If You're Standing in Line to Vote Early, Blame Your State and Local Lawmakers

People wait in line to cast their ballots for the upcoming presidential election as early voting begins in Houston, Texas, October 13, 2020. (Go Nakamura/Reuters)

It’s a staple of election coverage most years, but particularly this year: long lines in early voting, a phenomenon that allegedly “threatens our democracy.” Jen Rubin asserts long lines are “often the result of Republicans’ refusal to provide an adequate number of polling places.”

First, the number of polling places in any community are largely shaped by state laws, and selected and managed by the local government. Some states have laws encouraging or discouraging localities to use local government buildings, public schools, firehouses, or college campuses. (Some states encourage public buildings because they’re accessible to the handicapped; some states discourage the use of public schools if schools are open for security purposes.) Michigan, Nevada, and Rhode Island specifically mention senior centers as an option in their statutes. If you believe your community has far too few places to cast ballots, blame your state and local governments, not the president or Senate Majority Leader or some shadowy cabal in Washington. Donald Trump isn’t sitting in the Oval Office picking which local schools and community centers can be used for polling places.

Secondly, the vast majority of communities in the United States have a sufficient number of polling places to run an orderly election with manageable waits. Americans cast ballots at 230,871 polling places in 2018; 122 million people voted in the most recent midterm elections, meaning there was one polling place for every 528 people. (Keep in mind, almost 40 percent of those people voted early or by mail, so on Election Day, only about 74 million Americans were casting ballots at their local polling place.) According to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, New Hampshire had the most voters per polling place, with 1,882, and Arkansas had the lowest, with just 13 per polling place. Only nine states and territories had more than 1,000 voters per polling place; 34 states had 769 voters or fewer. In most states, polling places are open for twelve hours or more.

This year, the pandemic is spurring a lot more Americans to consider voting early or absentee. We shouldn’t be shocked by long lines, particularly in the first days of early voting in a jurisdiction. We really shouldn’t be shocked by high voter turnout in an intensely polarized political environment. Most jurisdictions only open up a small fraction of the regular polling places for early voting. When you have a lot more people interested in early voting, and only a fraction of the Election Day polling places open, you’re going to get a long line.

When we hear people saying that “the lines for early voting have never been this long!” it’s in part because we’ve never held early voting during a pandemic that makes people want to not gather with a lot of other people in or near polling place on the first Tuesday in November. (And if people standing in line are trying to stay six feet apart for social distancing, that will make the lines even longer.)

More than 853,000 Virginians have cast ballots, as of midday Tuesday. In my neck of the woods, Fairfax County, early voting started at the government center September 18, and at 13 satellite locations starting October 14. Fairfax County still has long lines at its early voting locations; on Saturday, 10,959 people cast ballots, more than on the last day of early voting four years ago. As of yesterday, 23 percent of registered voters have cast ballots.

But if the long waits strike Fairfax residents as unreasonable and the number of open early voting locations as far too few . . . the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors has nine Democrats and one Republican; there is no sinister GOP conspiracy to blame for this.

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