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Denying the right to vote

Voting is a responsibility. But for too many, that responsibility has been transformed into a burden in ways that do violence to fundamental principles of democracy. 

In 2012, 13 percent of voters had to wait 30 minutes or more to exercise their most fundamental right. Even more troublesome, the long lines were not randomly distributed. These disparities in wait times should give us serious concern.

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According to a study by MIT Professor Charles Stewart III, whites had an average wait time of just 11 minutes on Election Day, while Hispanics stood in line for an average of 15 minutes and Africans-Americans waited an average of 19 minutes. Early voters encountered even longer lines, with whites waiting 16 minutes, African-Americans 26 minutes and Hispanics 29 minutes. Because more than a third of voters had no wait at all, bringing down those averages significantly, those who did find long lines at their polling places were often waiting quite a while to cast their ballots. 

Democrats and independents suffered from longer wait times — 15 minutes — than Republicans, who stood in line an average of 12.4 minutes. 

In Florida, the worst offender, the average wait was 45 minutes. A separate analysis by Ohio State engineering professor Theodore Allen estimated that some 201,000 Sunshine State voters left the lines in frustration, unable to exercise their right. 

This is hardly a new problem: nationally, 1.67 million voters were prevented or deterred from voting in 2008 as a result of long lines. The disparities aren’t new either — white suburbanites in Ohio waited an average of 22 minutes to cast ballots in 2004, while urban blacks waited an average of three hours and 15 minutes. One voter arrived at her polling place at Ohio’s Kenyon College that year to find a wait of more than nine hours. The final votes at Kenyon were not cast until 4 a.m. the following morning. Not everyone could wait in that line, and those who had children to care for or had to be at work the next morning were less likely to hang around than others. 

The conspiracy-minded might see a Republican plot to reduce Democratic turnout in these disparities, and given the testimony from Florida GOPers asserting that they were looking for ways to accomplish exactly that goal, voter suppression is likely part of the story. But it is probably not the whole explanation.

While Florida was the worst offender in 2012, D.C. and Maryland were next on the list, with average wait times of 34 and 29 minutes respectively. I don’t believe that the Democrats who control both those jurisdictions were plotting to prevent African-Americans or Hispanics or students from voting. Sheer incompetence was likely an important factor as well.

With Allen and his colleagues having worked through the problem, incompetence and lack of funding are the only excuses for long lines. These engineers have developed a formula that suggests how many machines per voter a precinct needs, given the various lengths of time it takes to vote. With the formula in hand, election officials can estimate how many machines they will need at each location to keep lines down. 

Reducing wait times will cost money, but how much is democracy worth? Imposing long wait times is anti-democratic (with a small d). It disenfranchises segments of our society by placing unreasonable burdens on some, while making it easy for others to vote. We can laud the patriotic perseverance of those willing to wait 30 minutes or 9 hours to cast a ballot, but we cannot call it fair or democratic. Reducing long lines is neither sexy nor exciting, but perfecting our democracy requires solving this problem.

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Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the Majority Leader of the Senate and the Democratic Whip in the House.