Voter identification laws have garnered a lot of attention this election cycle, with proponents arguing that they are necessary for preventing voter fraud and critics charging that they would suppress voters for whom obtaining valid identification is difficult.
Yesterday, I witnessed a different form of voter suppression that has gained less attention from reformers and the media during this election – prohibitively long voting lines.
My polling station was in my apartment building, and yesterday morning it took my two roommates three and a half hours to vote. At 6:30pm – only thirty minutes before the polls were supposed to close – the line contained more than two hundred people, advancing at a snail’s pace. For a person at the end of that line, it looked like it would take more than two hours to cast a vote, long after most eastern states would have been called for one candidate or the other.
To be fair, we do have the option of voting early, but many voters hold to tradition and wait until Election Day to cast ballots. I also do live in Virginia, a swing state, where people were perhaps more likely to turn out. But with record high turnout in 2008, it’s hard to imagine that officials in my county could not have anticipated the number of people at my polling station yesterday. And I’m sure many people walked away because of the lines.
Requiring a voter to wait this long seems undemocratic. It can make the cost of voting especially high for people whose work schedules or childcare options are less flexible. It favors voters whose value for time is lower, because the opportunity cost to them of the wait is not so high as for others. It also favors people whose polling places are better equipped and run. A friend voted in a different part of my state, and his wait was ten minutes. I see no reason why one county or city should be able to create a painless voting process while another struggles to get their votes in before the polls close.
One voter discouraged by long lines could not have changed the outcome of the election, but thousands of votes discouraged by a similar experience could have. If people are concerned about voter suppression, then they may not want to focus solely on voter identification laws, but turn their attention to unprepared localities like mine without sufficient numbers of booths or polling places. Improving the current system may be costly and challenging, but if we care about democracy, it’s a change we must make.