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Early voting has started in the US Presidential elections and one article that caught my eye today was regarding the waiting times to vote.

AOC criticises ‘unacceptable’ lines at New York polling stations after waiting two hours to cast ballot.

This doesn't appear to be solely an issue with early voting or the Covid Pandemic as FiveThirtyEight have documented wait time over an hour for 15% to 20% of votes and much longer for some.

Some people, like Donna Thompson, 59, told us that a long line or complicated voting system is something that’s just baked into the process for them. “I’m going to have to take time off work to go get in line, because my job doesn’t give me time off to vote,” she said, adding that she’s had to wait five or six hours in past elections.

Why are there such long waits? In the UK I don't think I've ever waited more than a handful of minutes and even news reports of queues are usually at closing time. In 2019 the Independent's article about long waits to vote in the general election covered experiences of 20 and 35 minutes.

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    This question is problematic because: Existence and length of lines to vote is an extremely local factor. Some states don't have any lines to vote because all voting is done by mail. Some states have extensive early voting and are not experiencing long lines. Some cities have long lines at one poll and no line at another. The question could be improved by limiting it to a locality. If the locality is NYC, then the question should be combined with politics.stackexchange.com/questions/59443/… – shoover Oct 28 '20 at 16:15
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    @shoover And yet, from a non US perspective, the question seems perfectly legitimate. The US is the only first world democracy where you routinely hear reports of hours long queues for voting. Asking why this happens in the US and only in the US seems perfectly legitimate to me, even if it doesn't happen equally in all states of the US. – Denis Nardin Oct 28 '20 at 18:50
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    @shoover Note that I'm not asking "why throughout the US there are such long lines", but "why there are places in the US with such long lines while it doesn't happen in any other country?" I suspect you do not realize how crazy those reports sound to non USians... I am willing to believe that in most of the US it doesn't happen (as a matter of fact I was living in the US during 2016 so I have some first hand experience), but it clearly happens often enough to be reported. – Denis Nardin Oct 28 '20 at 19:11
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    @shoover Answering "why is foo?" questions with "it's not!" is not especially uncommon on Stack Exchange. It's usually labelled as a frame challenge. A frame challenge backed by data or explanations would be a great answer. – James_pic Oct 29 '20 at 10:10
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    @CGCampbell the Ukraine is significantly lower ranked on tools such as the Democracy Index. While I accept that there are other places that have poor wait times, for a viable frame challenge, the country you're pointing at should at least be in the same index section (or higher) as the US. – Jontia Nov 2 '20 at 14:12
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There is no single answer to this question because in the United States, elections are run by local governments, most often at the county level, although state laws generally apply.

Three factors would seem to predominate:

Voter Suppression

In some instances, it's apparently a deliberate attempt to engineer vote suppression, e.g., Republican state officials decreeing in Texas that there only be one early voting location per county which disadvantages urban areas which tend to vote more Democratic.

Financial constraints

In most jurisdictions, the staff at polling places are effectively volunteers—they are paid, but the amount is little more than a token amount which results in the polling place staff being primarily retirees which is especially problematic this year with Covid-19 making the job dangerous for older people. Similarly, because funding is done at the local level where money is harder to come by, often the voting equipment is older and more prone to breakage.

Poor decision making

Some jurisdictions have purchased unreliable voting equipment that breaks down or is difficult to set up on election day—the more conspiracy-minded may see voter suppression in this as well, although I think a bigger role comes into play with the poorly-paid polling place workers who get minimal training and may not feel comfortable dealing with the technology surrounding electronic voting equipment.

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    The Texas issue isn't suppression. The Gov allowed for more days to hand-deliver absentee ballots (requires you to show ID), when state law only permits that to happen on election day. Some counties wanted to have unofficial drop-off locations as well, which is why there was another order limiting locations that prompted a lawsuit. – Machavity Oct 31 '20 at 14:39
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    On the last point Hanlon's Razor would apply: never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by incompetence. – Paul Johnson Oct 31 '20 at 20:48
  • Shouldn't volunteers make the lines shorter, because there can be so many of them? In the system I am familiar with, election staff consists almost entirely of volunteers representing competing political parties. The assumption is that election officials cannot be trusted to run fair elections, while politically motivated volunteers can be trusted to watch each other and notice fraud attempts. – Jouni Sirén Nov 1 '20 at 21:07
  • @JouniSirén The problem is that there are usually fewer volunteers than are needed. Many (most? all?) jurisdictions in the U.S. also require precinct judges from two different parties which, in some areas can be challenging. When I lived in the city of Chicago, they had a single Republican they were able to corral, a woman who appeared to be a nonagenarian who spent her shift in a semi-conscious state propped up in the corner. Then again, the Republican challenger to my congressman was literally a clown (he did birthday parties for a living). – Don Hosek Nov 2 '20 at 3:14
  • This answer does little to explain the long queues to a non-US citizen. I live in Italy; we too have underpaid volunteers at our polling stations (it's good pocket money when you are a pennyless student, but not worth the time and effort once you get a job). The voting equipment consists of pencils to mark the ballots, voting booths, ledgers and stamps - some of these things are veritable antiques but there's no way the equipment slows down the voting process. Usually, votes are officially counted within 24 hours. Using modern technology is supposed to improve a process, not to slow it down. – Vorbis Nov 5 '20 at 11:28
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I suppose I should start with a personal anecdote that helps illustrate where states sometimes get things wrong.

In 2000, I went to my polling place after work to vote. I was greeting by an insanely long line (I'd estimate 300-400 people) and it took about two hours to actually get to vote. When I got into the area where the line ended, it became clear why the line was so long: they had only 5 voting machines. These machines were quite odd, in that they required you to mash a button to vote for a candidate, and then press a large button to have your vote recorded. A poll worker would then have to reset the machine for the next voter.

Why did they only have 5 voting machines for that many people? Voting was heavy in 2000 (an unusually contentious year back then) and the county assigned machines based on the previous turnout for the same type of cycle. Apparently 5 machines were sufficient in 1996...

A lot of voter waiting happens because (at least prior to 2020) most people vote in-person. All states permit some form of absentee voting (which includes in-person absentee, a type of early voting), but most people have had little reason to get one, since it's harder to do that than to merely register and vote in-person. You also have the procrastinators who wait until the last minute, as well as those who probably forgot about the election entirely.

The bulk of the wait in the past has also been at check-in, where voter rolls had to be printed and manually checked. There's not an even distribution of last names by first letter, either, and check-in would take 20-30 seconds per voter. My local precinct has gone to an all-electronic check-in which drastically reduced wait times in that regard.

Another change they made in 2004 was going to a paper "bubble fill" ballot, which eliminated the need for voting machines. Dozens of voters can work at their ballots at the same time.

Still, you're not going to eliminate all waits unless there's a switch to all-mail balloting. Even the UK suffers from waiting in lines sometimes.

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  • Since you mention the UK, I should add that our ballots are very simple. In many cases we just have to mark a single X for one candidate. I believe that USA ballot papers are often much more complex, with multiple local and state officials, and maybe proposed laws as well. – Paul Johnson Oct 31 '20 at 20:55
  • Did your insanely long line happen to be from a state previously covered by the federal preclearance requirement of the Voting Rights Act due to a history of voter suppression in that state? – tchrist Nov 1 '20 at 19:24
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Early voting is not quite the same as Election Day voting. Throughout Election Day, there will be thousands upon thousands of polling stations open to limit the wait time for what is an otherwise massive event (in 2016, 79.3 million people voted on Election Day vs. 57.4 million before Election Day). The reason you're seeing incredibly long lines is due to the fact that there are more people voting early than ever before, and it's quite frankly astonishing just how many people have voted early (92 million and counting, 59 million by mail and 33 million in person votes).

As for early in person voter lines, there are two main reasons why they are so darn long this year in many places: Congress could not reach an agreement to bail out states. A large portion of the funding for election activities come from states. Since states were not bailed out, they have been forced to cut the budget of state agencies, including elections departments. As a result, there are fewer early in person voting places this year then there has been in the recent past. Couple this with the fact that some additional 10 million people have early in person this year to the already 24 million early in person voting strong and you have lines that look a lot longer.

As others have said, voter suppression might have something to do with it too, although this is not totally clear. Some states seem to be limiting the amount of already limited resources they are giving to large population centers which tend to lean Democrat in places like Texas or Wisconsin.

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  • It will be interesting to see how this plays out on Tuesday. The articles linked in the question didn't make any early vs election day distinctions though and I currently assume the same problems will resurface. – Jontia Nov 2 '20 at 7:45

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