Disenfranchisement of the impatient
November 1, 2008 10:25 PM   Subscribe

Why do Americans have to queue for hours and hours to vote?

American voters it seems put up with queuing for a ridiculously long time just to vote. Is this just accepted as par for the course? In this video the people are in a three-hour long queue, and don't seem upset about it at all, seem to accept it as their lot, and I've read articles where people say they queued for half a day just to vote. And that is just the early voting when it is supposed to be a bit quieter.

I've been into polling stations in plenty of countries including New Zealand and Japan, and most people seem to be able to vote in 10 minutes or so with little fuss. Queuing for anything longer than half an hour or so seems to me pushing the limit - and I know personally as a queue-hater I would give up if the queue was two hours long.

How can an 80-year old stand in a queue for two hours?

What is the reason/rationale behind this and is this just accepted as normal? Maybe as a foriegner I'm getting the wrong impression from the media...
posted by dydecker to Law & Government (68 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
It's because Republicans lobby for policies that make it more difficult to vote. For instance, they sued to reduce voting hours, etc.
posted by xammerboy at 10:35 PM on November 1, 2008 [16 favorites]

Because Election Day is November 4th and those that are voting now are doing so in the states that have early voting with limited polling places. Expect that on November 4th there will be many more polling places. You can also be certain the media isn't showing any of the early voting polling locations without lines.
posted by geekyguy at 10:35 PM on November 1, 2008

You are getting any number of wrong impressions and I'm not really sure if this is a question or just a "lol US sucks" monologue.

That said,

1) early voting is becoming more and more prevalent. Many many people have already voted in Nevada and Florida, to name just two of the more competitive places.

2) I personally have never waited longer than a few minutes, but then I live in a very large city where things tend to be well organized. the first time I heard of these huge lines was in 2004- the last few presidential elections have had extraordinarily high turnout, what with the polarizing nature of Bush and friends, and the realization after 2000 of just how much every vote counts.

3) The elderly and handicapped may be allowed to cut the line, I'm not sure, but they are definitely entitled to mail in absentee ballots and not have to go to the polls at all.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:35 PM on November 1, 2008 [3 favorites]

Maybe as a foriegner(sic) I'm getting the wrong impression from the media...

Hearsay, but here in Texas I've never waited for more than ten minutes.

In many states, there are no polling places at all and everyone receives a ballot in the mail, which they fill out and return within a month by mail or dropbox to a central location where they're tallied.

Mainstream American media is so far beyond worthless that I, personally, don't even pay attention to it anymore.
posted by SpecialK at 10:35 PM on November 1, 2008

A bit of history. Things used to be much, much worse.
posted by roger ackroyd at 10:36 PM on November 1, 2008 [3 favorites]

(I see now you were referring to early voting. it is a new thing in most states and they probably aren't equipped with enough stations for this year's historically high turnout. However I was in Nevada last weekend and I was told their were few to no lines in Las Vegas. i think the stories you are seeing are to emphasize how much the people profiled want to vote for Obama, not how "accepting of their lot" Americans are.)
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:40 PM on November 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

If they are doing a story about record turnout, they are not going to show a polling station that isnt crowded.
posted by BobbyDigital at 10:41 PM on November 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

The underlying problem: Not much money is spent on elections; the issue only comes up every 2 years and there's only a big election every 4; there isn't much political benefit to spending more money on election infrastructure, etc. Also, some precincts use separate machines for early voting and regular voting so as to not contaminate the "absentee" early votes. So sometimes there are only a couple machines for the early voting while there are many for the general election.

The why are Americans okay with it problem: What videos are you watching? If they're from this election, then you're seeing early voters -- arguable more motivated to vote, more willing to put up with crap to vote, etc. Also, this presidential election is particularly charged -- that motivates people to vote. Many Obama supporters are a demographic that haven't really been motivated by the Democrats in a long time, so they could be extra excited to vote and don't mine the wait.

In New Zealand it's likely that low population density means most election resources can be concentrated in the cities, so wait times aren't a problem.

xammerboy is somewhat right -- generally, democrats want to make it easier for people to vote and republicans want to make sure that all the votes are correct, ie: the registries only contain legal voters, the only people voting are those on the registries, etc. Voter challenges and whatnot occur from both sides and have a negligible effect (except for that one infamous time).
posted by lockestockbarrel at 10:41 PM on November 1, 2008

Response by poster: What videos are you watching?

I can't find the link but one story I read today was about an elderly woman who went down to the polls but the line was long, so she went home and came back the next day...with a deckchair. Then every time the line moved forward she pulled the chair forward a few metres and sat back down again. For three hours.
posted by dydecker at 10:53 PM on November 1, 2008

America is a big place and experiences vary widely. I've never waited more than 15 mins.
posted by amethysts at 10:54 PM on November 1, 2008

It depends a _whole_ lot on where you are.
Remember that the U.S. doesn't have a unified voting system, each state chooses the manner, method and place in which voting occurs.
My state, for example, does voting by mail, which makes us the only place in the U.S. you can choose the next leader of the free world in your underwear. heh.
Some states have a lot of decentralized polling places, some have only a few in select government buildings. Some polls close early, some go on into the night.

However, a couple of things are going on in the video you linked:
That's early voting in Florida. In 2005, Florida changed the rules for early voting, limiting the number of polling places and the hours for voting. This is the first Presidential election to happen with the new rules. Combine that with reported record turnout for early voting and you've got, well, what you saw on the video.

Not directly related to your video but a few other things to keep in mind:
Also, in some places, voter registration is up 40% or more. A lot of polling places simply aren't used to the kind of volume they're going to get. Some of the smaller polling stations are going to be overwhelmed come Tuesday, I think.
Additionally, Election Day isn't a holiday in the U.S., so people tend to crowd around the early morning or evening hours. Like anything else, if you go during non-peak times, it can be a breeze.

So, yes, the lines have been excessive in some places, but no, 5 hours isn't normal in my experience.
posted by madajb at 10:58 PM on November 1, 2008

Not typical, in my experience. I've lived in a bunch of states across the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, and in areas ranging from very rural to dense suburbs, and never waited more than a few minutes at most.

Typically the longest part of the procedure is finding my name in the Giant Book 'o Voters.

I voted absentee this time around though, so can't tell you whether it's spectacularly worse or better. I really doubt that it's much different.

Sometimes you'll get lines at certain polling places on the morning of Election Day, with people trying to get in before they go to work, or right after work at 5PM-ish, but that's avoided if you want by just going earlier or later (I always go later).

As to why it doesn't run more smoothly…nobody wants to pay for the grease.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:03 PM on November 1, 2008

Yeah, just another American chiming in to say I've never waited more than a few minutes--and this is in New York (well, Brooklyn) where it isn't like we have crazy resources. It's the exception more than the rule.
posted by dame at 11:04 PM on November 1, 2008

My personal experience as a voter in Colorado.

2000 and 2002 - Didn't care enough to bother voting (I was only 18 and 20 respectively).

2004 - On election day I went to a church not 1000 feet from my home. My wife and I walked in, stood in line maybe 3 minutes. and proceeded to vote. No hassle, easy as can be.

2006 - Denver had instituted some sort of rule allowing any voter in the Denver Metro Area to vote at any polling location (there were around 10 total). I got off work at 5pm and went to the nearest one with my wife. The lines were so long I couldn't believe it. Literally hundreds of people in line. Turns out there was some sort of glitch in the computer system earlier resulting in 20 minute delays per voter that backed up the line for hours. My wife being 7 months pregnant said screw it and went home. I went to another polling place and waited in line for 3 hours to vote.

2008 - Registered to vote by mail. Got a ballot in the mail, filled it out at home. Yesterday I went to a local early voting place and dropped off my ballot.

Ultimately I would gladly wait in line again for any number of hours to vote again like I did in 2006. It's ridiculous but I have grown to see the value in voting and quite enjoy the process.
posted by Octoparrot at 11:07 PM on November 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Other factors include
* Electronic voting machines that only let a small number of people fill out ballots at a time (as opposed to paper & pencil systems)
* the sometimes large number of offices and issues on the ballot: it would nto be uncommon to see 15 offices plus 4 direct questions to the voters about whether state law or constitution should be amended or certain money should be spent.
* understaffed/underprovisioned polling locations in the poorer areas, better staffed/provisioned locations where the rich metafilter subscribers vote from
posted by jepler at 11:13 PM on November 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

My parents live in a state where (it used to be) the number of voting booths each precinct was given depends on the percentage of people voting throughout the state, not for a given precinct.

Thus, places with higher percentages of the population voting, had longer lines. Now that state allows permanent absentee voting with no questions asked, so that's what they do.

Me, I always forget to sign up for absentee voting; I've never waited more than 20 minutes, but until now I have always been a student and thus went during the day.

Of course part of this is dependent on whether or not a given state is a "swing state" or not; living in CA for the past 9 years (and now MA), the presidential race is not really changed by my vote; many people (although they are silly, b/c there are plenty of other important issues on ballots) simply don't vote.

(Am I right about this? is there correlation between a state's voting percentage and how close the presidential election is there? Would be interesting data.)
posted by nat at 11:22 PM on November 1, 2008

This is a useful map for seeing quickly which states allow what sort of nonstandard voting.

Plenty more info available on the host site there if you poke around. Really, this varies hugely.
But would a picture of an empty polling place make news nearly as exciting?

There are other things which vary; some places, most polling stations are schools; some places they use large buildings, including churches; some places, they use whoever volunteers space, including my last polling place, in somebody's garage. The churches wierd me out the most, but evidently they are quite common: This article talks more about the issue.
posted by nat at 11:34 PM on November 1, 2008

-I've never waited more than 10 minutes to vote. Just like any event, lines are long at some times of the day, shorter at others.

-Video of voting activity with short or no lines is not visually interesting. You're more likely to see long lines used in a video to convey the event.

-"Absentee" voting by mail is now common; you don't need a "reason" to vote this way. Just apply and wait for your ballot in the mail.

-I would be more concerned if people were so uninterested in voting that lines were too short.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 11:35 PM on November 1, 2008

"Absentee" voting by mail is now common; you don't need a "reason" to vote this way. Just apply and wait for your ballot in the mail.

Not always true. In Missouri, you cannot vote absentee unless you sign and affirm that one of the following is true:
(1) Absence on Election Day from the jurisdiction of the election authority in which registered to vote

(2) Incapacity of confinement due to illness or physical disability, including a person who is primarily responsible for the physical care of a person who is incapacitated or confined due to illness or disability;

(3) Religious belief or practice

(4) Employment as an election authority, as a member of an election authority, or by an election authority at a location other than your polling place

(5) Incarceration, provided all qualifications for voting are retained
This is also true in 16 other states, as the map posted by nat above shows. Also see this post on Dkos today as an example of how messed up things are in St. Louis.

Reform is sorely needed, especially in urban, low-income areas, where disenfranchisement by insufficient voting resources is a common problem.
posted by chrisamiller at 11:48 PM on November 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Nthing a few things that have already been said, first:

Republicans (not all of them) do tend to fight anything that expands the window in which one may vote, such as adding early voting, extending the days early voting covers, and extending the hours the polls are open. Naturally, the fewer opportunities there are to vote, the more people have to show up within a narrow window of time, and you get long lines and crowds. So it's a recognized problem, yeah, but legislation is introduced and shot down by Republicans. Why Republicans? Because having more days and a wider range of hours to vote means that lower income people might be able to make it to the polls before or after work, and they tend to vote Democrat.

Next, it is true that early voting is often carried out by fewer polling places than are open on election day itself. In Austin, TX we vote by precinct, which is relatively small, but only on election day. On November 4th, there will be 210 places to vote. There are only 25 (I think) early voting locations, so you have crowds.

As for the old people having to wait that long... yes, it's unpleasant for them. In the Texas Democratic Primary in Austin, we had a HUGE crowd at our precinct. Because the Texas Democratic Primary had never mattered before, they were unprepared for the turn-out. The voting itself took ten minutes, but we had to wait about two hours in very cold weather for them to find a place big enough for the caucus so it was a similar situation where they had to wait outside. Anyway, some of them were very uncomfortable, both from standing and from the cold. No one had thought to prepare by bringing chairs or anything. Everyone let old people sit on benches and some people went home and got chairs for them. One woman in particular was having a very hard time with it, so everyone let her skip and go sit inside.

One we found a place for the caucus, we had to line up to record our preference. The precinct chair specifically called for the elderly to line up first, and everyone else got to line up after. Everyone was fine with this. The elderly without any real health problems let the other elderly people go ahead of them.

So we manage, but it's unfortunate that there are not yet easier ways for people to vote. I wouldn't say it's entirely accepted, but it's expected, if that makes sense. I would say that, generally speaking, it's unexpected inconveniences that aggravate people the most, and this is not one of them. The day I woke up and got ready to go to early voting, I thought, "Ugggh, I wonder how long the line will be." But I went and stood there anyway, and I didn't make a fuss over it and wasn't upset. In other words, it's a recognized problem, but when people go to vote they've already resolved themselves to standing in line -- that may seem why they look unperturbed in videos of voting queues. I would say the mindset is, "I'm going to vote, line be damned." People would be very happy if they didn't have to wait in line, though, and there's lots of talk of how it disenfranchises certain groups of people and how it should be reformed.
posted by Nattie at 11:48 PM on November 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

My parents live in a swing state which just introduced early voting, and it's full of newly registered voters. They both voted early and had to wait an hour and a half each. I don't remember them ever having to wait in long lines in previous elections. (I've voted absentee in every election since I registered, so it's not an issue for me.)

People "accept it as their lot" because for most, both early voting and the long lines are new. If anyone complains about overcrowded polling places, I think it will be Nov. 4 voters. Boards of election have no excuse to be unprepared on Election Day, though I'm sure some of them will be.
posted by Drop Daedalus at 11:52 PM on November 1, 2008

I agree with amethysts comment: 'America is a big place and experiences vary widely. I've never waited more than 15 mins.' Case in point:

My polling place isn't great. I usually have to stand in line 30-45 minutes, and it's not handicapped accessible. People with problems waiting really can't vote there, but I've gotten the impression from my state's voting website that my polling place is one of the exceptions. Unfortunately, I also live in a state that doesn't have early voting and is strict about absentee ballots (you do need a legitimate reason). Personally, if I had to wait for hours to vote, I wouldn't bother.
posted by Mael Oui at 11:53 PM on November 1, 2008

There are several underlying issues, even aside from partisan politics.

- Election rules (even for national elections) are primarily determined at the state level. This is not to say that there aren't federal laws or standards (most recently the Help America Vote Act of 2002). But the nuts and bolts of deciding if there will be early voting or not, how many early voting locations there will be, what the polling hours are, what the ID requirements are, whether people get to vote by paper or machine, etc. -- all of these decisions are left to the states.

- Making it even more complicated and decentralized, elections themselves are generally administered at the county level. There are more than 3,100 counties in the U.S., so that means there are actually 62 elections (on average) per state on any given election day. (The average county population is 100,000; at the high end, Los Angeles county, has nearly 10 million residents.) Staffing and funding for elections throughout the year tends to be quite low. On election day, polling places themselves are primarily staffed by elderly volunteers (average age: 72).

What this means is that there is no single way to vote in America -- it is a web of local, state, and federal standards (I've been voting for 20 years, and have had wildly different experiences by city and state.) So you can how easy it is to introduce partisan politics into the mix in order to manipulate turnout, which makes it, at the same time, all the more difficult to remedy. St. Louis provides an instructive case in point.

Even in the absence of such obvious partisanship, elections are regularly a case of barely controlled chaos to begin with -- so add in this year's high voter turnout for early voting (itself a relatively new phenomenon), and you've got yourself one hell of a butterfly effect in some places. To get a better idea of how precarious the election system is, I highly recommend the documentary By the People. It's eye-opening and a little terrifying -- the problems in the system are not confined to 2-hour lines or Diebold machines.
posted by scody at 11:58 PM on November 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Media bias. They wouldn't send the cameras if they didn't have something to film. Like, for example, lines. Video of lines is much more interesting than video of no lines.

I've never had a memorable wait to vote in three states.
posted by Ookseer at 12:08 AM on November 2, 2008

I'm gonna guess that it's because 1) America is huge, like ridiculously huge, so 2) there are tons of polling places in every city, which are 3) staffed by volunteers, and 4) are held in churches, community centers, etc.

I did early voting on the first day (I'm in Texas) and there was a sizable line, but my total time from walking away from my car to getting back in was 30 minutes.

As for media bias, if you go to this site, you can sort by election and time spent in line - all info is submitted by individuals: http://pollingplaces.nytimes.com/content.cfm/home
posted by lhall at 12:21 AM on November 2, 2008

I've waited 5 and 6 hours my last two times voting in Columbus Ohio, but I'm from a predominantly poor/student and or black district (whom tend to vote democratic), a number of co-workers/acquaintances live in the in nearby predominantly wealthy (and thus republican leaning) areas and they claim the wait is usually 10-15 minutes. Apparently the folks in charge of voting in my state the last two elections were unabashedly partisan republicans, which I can only assume played a role in the discrepancy.
posted by Jezztek at 12:22 AM on November 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

In Minneapolis, we have some sort of election three years out of four (city elections are held every four years, the year after presidential elections).

Most years I walk right in and vote. Exceptions: in 2004 I waited in a very long line to vote (lots of people motivated to vote against Bush), and in 1984 I waited in a moderately long line (lots of people motivated to vote for favorite son Mondale). I don't remember any long lines or waits any other time, although I think 1992 and 2000 were fairly bustling. 1996 was a yawner.

Non-presidential years are the norm, and they're typically pretty smooth. I think those are what local governments budget for.

I'm expecting a very long line this year, and I'm planning accordingly.

Presidential election years do tend to make for sluggish performance at polling places here: Minnesota allows same-day registration, so the people working the polls have to deal with paperwork for new voters. Minnesota also doesn't officially have early voting--officially you're supposed to have some kind of excuse to get an absentee ballot--but some people tell white lies and cast absentee ballots anyway. I think I heard 19% of Minnesotans may cast absentee ballots this year, the funeral business must be booming.

We do vote on a lot of things--my sample ballot is two big pages this year, some years it's even longer. President (with lots of obscure 3rd party candidates), Senate, House of Representatives, State Legislature, School Board, Soil and Water Commissioners, half a dozen or more judges, two city referenda and a state constitutional amendment. And probably something else I've forgotten. Many people in my precinct will show up to vote for Obama, but they'll be faced with omigod who are all these other people? The bottleneck tends to be not so much the sweet old ladies validating you, it's the wait for one of the screened-off plastic privacy voting tables for marking your ballot while the people ahead of you read over everything. If you don't mind the possibility that someone could be looking over your shoulder, you can just plop down at any old table, mark your ballot, walk over and feed it into the scanner.

Voting equipment varies from city to city and state to state--most Minnesota locations use optical scanners that keep your paper ballot. I think they're great, and we usually have clean, efficient, well-run elections up here.
posted by gimonca at 12:38 AM on November 2, 2008

Apparently the folks in charge of voting in my state the last two elections were unabashedly partisan republicans, which I can only assume played a role in the discrepancy.

As mentioned above by scody, your voting was administered by the good people of Franklin County, Ohio. Your beef is with them not the state party folks. They are the people who control where polling locates are located, how many machines to have at each one and train the people who work at them.

Maybe it was a conspiracy to keep poor people from voting or it just might be an underfunded poorly run facet of the government that only gets used for 1 day out out of every 2 years.
posted by mmascolino at 12:43 AM on November 2, 2008

Also from DailyKos: a moving photo essay on the history of standing in long lines to vote, both in America and around the world, sometimes against great (and even deadly) odds.
posted by scody at 1:34 AM on November 2, 2008

Living in the Phoenix metro of Arizona, we have a paper ballot into an optical scanner system. Quick, easy, and I've never waited more than 15 minutes to vote.

When I lived in Richmond, Virginia, I waited nearly two hours to shuffle into one of only two massive metal behemoths that served to tally all of the votes in my neighborhood. I thought it was madness, but most of what I saw in that area was madness, so par for the course.

As to your question of why we wait that long? Because it matters. Even if the presidential election is decided by electors rather than the popular vote, the Senate, Congress, local elections, and local ballot initiatives are all determined by the vote of the people.

If I don't exercise the right to wait 15 minutes to fill out a paper ballot or two hours to flip some switches and pull a lever, then I have no right at all to complain when the results of the elections aren't to my liking.
posted by phredgreen at 1:49 AM on November 2, 2008

In Austin in 2004 it took probably 90 seconds between when I walked in the door and when I was marking off my candidate picks. But this was at 9:30 am. Things can vary wildly by precinct and by time of day.
posted by crapmatic at 3:11 AM on November 2, 2008

I voted early in Florida on the 31st this year and it took two and a half hours of standing in line. In early voting here, there are a bunch of designated polling places around the county and you can go vote at any of them.

Two years ago I voted on Election Day at the polling place I was assigned by the county, and it took less than 15 minutes total.
posted by casarkos at 4:56 AM on November 2, 2008

Voting day is also not a holiday in the US which means that depending on your situaiton, you may not get the day off of work. What this means is that most of the people voting in your particular precinct are also trying to vote before or after work which makes those times the busiest and the most dramatic-seeming on camera. The chances that you are likely to get the day off -- or even be able to take time off from work to vote -- to me seem to line up nicely inversely with the liklihood that you are someplace where there are compelling interests [generally Republican] to keep people away from the polls and so there are likely to be the longest lines in the places most likely to vote Democrat [i.e. where poor and/or black people live is the general MO]. Other thigns that can contribute

- onerous checks to see if you're on the voter rolls (gets worse if there's been a massive delisting of people from the rolls and people protest)
- undertrained volunteers, using
- complicated electronic equipment that is confusing

I vote in New England, usually by mail-in ballot. I've never had to wait in a line here. When I voted in Seattle, the wait was sometimes 15-20 minutes.
posted by jessamyn at 4:58 AM on November 2, 2008

* Electronic voting machines that only let a small number of people fill out ballots at a time (as opposed to paper & pencil systems)

Actually around here it's the other way around. We used to have lever machines, which were big capital investments and usually small polling places only had one or two of them, so they were the backlog. Now we have the paper system with the scanner, which scales much better, since the only thing the voter needs is the little $50 "privacy table".

I've never had more than a 10 minute delay personally, and that was directly attributable to 85-year-old poll workers who needed 5 minutes to find anyone's name on the voter list.
posted by smackfu at 5:10 AM on November 2, 2008

An 80 year old lady will stay in line for 3 hours to vote because her mother couldn't. Seriously, if I have to I'll stay in line all day. (in St. Louis!) And if they want to close the polls, they'll have to drag me out kicking and screaming. It's my right, and I will exercise my right. People fought and died so I could.
A small peak into the American psyche.
That's why people accept the long lines as 'their lot'. Instead of just leaving (although I'm sure some people do turn around and go home.)
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 5:47 AM on November 2, 2008

Election Day isn't a holiday in the U.S.

That's an incorrect generalization.
posted by Jaltcoh at 5:55 AM on November 2, 2008

It's definitely not a federal holiday. It's a legal holiday in eight out of fifty states. Thirty-one U.S. states have laws requiring employers to give workers time off to vote (and many states that don't have these laws have the holiday laws). It used to be a legal holiday in many more states than it is now.
posted by jessamyn at 6:10 AM on November 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

I would stay in line for as long as it took for me to vote, because so many people before me couldn't.

That said, I've always been lucky enough to hit the polls at the right time, and have never waited more than an hour to vote. When I voted in this election on October 21st (the day after early voting opened), I was in and out in under half an hour. The line across the street at city hall was five times as long, stretching out the door and around the corner - and that was for people waiting to pose for a photo with the World Series Trophy.
posted by mewithoutyou at 7:32 AM on November 2, 2008

For what it's worth, when I voted in the 2004 presidential election in Little Rock, Arkansas, the line was wrapped around the building and it took about 4 hours to vote. Since it was my first time, I just assumed everyone waited this long.
posted by Ugh at 7:33 AM on November 2, 2008

Scody covered most of this quite well. To add a few details: we're still talking about early voting right now. Early voting is even more varied from state to state than regular election-day voting. Texas, for example, is surprisingly progressive, with a good number of early-voting stations in grocery stores and places that people routinely visit. Some states, like Indiana, have one early-voting station per county, usually in a government building that's comparatively inaccessible. So it's not surprising that there would be longer lines at those. And in fact, there was a case recently where the state opened some extra early-voting locations in the most populous areas, and were predictably sued by the state Republican party (the state prevailed).

Election-day voting is usually done by precinct, which is a much smaller territory (it was odd that at my previous address, I walked past the nearest polling place to get to my official polling place, just because of how precinct lines were drawn and polling places located). When I early-voted last week, I waited in line for perhaps 5 minutes. I had the same experience Nettie described with the primary caucuses, mostly because the party was completely unprepared for the turnout (I have been voting in Texas since 1986 or so, and this was the first I'd even heard of the caucuses).
posted by adamrice at 7:38 AM on November 2, 2008

1) It's run by the government.
2) People don't read up ahead of time and take up their time in the booth making up their mind.
posted by mattholomew at 7:46 AM on November 2, 2008

Response by poster: Thank you all for your answers & links.

I realise now I had conflated a little the media reporting hyping the turnout in 2008 with this documentary, which talks about a few of the irregularities in the 2000/2004 elections, including the issue of long lines in poorer areas. When I read the Sunday papers full of people queuing I immediately thought "oh no, something dodgy is happening again." Which might be jumping to conclusions.

Good luck on election day USians and I hope it turns out okay!
posted by dydecker at 7:46 AM on November 2, 2008

N'thing that it can vary dramatically by time of day, even at a given polling place. I've worked at a couple of elections as a not-so-elderly-but-otherwise-unemployed paid volunteer, and there was a small crowd when the polls opened, a yawn-inducing lull until about 5:30 pm, then a huge crunch until the polls closed at 8.

A few people got exasperated and left without voting, but most seemed to think it was worth waiting about 45 minutes. This is actually pretty significant, since Americans are notoriously impatient!
posted by Quietgal at 8:07 AM on November 2, 2008

I agree with the above. I've never had to wait, and I've voted just about every time since 1993. Lines are the exception, not the rule, in general.

Also, voting isn't just handled by the local state, but usually by the local county. If your local county is inept, there's going to be trouble.

Also, it's different every single time you go. Sometimes you get moved to a different precinct, sometimes the location changes, and the technology changes. In 2000, we used the old school punch cards. After that, it has been a string of different technologies. Last time, it was touch screens- every voter had to be shown how to vote all over again.
posted by gjc at 8:25 AM on November 2, 2008

I early-voted last week and only had to wait about 15 minutes, and that's only because there were only two people working on printing out ballots for the 7 or so of us that were there. However, I go to school in a small town in a swing state, and during the last presidential election we had enormous lines because of a shortage of voting machines, among other things. People waited up to nine hours, but that was a bunch of students who were passionate about voting. My neighbors at home are on the older side, and they always vote absentee to avoid the hassle of going to the polls.
posted by you zombitch at 8:47 AM on November 2, 2008

Sample ballot for the northeastern corner of Minneapolis.

My understanding is that several versions of this ballot will be used that shuffle the order of the candidate's names in each race. Also, Democratic-Farmer-Labor or 'DFL' is our unique 'flavor' of Democrat up here.
posted by gimonca at 8:53 AM on November 2, 2008

(The average county population is 100,000; at the high end, Los Angeles county, has nearly 10 million residents.)

and for all those residents, there was exactly one early voting location. there were more locations in previous elections, but they used touch-screen voting systems that have since been de-certified.

los angeles county does allow you to register for vote-by-mail "permanently". if you miss two elections in a row, you're no longer automatically mailed a ballot, but otherwise they'll just send you a vote-by-mail ballot each time.

In many states, there are no polling places at all and everyone receives a ballot in the mail, which they fill out and return within a month by mail or dropbox to a central location where they're tallied.

this is true only if "many" means one. oregon is the only state that only does vote-by-mail. and they get two weeks to return the ballot by mail or drop-off.

personally, i've never had to wait in line at a polling place in los angeles county for more than about 10-15 minutes. i expect to wait longer this time, just based on what i think will be a higher-than-expected turnout, especially in my neighborhood.
posted by jimw at 9:07 AM on November 2, 2008

oh, and just to echo the issue with the number of items on the ballot: this year's ballot for the city of los angeles includes 8 elected positions, 12 state ballot propositions, 1 county measure, 2 community college district questions, and 2 city propositions. 25 decisions to make!
posted by jimw at 9:11 AM on November 2, 2008

In some places, ballots are now individually printed, taking longer than before. Computerized voting stations break and must be rebooted, or whatever. There's been a major and controversial effort to clean the voting lists, so many registered voters have to jump through bureaucratic hoops, taking lots of time. Voting times may have been restricted, although Republican Gov. Crist of Florida extended early voting hours, to his great credit. Googling early vote lines was useful.

Greg Palast has been writing about efforts to limit voting, notably this rolling Stone article.

Maine Democrats have a caucus instead of a primary, and I waited in line for well over an hour in freezing rain, then indoors for over another hour, to participate. The Democratic party in Portland was totally unprepared for the number of people who showed up, although they coped as well as they could with the help of the Obama and Hillary Clinton campaigns. It was an amazing experience, and made me very proud to be a Democratic voter. For elections, Maine uses paper ballots and computerized ballot readers. I had to wait 1/2 hour to vote for Gore, because I voted just before closing. Everyone in line before poll-closing time got to vote.

The conservative attempts to limit voting are cynical and despicable. Winning at any cost is not winning. {/editorializing}
posted by theora55 at 9:11 AM on November 2, 2008

Notice it's only in the swing states/regions where there are lines and problems and machines not working properly.

So it's not media bias. It's the media trying to get its audience to put two and two together.
posted by Zambrano at 9:27 AM on November 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

The video linked in your question looks like it might have been recorded at the Alafaya Branch Library which had computer problems that day.

The last time I had to stand in line for hours to vote was back in 2000 when the community I lived in experienced huge growth. New homes were built faster than new schools could be constructed, and so we all waited in a huge line snaking through the gym. We were also voting at a high school which can handle larger crowds, but I think we all must've showed up after dinner. Now I vote at an elementary school and haven't had to wait more than 10-15 minutes.
posted by hoppytoad at 9:40 AM on November 2, 2008

(The average county population is 100,000; at the high end, Los Angeles county, has nearly 10 million residents.)

and for all those residents, there was exactly one early voting location. there were more locations in previous elections, but they used touch-screen voting systems that have since been de-certified.

It really does vary by state and county. Harris County, TX (Houston) has roughly 4 million people and had 36 early voting locations. County residents could vote at any of them, over a roughly two-week period ending Friday. The most popular days (first and last) and locations had lines, but many had no wait at all. The number of machines at the most popular location was doubled from last time. Meanwhile, here in suburban Brazoria County I waited about 10 seconds.

Our primary back in March was also smooth for the voting, but the oh, the evening caucus was a nightmare...
posted by Robert Angelo at 9:49 AM on November 2, 2008

In Oregon we vote by mail-in ballot. I voted last week in the comfort of my own living room, whilst sipping a cool beverage, then biked my completed ballot over to the library, which serves as a drop off station.
posted by medeine at 10:21 AM on November 2, 2008

oh, the evening caucus was a nightmare...

I second that emotion. In Brooklyn in 2000 I had a half-hour wait, here in Texas it has been at most ten minutes, but the evening caucus in the primary this year was NUTS. I was there for several hours before they even figured out that they needed people to line up, and what those lines should represent (fairly unrelated anecdote: it was easily 20 - 1, Obama to Clinton at my precinct, which surprised me). They were just completely unprepared for the turnout.

They are very, very prepared for the big turnout on the 4th. I live in Travis County (Austin), and nearly half of registered voters have already early-voted here: 299,325 people. So 85% of the TOTAL voter numbers for the 2004 election have already voted.

Things seem to be running smoothly here, but I'll report back on Tuesday.
posted by dirtdirt at 10:39 AM on November 2, 2008

> 2) People don't read up ahead of time and take up their time in the booth making up their mind.

This is worth emphasizing. Every four years the November election means there's voting for the President of the U.S. and each respective state's Representatives in Congress. One third of the Senators' chairs are also voted on.

Within each state, the following positions might also be voted on: State executives (governor, secretary of state, other officials), state legislators (some states have representative and senatorial houses similar to the federal government's, while other states have different structures), regional offices (County executives and legislators, officials such as sheriff or dogcatcher), city offices (Mayor, vice-mayor, city council, ward officials). In some states, certain members of the judiciary must be chosen (state supreme court, district and/or local courts).

In addition to that, some states allow citizens to vote on multiple state constitutional amendments -- for example, proposal 8 on the California ballot this year would outlaw gay marriage, and proposal 2 in Michigan would liberalize restrictions on stem cell research. And then there are regional and local ballot questions, for example to attach an extra tax to properties to fund parkland or roadwork.

There's a lot to retain on the way to the polling place.

Many people review ballots, read opinions and voting recommendations from others, and write out their voting plans on paper they carry into the polls. But most people, as far as I can tell, don't fully decide how they're going to vote until they're finished in the voting booth. And those people are what holds up the line.
posted by ardgedee at 10:59 AM on November 2, 2008

Sigh. chrisamiller, that Daily Kos link was depressing as hell. It's too true. While my parents, who live in North St. Louis County, have a minuscule 15-minute average wait to vote, I can tell you that in my just-over-the-city-line suburb of St. Louis...

1. which skews liberal due to the populations of two colleges and one of the most diverse minority populations anywhere in the area, and

2. which just this past year saw two different voting precincts consolidated into my polling place

3. which is on the bottom floor of an old-folks' home,

4. which means slow, cantankerous elderly individuals often serve as polling workers,

5. which means that sometimes, if you choose a paper ballot and aren't careful, your voting booth might be set up incorrectly and collapse in on you, and then, once you fill out your ballot, you might be left alone, without any guidance as to where your ballot is supposed to go (this happened to me when I went to vote in the primary this year),

...long waits and nasty challenges will be de rigueur on Tuesday. I've waited up to an hour and a half to vote there in the past couple elections/primaries, and I could easily imagine that wait time doubling this year.
posted by limeonaire at 11:44 AM on November 2, 2008

I've had generally good voting experiences everywhere, including my home state of Wisconsin and presidential elections in New Jersey (Dukakis) and Illinois (Clinton/Clinton/Gore). But these last two have been back in Wisconsin and there has been a notable difference in voting numbers at the polls.

I voted early in '04 because I was working for a GOTV 527, and this year because of schedule issues, and Wisconsin is one of the "no excuse" absentee states that effectively allows early voting. The only place to vote is the municipal building, but it's a small enough city for that. (People in rural areas have to request an absentee ballot from their local town hall, but can only vote absentee by mail or in person at the courthouse. Ugh.) Even though there was a line when I arrived of almost 20 people, it moved quite briskly, and the election workers were professional and precise while juggling multiple papers and computer screens.

We only had a few state and local offices up so it was a one-page optical-scan ballot, and I was done in about a minute. I spent longer waiting for an election worker to seal and deposit my ballot. I also don't believe that even with longer ballots voters taking their time is necessarily a major problem: we had at least half a dozen actual voting booths to use and there were generally only one or two occupied the entire time I was there. I've also seen generous numbers of booths when I've been at the regular polls. When I was in Illinois we used punch-cards and there were limited numbers of booths with the special hole-punch equipment, and I may have had to wait for one of those but never very long.

Frankly, all my Wisconsin experiences have been so smooth and glitch-free that I almost feel like I haven't actually voted. (Well, I miss the satisfying lever machines of old.)

My personal feeling -- having actually been an election worker when I was younger -- is that the polling places have lots of "dead" time even on presidential days. It's the crunches before work, at lunch, and especially after work that result in lines and delays. Yes, most people do have legal recourse to vote, but no, most people don't want to piss off their boss unnecessarily. Especially in larger urban areas, people have commutes, further shrinking the time available to them to vote, because their workplace is far away from their voting place.

I've favored Saturday voting and extended voting hours for a long time. But these cost money and local elections boards would have to eat most of the costs. I don't expect this to change without a national law favoring it (e.g. with grant money attached). Ultimately, though, I think that early voting and vote-by-mail will become more popular and ease the burden that way.

I admit to some trepidation about early voting simply because I'm not going to be present when my ballot is actually counted. I don't think technically there's much to worry about. But I do worry about challenges when I'm not present to do a provisional ballot. My state lets me check my registration online and that's all kosher, and early voting allows me to make sure at the time I vote that I pass muster. I have great faith in the integrity of my local elections officials. I don't know that I would early vote if I didn't have that faith.
posted by dhartung at 12:19 PM on November 2, 2008

Metro Atlanta here. I got to my early-voting site about 75 minutes before it opened and was 43rd in line, with a bunch of other people trying to vote and still get to work at a reasonable hour. Georgia is one of nine states who cannot change voting hours/times (whether to expand or contract) without authorization from the federal Department of Justice - why yes, we have some history here.

However, anecdotal evidence from my friends who have early voted, along with my experience, is that it was the best line I have ever waited in. Fun and relaxed, people of all races chatting and having fun. I heard several people say things like what an African-American woman said to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution yesterday: "This has been a joy. We’re not facing any water hoses. We’re not picking cotton….We have a choice. You can wait a couple of hours.” We have a huge number of newly registered voters in metro Atlanta, or people who haven't voted in years. It's amazing, and frankly I'm damned glad to be part of it.
posted by catlet at 1:40 PM on November 2, 2008

Another thing to consider is that we're seeing higher turnout. Early-voting turnout has been higher in many states than it was on '04. There's also been a general trend towards higher turnout over the past few presidential elections: 49.1% in 1996, 51.3% in 2000, 55.3% in 2004, and this election looks likely to be higher than that (there's some interesting stuff in that link. The jump from 51.3 to 55.3 is dramatic—the only other big upward jump was in '92, when Clinton was elected. The general trend apart from that has been down, with a big drop in '72—Watergate). So more voters = more wait. I think the 2000 election was a slap in the face for a lot of people. And (speaking only for myself) I can't get out of my mind the pictures of people waiting in line all day to vote for the first time when South Africa expanded its franchise. That's puts any wait in perspective for me.
posted by adamrice at 2:22 PM on November 2, 2008

How many polling places are there per person in the United States for regular Election Day voting? How far apart are they generally? Are there fewer of them per capita than other first world countries, the same or more?

I have tried googling this, but haven't found anything. I think it would be an interesting comparison across the world.

The reason I am asking is just that I have gotten the general impression that, in addition to the much longer and more complex ballots than the Canadian system (where we generally are only voting for one office in a federal election - our MP), the polling places themselves are less frequent and farther apart.

I think that this impression is based on an episode of King of the Hill that I saw about Hank having trouble getting back in time to vote. Which is, of course, a terrible source of information - but it just seemed to jive with a general all over impression that voting and getting to the polls is a much more of a production in the United States.

Whenever I voted in Canada, the local school was the voting place - in a city like Toronto, you might have 1-3 voting places in a square kilometre. Certainly, I can't imagine being more than a kilometre (somewhat over 1/2 a mile) away from a polling place in a city. (Rural areas obviously differ).

posted by jb at 3:00 PM on November 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Whenever I voted in Canada, the local school was the voting place

Same where I live in CT, and was the same when I lived in NJ. But again, it's something I wouldn't generalize about, because I have no idea if that's the case in Texas or Florida.
posted by smackfu at 5:50 PM on November 2, 2008

I have no idea if that's the case in Texas or Florida.

Yeah, here in Houston, that doesn't hold. The early voting location in my area was a grocery store, of all places.
posted by chrisamiller at 6:07 PM on November 2, 2008

Just one data point here:
When I lived in the Triangle area of NC, I would go to the polling location when they opened and never had to wait for more than 20-30 minutes.
Now living in Eastern NC, I've never waited less than one hour to vote in a general election. Off-year elections (non-presidential elections) are never more than 15 miuntes wait.

This year, absentee voting rules made it much easier to get a ballot by mail and vote early. (no-excuse absentee voting.) I have passed by early voting locations on a daily basis and see long lines. Friday and Saturday, one polling place reported 3 to 4 hour waits.

The Eastern NC area is less well-financed. Plus, historical turn-outs have been low and local election boards have not been able to invest in machines or personnel. They cannot anticiapte the huge turn-outs we are seeing. Even if they could, I doubt they would invest for this one election since historical turn-outs are so very low, and will likely remain low unless we continue to have such hotly contested elections.

Plus, we are republican-dominated. Low turn-outs benefit republican wins. Unfortunately, rain if predicted for our area on Nov. 4th. This could have an impact on election results.
posted by mightshould at 5:56 AM on November 3, 2008

I drove by the one and only early voting location in Hamilton County, Indiana (mix of suburban & rural areas, population ~260K) yesterday. The line was all the way around the block.

On election day itself, there will be over one hundred voting locations in Hamilton County.

That said, it can take a long time to vote even on election day. For the 2004 presidential election, I arrived about 5:30 p.m. (polls in Indiana close at 6 p.m., although anyone in line at that time gets to vote) and waited nearly two hours to vote. All elections since then, though (primaries, mid-term elections, off-year elections for local offices) I've gone in and out with no line at all.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 6:30 AM on November 3, 2008

On election day itself, there will be over one hundred voting locations in Hamilton County.

I should correct myself here: there are over one hundred precincts in Hamilton County. Sometimes multiple precincts share a single polling location; I'm not sure how common that is.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 6:43 AM on November 3, 2008

Notice it's only in the swing states/regions where there are lines and problems and machines not working properly.

Well, I early voted in Chicago on the last day of early voting (Thursday) and the line for Chicago residents was 3+ hours. Illinois is probably the least swing state out there this year. I voted in the line for suburban residents (same county) and it was 45 minutes. This was at 2:30 in the afternoon, not really a rush time. In this case I think it was because there was only one early voting location in Chicago (I believe). I'm hoping that on the 4th there will be so many more locations that waits won't be horrible. When I've voted in my parent's rich suburb I've never had to wait to vote and there's always been about 15 extra machines sitting empty.
posted by Bunglegirl at 1:46 PM on November 3, 2008

Response by poster: Rachel Maddow on queuing: it's a New Poll Tax
posted by dydecker at 7:00 PM on November 3, 2008

Who cares why right now? Turns out it was worth it!
posted by tomble at 10:57 PM on November 4, 2008

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