Another Form of Voter Suppression

As the Republicans continue their relentless campaign to make it as difficult as possible for people to vote (but only if they’re likely Democratic voters), one constant and mostly invisible means of voter suppression is making sure that the wait times are longer at polling places in precincts with a high minority presence.

These polling places tend to have long lines to vote. Long lines force people to eventually give up and go home, depressing voter turnout. And that happens regularly all across the country in precincts with lots of minority voters, even without voter ID or other voting restrictions in place.

Nationally, African Americans waited about twice as long to vote in the 2012 election as white people (23 minutes on average versus 12 minutes); Hispanics waited 19 minutes. White people who live in neighborhoods whose residents are less than 5 percent minority had the shortest of all wait times, just 7 minutes. These averages obscure some of the unusually long lines in some areas. In South Carolina’s Richland County, which is 48 percent black and is home to 14 percent of the state’s African American registered voters, some people waited more than five hours to cast their ballots.

A recent study from the Brennan Center for Justice suggests that a big factor behind these delays was inadequately prepared polling places in heavily minority precincts. Looking at Florida, Maryland, and South Carolina, three states that had some of the longest voting lines in 2012 , the center found a strong correlation between areas with large minority populations and a lack of voting machines and poll workers. In South Carolina, the 10 precincts with the longest waits had more than twice the percentage of black voters (64 percent) as the state as a whole (27 percent).

In the parts of South Carolina with the longest lines (all in Richland County), precincts had an average of only 1 poll worker for every 321 voters, almost twice the state’s mandated ratio of 1 to 167. These precincts also had the fewest voting machines relative to registered voters, with some precincts hitting 432 voters per machine. In contrast, precincts with no wait times had an average of 279 voters per machine. State law requires no more than 250 voters per machine, a limit implemented under the Voting Rights Act. Research shows that voter participation starts to drop off sharply when the number of registered voters per machine exceeds that…

After the 2004 election, University of Michigan political scientist Walter Mebane studied Franklin County for the Democratic National Committee, which wanted to figure out why so many likely Democratic voters had been unable to vote. He found that precincts with large minority populations had nearly 24 percent more registered voters per voting machine than in precincts whose population was less than one-quarter minority. Mebane estimated that the voting machine shortage had reduced potential voter turnout in those areas of Franklin by about 4 percent. Another estimate suggested that roughly 130,000 would-be voters were turned away thanks to long lines.

The standards are in place, but there’s obviously no enforcement mechanism and no plans to ensure adequate voting machines and poll workers before the election takes place — and after it takes place, with who knows how many people not being able to vote, any action taken is useless. Just another way poor and minority voters are prevented from voting.

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  • John Pieret

    Just another way poor and minority voters are prevented from voting.

    Ya know … the Republicans are with you on this … they’d just as soon have nice “clean” elections by doing as a number of them have proposed … allowing only “property owners” to vote. Then there wouldn’t be any need for ID laws or, as in the old days, “poll taxes,” … we could just have it out in the open!

  • neonsequitur

    “Long lines force people to eventually give up and go home back to work, depressing voter turnout.”

    Fixed that for them, and highlighted another part of the problem. If we had a national holiday for voting, it would matter less if people had to wait in line. They’d have more time to spare for voting.

  • riandouglas

    nonsequiter @2, or anyone else: What is the reasoning behind holding elections during the week?

    In Australia elections tend to be held on a Saturday, which I makes it easier to vote (voting is also mandatory, so there’s motiviation to wait).

  • Kevin Kehres

    Vote by mail. Oregon does it. Voter “turnout” (ie, completed and returned ballots) is about 70%…double that of any other state.

    The reason we vote on Tuesday is because it’s in the Constitution. First Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Yes, election day should be a “national holiday” — but when has the declaration of a “national holiday” prevented Wal-Mart and Krispy Creme from staying open? Wouldn’t help, except maybe for federal workers.

  • Donovan

    I remember when I lived in Georgia my wife (then girlfriend) had a very hard time voting. I lived in a small mildly affluent, strongly Republican and religious town just outside a Navy base. I had never seen a line to vote and met happy, cheerful, welcoming poll workers for the 15 minutes, TOPS, it took to cast my vote.

    My wife went to her polling station, where she lived in a downtrodden, mostly minority city with a horrendous poverty rate and a college and unionized paper mill as the major employers. They said they were having technical issues and closed it down, sending everybody to the neighboring precinct. They shut down that station as well, sending a large city population all to city hall to vote where the lines were a virtual blockage against ballots. She waited and voted, but she didn’t ever want to do it again.

  • Modusoperandi



  • pixiedust

    @3 and 4

    Going purely from memory here so probably wrong but….

    Tuesday was election day because Sunday was supposed to be spent in church. Most voters had to travel to vote and travel wasn’t fast. So a voter might need to spend the day before the election traveling. Voting was a civic occasion so they probably spent the visiting and drinking with people whom they didn’t see so often. Then the next day they traveled back home. Since Sunday was spent in church (at least in godly contemplation), election day could not be Sunday or the days on either side of it. Assuming Monday and Saturday could be, at best, travel days, that left Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday for election day. The weekend, as we know it, didn’t exist so any of those days was during the work week. Why Tuesday instead of Wed, Thurs., or Friday? No idea.

    Corrections welcomed.

  • zekehoskin

    Kebin Kehres #4 – I’m impressed by Oregon, nearly 70%, but it’s not double any other state. Washington looked to be just under 50% (1.4 of 3.9 million, around 500K still to be counted). Also mail-in ballots, needless to say, and should have been much higher without all them attack ads persuading the terminally disgusted that it wasn’t worth the postage.

  • Al Dente

    pixiedust @7

    That’s the reason for Tuesday voting that I was taught in political science 101.

  • John Pieret

    pixiedust @ 7:

    Also going by memory …

    Wednesday was traditionally “market day” and also out on that basis alone. Thursday, Friday and even Saturday was “getting everything back home, preserving food, and properly storing everything” days.

  • jaybee

    Not that I doubt the conclusion of the report at all, but I’d *love* to have 24 minute voting times. During years of presidential elections, I’ve never spent less than an hour here in Austin, TX, standing in line, and sometimes more than two hours. This is in three different voting locations, and in generally non-minority areas.

    This year, due to opting for early voting and it being a minor election cycle, it took only 15 minutes to vote.

  • Jared James

    That’s how to win if you have fewer overall voters in your tent: dilute the vote, by making sure lots more of the other party’s voters are packed into a few reliable-for-them districts, then undersupply, underserve, “underestimate” turnout in those larger districts to suppress the vote. The first makes sure they get fewer representatives in the statehouse; the latter ensures they also have fewer representatives statewide and nationally.

    If you’re going to cheat, you have to cheat both ways or it won’t work.

  • eamick

    @4: The exact date is not specified in the Constitution, only that the date be uniform throughout the country.

  • cottonnero

    It’s the same page in the abortion playbook – GOP can’t make it illegal, but they can make it a monumental pain in the ass.

  • David Eriksen

    Re: jaybee @11

    here in Austin, TX

    There’s your problem. All of Austin is a minority district by Texas standards since it swings liberal. I’d imagine that much of Houston and Dallas have the same problem. I know that the wait times in the military enclaves here in San Antonio are very short (I waited all of 4 minutes in 2012) but I’ve heard the waits can be pretty bad further away from one of the bases.

  • lorn

    While the effect benefits a select group, in this case the GOP, a good part of this is easily denied because it is, in large part, a result of social dynamics and patterns of volunteerism independent of direct political control.

    Consider the people who volunteer to run poling stations. You see a whole lot of fairly well off white women who are inherently biased to make sure that the voting in their own districts goes smoothly. Many of the poll workers are organized as part of a local politically active elite. The well established and well known individuals, those with more power and control, tend to want to work in wealthier districts. Their own if possible.

    As a practical matter they militate to get more and faster machines, more and more experienced volunteers for their preferred poling places, and they take pride in the efficiency of their own districts. Poorer districts get less experienced poll workers, less well maintained machines, and far less oversight.

    And all of these effects build upon each other. Less experienced poll workers take longer to move people through the lines. Long lines stress poll workers and eliminated any long term planning and oversight. A lack of long term planning and oversight causes polling machines to be allocated based upon the numbers that vote, which is held down by everything moving more slowly. Which means districts that had fewer voters this year, for any reason, will be locked into numbers of machines and poll workers in line with those numbers. So things don’t get better.

    But it also feeds back into the system because poll workers with experience and power have no desire to work in chaos and overstressed conditions with older and shabby machines that break down often so they use their seniority to avoid those polling palaces.

    It is a system of benign neglect that, once locked in, perpetuates itself in problem districts. This dynamic is going to be far more difficult to change than the imagined problem of wealthy, cackling white guys gathering in a smoke filed back room to screw over poor districts. Which isn’t to say that some of that isn’t going on, but as with racism, the biggest problem isn’t a few plotters knowingly exercising their bigotry but rather hundreds of small choices made by people who don’t see themselves as bigots or partisans.

  • pixiedust

    John @ 10

    Wednesday being market day would make Tuesday a great day for elections since you’ve made the trip and are in town. You do your marketing and skedaddle home.

  • D. C. Sessions

    Lorn, that’s a great hypothesis. Fortunately, it’s been tested.

    Ohio had scandalously long lines (as in, still waiting past midnight) in several precincts in 2004. It was such a scandal that they took action (mostly by providing more machines) in 2008, and the lines got right down to the same wait as at other precincts. Then 2010 happened, and in 2012 the lines were if anything worse than 2004.

    As for maintenance of the machines, that’s not a local responsibility anywhere I’ve heard of. For obvious reasons.

  • stuartsmith

    Wow. Here in Canada, your employer is required to give you paid time off to go vote. I naively assumed it was like that anywhere that calls itself a democracy.