It’s time to invest in democracy and minimize extensive voting lines


Flickr CC: Michael Stokes

Part of a voting line in Limerick Township in Lindberg Heights, PA on Nov. 3, 2020. The estimated wait time to cast a ballot was more than two hours.

Gerrymandering. Voter suppression. Felon disenfranchisement. There are numerous well-known and pervasive obstacles between the voter and the ballot box, between unequal representation and true democracy in America. But when people finally register to vote, acquire all necessary identification, and find time to actually make it to the polling place, these issues, as critical as they are, become invisible. For most voters, there’s only one thing on their mind when they arrive: the line.

Long lines at polling stations seem like they would be a good thing. Politicians love to talk about getting out the vote and doing one’s civic duty, and long lines are evidence of those efforts; they are high turnouts in practice. From this perspective, the recent trend in American elections looks promising. According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, 2018 set the record for most in-person ballots cast in an American midterm election. Turnout for the upcoming election looks promising, too – half the number of votes in the 2016 election were cast in the 2020 one by October 27, five days before Election Day. A Pew Research Center poll taken over the summer found that a record number of registered voters say it “really matters” who wins the 2020 election.

Long lines disempower all eligible voters, but they especially disempower racial and ethnic minorities.”

However, the more people who show up to vote, the more likely they are to be stuck in lines. The Bipartisan Policy Center recorded that the share of voters who waited for more than thirty minutes doubled from 2014 to 2018. With a highly infectious disease running wild through the country, thirty minutes can be deadly; the CDC’s guidelines state that 15 minutes of exposure to someone with the coronavirus is considered close contact. Even when the threat of COVID-19 has been mostly mitigated, long lines from high turnout can be deadly to the democratic system. The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies estimates that around 700,000 Americans were discouraged from voting in 2012 due to long lines. For comparison, the 2000 presidential election was decided by just 537 votes in Florida, one of the states with historically long wait times.

Long lines disempower all eligible voters, but they especially disempower racial and ethnic minorities. In the 2012 election, according to the Joint Center, African Americans had to wait 23 minutes to vote on average, Latinx people 19 minutes, and whites 12 minutes. This is particularly disturbing considering that with race squarely in the crosshairs of political discourse, the upcoming elections will enable minorities, especially Black people, to build an America that works for them. It’s particularly important to expedite the voting process when one considers that many Americans, especially minorities, work for a wage, and are therefore spending money on opportunity costs when they take time off work to vote. The Joint Center estimated that in 2012, Americans lost a combined total of $544 million in wages and productivity while waiting to vote.

The most crucial thing to grasp is that this is a solvable problem. Getting voters through lines quickly is entirely dependent on the infrastructure in place; simple things like adding more polling places, updating voting machines, expanding the number of poll workers and booths, and digitizing registration could expedite the process substantially. All of these steps are ones that policymakers are more than capable of making. Since states are responsible for facilitating the process of voting, different states handle the problem of lines differently. Minnesota does better than most, but the system is far from perfect, and activists of all ages, classes and races should reach out to legislators to make sure improvements are made to our shared democracy.