How Long Do You Wait To Vote?

With voting having started in the US Presidential elections, scenes of people waiting in line for several hours to vote have been circulating around the world. This prompted me to ask Twitter a question:

I was interested in other people’s experience, because in my time as a voter, candidate, election agent and campaign manager, I’ve never experienced people having to wait a significant time to be able to cast their vote. I’ve seen queues at polling stations, most recently during the 2017 general election which gave me the first clue that something unexpected might be about to happen, but never ones that would mean a wait of more than a quarter of an hour at most to vote. However, as my experience mostly comes from just one place, I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t generalising too much from it, but the feedback I got indicated that my experience is pretty close to the norm.

Oh, and it also confirmed that some Australians will never miss a chance to remind the rest of the world of the Democracy Sausage.

But back to Britain, where we don’t have people cooking outside polling stations. With the caveat that this comes from responses to a single tweet and the plural of anecdote is not data, it does seem that my experience is not unique. For non-postal voters, election day means a trip of a few minutes to the get to the polling station (Google Maps says mine is six minutes walk away), where you walk straight in, maybe have a chat with the poll clerks and presiding officer as you get your ballot paper, fill it in, pop it in the box and then leave. If you vote at one of the peak times (in the morning as people head to work, in the afternoon when schools are letting out and the early evening) you might have to wait in line a few minutes, but not for huge amounts of time.

The system’s not perfect, and there have been times when people have had to queue for an hour (see this report from 2010 for an example) but that’s normally because of a bottleneck caused by an unexpected surge in turnout at particular polling stations at one point in the day. The key point here is that when people have had to wait an hour or more to vote, it’s been national news and the councils involved in running those elections have made changes to try to prevent it happening again.

There were two interesting misunderstandings that came up frequently in the comments I got, which I’d like to try and correct. First, the poll clerks and presiding officer running the polling station are paid for their work. They’re normally a mix of council staff doing it instead of their regular job for the day and people employed specifically for the day. In most cases they work the full fifteen-hour day at the polling station too.

Second, the party workers sitting somewhere near the entrance to the polling station aren’t doing exit polls or something nefarious. They’re tellers, and they’re looking to find out who has voted so they can be crossed off any list of the party’s voters they might be on and not get disturbed by people knocking-up those who haven’t voted yet later in the day. I’ve explained before how they fit into a polling day operation (and no, in the UK campaigning on election day isn’t against the law):

Now, one of the reasons British elections don’t have long queues is that the voting process itself is quite short. You’re normally voting in just one election, you vote by putting a solitary X on the ballot paper, and then you’re done. Sometimes there are multiple elections on the same day — next May I should be voting for Borough Council, County Council and Police and Crime Commissioner — but yes, voters in the US are still having to spend more time in the polling booth filling out their ballor.

However, other countries do have complicated ballots and electoral systems. The desire to eat immediately after voting in Australia is perhaps explained partly by the size of their ballot papers, where you’re expected to rank candidates by order of preference, not just pick one:

There are many countries where the actual act of voting can take a long time, but the US is one of a very small minority of places where some people need to wait for hours just to get to vote. And I say some people, because long voting queues aren’t a feature across the whole of the US:

It is also far more difficult for members of minority communities to be able to locate polling places on Election Day. Only 5 percent of white survey respondents reported that they had trouble finding polling locations, compared to 15 percent of African American and 14 percent of Hispanic respondents. When deciding where to place a polling station, election officials are required to assign each precinct a designated station based on factors such as population, accessibility, and location recognizability; locations may be changed at the officials’ discretion. Minorities have a lower voter turnout compared to whites and, in many cases, this has resulted in discriminatory polling place distributions. Disparities in polling places can also be the result of a change in the majority of election officials; minority populations are more likely to be left-leaning and, as a result, officials may shift polling locations to areas that are more representative of their political ideals.

People having to wait for hours to get to vote is a sign that the administration of elections in that place is being done very badly. However, in large parts of the US it’s being done intentionally badly in order to suppress the vote. When those of us in other countries see these problems in the US we need to be aware that it’s not a case of “lol, the Americans can’t properly organise an election” it’s “the Americans can organise an efficient election, but they choose not to do so for many minority groups”.

And this is not new, it’s just the latest incarnation of a series of hurdles that block people from exercising their right to vote. Years ago, they used near-impossible and intentionally confusing literacy tests to block people getting to vote, and when those were ruled illegal, they found other ways to achieve the same ends. Restricting the number of polling places, thus creating longer wait times at the few that remain, is just one way of doing that.

Democracy is a process, not an event, and that process needs to be strengthened and guarded throughout to ensure it works for everyone. Being able to vote quickly and easily is something we take for granted, and we shouldn’t forget that it’s taken a lot of work over many years to get to this position.

Many, many things. PhD student at QMUL. Councillor. Ran the 2019 London Marathon for Brain Research UK. @nickjbarlow on Twitter.

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