Right now, all the talk about election reforms and voting rights at the national level and at some state levels seems to center around gerrymandering (manipulating the boundaries of an electoral district to favor a particular party or person), state voter ID laws (something which critics argue disenfranchises some people), and restoring voting rights for people with completed felony sentences, to name a few. These are big and important things to try and take on, as gerrymandering allows representatives to choose their constituents instead of the other way around, restrictive voter ID laws create a potential barrier to voting for some people, and restoring voting for people with completed felony sentences seems only fitting for those who have already paid their debts to society.
Yet, there are several other severely needed election-related issues that aren’t being discussed enough, in my humble opinion, yet desperately need to be addressed in some form. One such issue I want to really focus on in this post is in reducing the racial disparity in wait times at the polls.
In the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential Election, it was found that residents of entirely Black neighborhoods took 29% longer to vote and were 74% more likely to wait at their polling place to vote for 30+ minutes than those from entirely white neighborhoods. Numbers were also bad in the 2018 midterm elections, when Latinos waited 46% longer than white voters on average while Black voters waited 45% longer than white voters on average. I haven’t seen any numbers for 2020, but I am guessing that 2020 might not be a fair year to look at for numbers due to how the COVID-19 pandemic affected the way so many Americans voted.
A fair bit of the blame for these disparities has often been given to a 2013 United States Supreme Court decision that decided to throw out key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The result of the decision was that several elements of federal oversight of election decisions in states with histories of discrimination, including decisions on closing down polling places, were removed. Subsequently, many of these states covered by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 have closed down many polling places—something which has disproportionately affected Black voters in Georgia as well as Black and Latino voters in Texas, to name two.
While I have little doubt that the closing down of polling places in many communities of color post-2013 decision has played a factor, I think there is something more going on. I say that because wait times for voting in presidential elections in 2012 and 2008—in a time before the 2013 decision from the Supreme Court—also show racial disparities in terms of how long people waited at the polls, leading me to think that while the 2013 decision is likely a problem, it’s not the only problem.
Another potential problem to consider is the number of resources allocated to various voting places; namely, poll workers and voting machines. Speaking of 2012, the states that had the longest lines in that year’s election (Florida, South Carolina, and Maryland) were marred by a shortage of machines, poll workers, or both—issues that happened in areas with high percentages of minority voters. The fact that two of these states (Florida and Maryland) did not even have the “histories of discrimination” that made them subject to the Voting Rights Act also means that looking at voting from a racial injustice standpoint should not just be limited to those states and locations subjected to the Voting Rights Act.
A more politically progressive approach to this might be to advocate for voting rights legislation that could, if at all possible, hold accountable states which dole out fewer resources for voting to communities of color than to predominantly white communities, whether that be poll places or poll workers. I am not a legal expert so I don’t know the extent to which such a law is possible, especially given the fact that there is a lot of power in terms of the administering of elections that is in the hands of individual states. I am also not a legislative expert so I don’t know if the current voting rights legislation in Congress looks to address this specific issue. However, given the fact that the right to vote is a foundational right for an American citizen, it is certainly an issue that needs to be brought to the table at the federal level.
One thing that must be done, regardless of whether anything can legally be done at the federal level to address such issues, is that more advocacy needs to be done to pressure states into following their own election laws—laws that are often not followed. In the case of two of the states with the longest lines in 2012, for example (Maryland and South Carolina), the overwhelming majority of voting precincts did not comply with laws in place regarding resource allocations for polling places. And then there are all the cases of laws on the size of voting precincts and polling places—laws often not followed, much to the detriment of how long lines at the polls often are. I can’t help but wonder how many of the current racial disparities with polling wait times would be addressed if states were pressured into following their own election laws on everything from resource allocations to the sizes of polling precincts.
Regardless of the strategy for addressing the disparity in polling wait times, it cannot be denied that there are longstanding disparities in terms of how long people of different races need to vote. Figuring out how best to address this should be part of the larger election reform discussion.