Over the past five months, people have waited in all sorts of lines to vote: some bent around stuccoed store corners, some curving through city parks, others spaced six feet apart.
On Tuesday, voters in Alabama, Texas and Maine went to the polls in primary and runoff contests for one of the final election days before Election Day on Nov. 3.
The coronavirus crisis has upended every aspect of life in 2020, including how people vote. More than a dozen states postponed elections, some more than once, as they scrambled to figure out how to safely conduct voting in the midst of a pandemic. But even before the virus took hold in the United States, caucuses didn’t go according to plan, and high turnout meant long lines in some states on Super Tuesday.
How much of a hassle it is to vote is generally a matter of design, not accident, according to Carol Anderson, the author of “One Person, No Vote” and a professor of African-American studies at Emory University. “Long lines are deliberate, because they deal with the allocation of resources,” Professor Anderson said. She said it’s frustrating to see long lines reported in the news media as evidence of voter enthusiasm: “What they really show is government ineptness. And oftentimes a deliberate deployment of not enough resources in minority communities.”
Here is a look at what it was like to vote in 2020.
‘200 people in front of me’
Katie Sharma, a medical student in Atlanta, got to her Midtown polling place at 7:04 a.m. on June 9 in an effort to beat the rush of voters. She said she had requested a ballot by mail and had not received it, and so she settled in for what turned out to be a three-hour wait. She worked on flashcards, listened to podcasts and scrolled through Twitter to pass the time.
“My comparison was with my mother-in-law, who lives in a suburb of Atlanta; we were texting in line, and she said there were 20 people in front of her, while there were at least 200 people in front of me — if not more — at the same time,” Ms. Sharma said.
In Georgia, officials acknowledged that the voting process had broken down on several levels. The state’s relatively new paperless voting machines, designed to create ballots with computer-generated bar codes, either were broken or never arrived, leaving voters to stand in long lines and leaving polling places without enough provisional ballots.
Voting experts say that snafus at the polls start at the organizational level — misestimating what turnout is going to look like, prematurely closing down polling locations, not having poll workers properly trained to troubleshoot — but voters bear the brunt of these mishaps.
“It’s not a question of if something goes wrong — because it will — but it’s a question of how” states recover, said Myrna Pérez, director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Voting Rights and Elections Program. Based on a 2018 study conducted by Ms. Pérez and her team, polling places in Black and Latino neighborhoods were more likely to be affected by inadequate planning at the state level. “As communities got less white and more poor, they had fewer resources per voter,” she said.
A separate 2019 study led by the economist Keith Chen of the University of California, Los Angeles, measured voter waiting times at roughly 40,000 polling places during the 2016 election. The report stated that residents of entirely Black neighborhoods waited 29 percent longer to vote than their counterparts in entirely white neighborhoods and that Black voters were 74 percent more likely to wait more than half an hour to cast their ballots.
“The elections are the way we’re supposed to resolve political differences,” Ms. Pérez said. “It’s long been an American value that it doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor; when you step into a ballot box, you’re equal.”
In her view, much of the 2020 voting process so far hasn’t lived up to that value. Voting in Texas on Tuesday was a prime example, she said: Several polling places were announced as closed the day before the runoff election, leaving voters confused and with 11 fewer polling site options.
Super-Size Lines on Super Tuesday
In Irvine, Calif., Katrina Luu waited an hour to vote on March 3, in contrast to her 15- to 20-minute wait in past years.
She wanted to vote by mail but either didn’t get — or couldn’t find — her ballot by the time Primary Day rolled around. When she went to figure out how to vote in person, she said, she noticed fewer options for polling locations than she recalled from 2016.
She arrived to vote around 7 p.m. and joined a line that was, she guessed, a quarter- to a half-mile long.
In San Antonio, Texas, Austin Coleman opted to vote immediately after work, at a polling place near his office. When he had voted there previously, he said, there were only five or 10 people in line.
“This time, the line was out the door of the library, and it wrapped around the block,” he said. “Then it started to rain, so they wrapped the line around the book stacks inside.”
In Houston, three hours away, it was reported that the last voter at Texas Southern University, a historically Black university, had waited for six hours, until 1:30 a.m., to cast his vote. Mr. Coleman, looking to avoid a repeat of his Primary Day wait, voted early in Tuesday’s runoff election: “I was the only person in line.”
Still, Mr. Coleman, who is a teacher and is concerned about the safety of returning to the classroom this fall, said he would prefer to vote by mail.
Pizza Always Helps
Nicole Haase, of Milwaukee, received her ballot in time to vote by mail in the state’s April 7 primary, but she realized that many of her neighbors on the west side of the city had not been as lucky. “My side of town is a little older and not necessarily internet savvy,” she said. She asked for her ballot early. For people who weren’t as connected, she said, “the idea that you should request it wasn’t thought of much.”
On Primary Day, images of some Milwaukee voters in long lines and face masks made their way to Twitter. A man from California had offered to buy several slices of pizza from Ian’s Pizzeria, a local joint, for hungry voters.
Ms. Haase stepped in to do logistics. She offered to go pick up the pizzas downtown and deliver them to a busy polling location. (Another polling place, Riverside High School on the city’s east side, was lucky enough to be within the acceptable radius for Ian’s employees to deliver the pizzas without an intermediary.)
At Ian’s, the staff packed up the pizza, two slices per box, and Ms. Haase loaded them into her trunk. “I have an S.U.V., and the boxes were up to the top of the seat, so it was quite a bit of pizza,” she said.
She drove to Alexander Hamilton High School on Milwaukee’s far southwest side and said she had heard some concerns from poll workers that the pizza delivery could be perceived as partisan, though she wasn’t wearing any campaign buttons or stickers. (In fact, she said, “it was the nicest day we’d had yet that spring, and I was wearing a rainbow-striped dress.”)
“I think the officials there were just afraid — everyone who talked to me was very nice and apologetic and wanted some pizza too, but their higher-ups said it wasn’t a good idea,” she said.
The compromise: Ms. Haase placed the boxes near her car, an acceptable distance from the line.
“It just felt like something I could do,” she said. “I almost felt guilty for having received my mail-in ballot.”
When Ms. Haase thinks about November, she hopes that more people are able to vote by mail and that being proactive will be rewarded. She has already requested an absentee ballot.