Addressing Racial Disparities in Polling Wait Times: A Needed Election Reform

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,[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] 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[4] as well as Black and Latino voters in Texas,[5] 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,[6] 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.[7] 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.[8] And then there are all the cases of laws on the size of voting precincts and polling places—laws often not followed,[9] 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.


[1] https://www.law.nyu.edu/news/BRENNAN_CENTER_VOTERID_STUDY

[2] https://www.nber.org/system/files/working_papers/w26487/w26487.pdf

[3] https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/waiting-vote

[4] https://www.npr.org/2020/10/17/924527679/why-do-nonwhite-georgia-voters-have-to-wait-in-line-for-hours-too-few-polling-pl

[5] https://kinder.rice.edu/urbanedge/2020/07/13/racial-inequality-why-does-it-take-so-long-vote-Black-communities

[6] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2013/04/08/how-long-did-you-wait-to-vote-depends-on-your-race/

[7] https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/election-day-long-lines-resource-allocation

[8] Ibid.

[9] https://www.npr.org/2020/10/17/924527679/why-do-nonwhite-georgia-voters-have-to-wait-in-line-for-hours-too-few-polling-pl

Hope Is Lost For Voting Rights Expansions…Or Is It?

A “Vote” sign

Republicans in the United States Senate were able to successfully stall the “For the People Act”, a bill that Democrats argued was designed to help expand voting rights and fight off some of the attempts to curtail certain voting rights in some Republican states.[1]

With this came a feeling of despair among many liberals, since a bill pushing for an expansion of voting rights, such as more voting registration options and vote-by-mail, failed. For many, it feels like all hope is lost for voting rights expansions.

Or is it?

I pose this question in light of the Justice Department’s lawsuit against the state of Georgia over its voting law, which “alleges that recent changes to Georgia’s election laws were enacted with the purpose of denying or abridging the right of Black Georgians to vote on account of their race or color, in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act,” according to United States Attorney General Merrick Garland.[2] On the legal end, this may only be the first act with regards to addressing laws on voting that critics say make it more difficult for some people to vote.[3]

I also pose this question in light of an executive order from President Biden I learned the other day—an executive order that broadly focuses on access to voting.[4] Within that executive order is a lot of material with regards to expanding voter education and access within the laws already on the books. That expansion includes, but is not limited to:

  • Work towards expanding the ability of federal employees to take time off and still vote in elections.[5]
  • Work towards giving federal employees more ability to serve as non-partisan poll workers.[6]
  • The issuing of recommendations of how to expand voter access limitations that people with disabilities experience.[7]
  • The issuing of recommendations for protecting the voting rights of Native Americans.[8]
  • Voter education among those in federal custody, consistent with laws already on the books.[9]

Now, let me be crystal clear here—all the executive order seems to be trying to do is push for an expansion of voter access and voting rights within the limitations of the laws already on the books, and all the Garland-led Justice Department seems to be doing is addressing what the Justice Department believes to be a violation of voting rights laws already in place. Neither Garland’s action nor Biden’s is an expansion of laws like one would have seen if the For the People Act passed both chambers of Congress and was signed by President Biden, nor should either action be treated as such.

At the same time, it’s not like nothing is happening on the voting rights front. There isn’t nearly as much happening as many (myself included) would like, but the push at the national level to expand voting rights is far from over.

And here’s the thing—that work towards voter expansion still has some chapters left in it. In line with that executive order I mentioned earlier in the blog post, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is requesting information from voters on barriers that keep people with disabilities from voting privately and independently. In other words, people have an opportunity to comment on what sorts of barriers exist when it comes to voting with dignity. In turn, NIST will use responses to inform a report expected to be released this December offering recommendations on how to address said barriers.[10] So, in a way, we the people (particularly disability advocates and people with disabilities) may yet have an influence on recommendations offered by a federal agency on how to expand voter access for people with disabilities.

So, is it disappointing for many (myself included) that voting rights legislation was defeated? Absolutely. But in spite of that defeat, there is still work that has been done (through the executive order from President Biden and the lawsuit against Georgia brought forth by Garland’s Justice Department), as well as work still to do.


[1] https://www.npr.org/2021/06/22/1008737806/democrats-sweeping-voting-rights-legislation-is-headed-for-failure-in-the-senate

[2] https://www.npr.org/2021/06/25/1010259443/in-suing-georgia-justice-department-says-states-new-voting-law-targets-black-vot

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/03/07/executive-order-on-promoting-access-to-voting/

[5] https://www.fedweek.com/federal-managers-daily-report/order-on-voting-sets-tasks-for-agencies-opens-way-for-broader-paid-time-off-to-vote/

[6] Ibid.

[7] https://www.nist.gov/news-events/news/2021/06/nist-seeks-public-input-removing-barriers-voting-people-disabilities?fbclid=IwAR3nWLn1mV6eTodlvC4Pl1SZRsz8e7WUQsfT7KYyKRUbgSZs0PjgXbhJdbc

[8] https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/03/07/executive-order-on-promoting-access-to-voting/

[9] Ibid.

[10] https://www.nist.gov/news-events/news/2021/06/nist-seeks-public-input-removing-barriers-voting-people-disabilities?fbclid=IwAR3nWLn1mV6eTodlvC4Pl1SZRsz8e7WUQsfT7KYyKRUbgSZs0PjgXbhJdbc

Cutting Civics from School Curricula: An Unjust Move

With the school year either coming up or starting in many states, kids are preparing to learn a multitude of subjects: history, English, Math, and Science, to name a few.

One subject will be noticeably absent for some kids: Civics.

Civics, which is defined as “a social science dealing with the rights and duties of citizens,”[1] can teach students about, among other things:

  1. The importance of voting;
  2. How to know who their representatives are;
  3. How they can be involved in the legislative process, by writing to their representatives about important issues (or calling their legislators);
  4. How people can use their representatives to solve a wide range of issues (provided the representative is responsive, of course);
  5. How to follow the affairs of the government in your city, state, and country.

Teaching kids about these things, and more, through a vibrant Civics curriculum, should be an absolute no-brainer. It promotes civic involvement and awareness of local affairs.

And yet, it seems like Civics education is often on the chopping block in school districts, states, and even federally.[2]

When these cuts come to fruition, what this means is that many kids will grow into adults who are in grave danger of lacking awareness of the full extent of their rights and duties as citizens, ranging from voting rights to the right they have to push their representatives on major issues.

In short, hyperbolic as this may sound to some, cutting Civics is a form of voter suppression and a form of weakening our democracy. After all, if kids aren’t taught about who their representatives are, how will they know to vote for (or against) their representatives when they are adults? If kids don’t know that they can write to their representatives, what will keep a representative from going against the will of their residents, whether that will is spoken or unspoken? If kids aren’t taught how to follow government affairs, how can they cast an informed ballot when they’re adults?

For those of us who think that voter suppression and disenfranchisement starts at the age of 18, when a citizen can vote, think again. It starts when kids are taught minimal or no Civics. However, my readers (or at least readers who live in the United States) can play a role in stopping this—if you ever hear your government, whether it be your school district, your city, your state, or your country, considering cuts to Civics programs, contact your representatives and make it known just how important Civics truly is.

Please note that I will not publish a post next Tuesday, as it will be the Tuesday after Labor Day.


[1] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/civics

[2] Apparently, Civics was among Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s proposed budget cuts. I don’t know if this proposal saw the light of day, but the fact that Civics is so frequently on the chopping block, even at the federal level, should alarm proponents of Civics education: https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2019/04/03/special-olympics-funding-outcry-is-over-its-been-crickets-over-some-devoss-other-proposed-education-budget-cuts-think-civics-history-arts/?noredirect=on

The Fight for African American Civil Rights is Not Over

When my brother and I went through the educational system, we were taught that the big fight for African American civil rights was in the 1950s and 1960s…and then there was nothing on that fight after then.

That is somewhat understandable, because several of the most significant court decisions and pieces of legislation on African American civil rights in the history of the United States happened/passed in the 1950s and 1960s.

However, the fight for African American civil rights is far from over, and in fact, in a number of ways, the United States has seemingly gone backward on African American civil rights.

There is clearly a disconnect going on here, between what some people believe and what the reality is.

Below are three of the common[1] beliefs about African American civil rights that are incorrect. Those incorrect beliefs are in bold and the answers to those incorrect beliefs are in regular text:

  1. We have gone forward on voting rights in recent decades. Actually, the United States has gone backward on voting rights for African Americans. Several years ago, the United States Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Since then, many hundreds of voting sites have closed down, an overwhelming majority of them being in African American communities.[2] Additionally, Voter ID laws have come into play in numerous states; these ID laws have disproportionately affected people of color.[3] If you think that voting rights for African Americans are going forward, think again.
  2. School segregation is in the past. It’s over. To the contrary, racial integration in schools has also gone backward. This Atlantic article goes into great detail about school segregation in the United States. But the TL; DR (short for too long; didn’t read) version is that school segregation is actually getting worse, and there seems to be relatively little political will to sufficiently address that fact. And that’s not just a problem in the American South—there was a whole feature story, also in The Atlantic, about how the new chancellor of the New York City schools has made desegregation of schools a major priority because segregation has become a problem in New York. The consequence is schools that are separate…and unequal.
  3. White people and people of color are treated equally under the law. That’s not true either; the criminal justice system still shows racial disparities. A study in 2017 showed that black men get 19.1% longer sentences than white men on average…for the same crimes![4] Innocent African Americans are much more likely to be wrongfully convicted than innocent people of other races—50% more likely for murder, 3 ½ times more likely for sexual assault, and a staggering 12 times more likely for drug crimes.[5] The disparities may not come as a surprise for many, but the magnitude of the disparities may catch some off-guard—while also demonstrating that the United States has a long way to go on criminal justice issues.

Some people may yet argue that the fight for African American civil rights is over, and that anyone who believes otherwise is somehow holding on to misplaced bitterness. However, during this Black History Month, I argue that actually, it’s far from over. To the contrary, we’re going backward, whether people realize it or not.


[1] Note that this list is not comprehensive. In order to keep this post relatively short, I narrowed it down to three key areas where the fight for African American civil rights is clearly not over.

[2] https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2018/09/04/polling-places-remain-a-target-ahead-of-november-elections

[3] https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2018/09/04/polling-places-remain-a-target-ahead-of-november-elections

[4] https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/black-men-sentenced-time-white-men-crime-study/story?id=51203491

[5] http://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Documents/Race_and_Wrongful_Convictions.pdf

Native American Barriers to Voting

As per usual, while I take many holiday weeks off, I am not taking Columbus Day off. If you’re wondering why, just read this post from the week of Columbus Day last year.

However, from this year on, I’m not just going to post on the week of Columbus Day, but also to post on one or more issues related to indigenous people (since, you know, that was the group most hurt by Columbus and others coming).

At this point, you’re probably asking this: “What are you going to post this year, Brendan?”

This year, given the upcoming midterm election, I think it’s important to write a post about an injustice many of us are not aware of: the fact that many Native Americans face barriers to voting.

It may be surprising to hear that many Native Americans face barriers to voting, especially considering the fact that Native Americans technically have the right to vote. However, just because a group of people has the right to vote doesn’t mean that they are given the resources to vote easily.

Take, for example, the barriers to voting that many Native Americans face in elections. The quantity of barriers is staggering: long distances to voting places, less time for early voting than other groups, restrictive voter-identification regulations, a lack of accommodations for tribal languages at polling places, and many more. The Native American Voting Rights Coalition listed further voting barriers faced by Native Americans in several states, such as registration problems caused by non-traditional addresses, a lack of voter-registration drives in Native American communities, and a lack of Internet access (which makes online voter registration impossible in practice even if it exists in theory). There are even more barriers that Native Americans face to voting, but these are just a few.

If your head is spinning at this point from the massive list of voting restrictions that Native Americans face, don’t feel badly—honestly, I felt that way, too, while drafting this post. If anything, be glad that you’re recognizing the extent of voting restrictions against Native Americans in 2018.

However, we must go further, as individuals, than simply recognizing how the system is stacked against Native Americans, as far as voting is concerned. Instead, we must consider what, if anything, our candidates say about voting rights for all individuals, including Native Americans. While I will not be one to endorse candidates on this blog, what I will say is that anyone who does not support the further enfranchisement of all individuals at the voting booth, including the enfranchisement of Native Americans, does not deserve anyone’s vote.

Update as of October 16, 2018: For the first time ever, I needed to update a blog post soon after writing one. That is because yet another barrier has been added for some Native Americans. Namely, for people in North Dakota, you must have an ID with a current street address in order to vote. P.O. boxes are not acceptable. This disproportionately affects Native Americans, as many Native American reservations lack physical street addresses (plus many homeless Native Americans use P.O. boxes, not physical street addresses). Therefore, North Dakota has created, and the Supreme Court has refused to do anything about, yet another barrier to voting that Native Americans in that state will face. I want to give a “thank you” to Scottie at Scotties Toy Box for bringing my attention to this issue, and to National Public Radio’s article on the topic and many others for reporting on this.