. If you weren't worried that you'd been purged unfairly from the rolls. If you didn't have to travel long distances and need a car to get to a polling place, or wait in line for hours or be told that you had the wrong kind of ID. If you weren't unsure that your vote would actually be tallied correctly.
My preference would be to nationalize voting, at least to the extent of imposing systems, rules and procedures we can all agree on to make things work more efficiently. But there are other things we can do in the meantime to make Election Day and what leads up to it less stressful.
First, we can pass automatic voter registration everywhere. Registration is just one more hurdle to voting, and we should make it automatic for everyone. At a minimum, we should have same-day registration (which is already available in 17 states plus the District of Columbia) so it isn't something people have to worry about beforehand.
Next, we can expand early voting so that people can do it at their leisure in the days leading up to the election. And we should make Election Day a national holiday, so no one has to take off work in order to do it and we don't get the early-morning and post-work rushes that result in long lines.
And more states should move to universal vote by mail, which can increase turnout and make things dramatically easier for people with disabilities, people with difficult work schedules and, really, anyone.
Those are just a few of the reforms we could adopt. But more than anything else, what we have to do is decide that we don't need to live with the problems we have now. We can have a better system. Other advanced democracies do. We make a choice to have our system be such a mess; we just need to make a different choice.
Paul Waldman is a columnist with The Washington Post.