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Why long lines at polling places are a voting rights issue

Polling places are disappearing in blue states as well as red. It’s a quiet form of voter suppression.

Voters line up outside a polling place in El Paso, Texas on November 6, 2018
Voters line up outside a polling place in El Paso, Texas, on November 6, 2018.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Long lines. Broken voting machines. Hours-long waits that eat into workdays.

All these faced people who turned out to vote in the midterm elections on a misty Tuesday in New York City. A liberal stronghold, the city hasn’t raised the same concerns about voter suppression as Georgia or North Dakota. But voting difficulties here are emblematic of a nationwide problem: Polling places around the country have been quietly disappearing for years, especially in areas with a high percentage of voters of color.

“You’re seeing a pattern of polling place consolidations in cities and counties around the country,” John Powers, who serves as counsel in the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told Vox.

In some places, that consolidation is the result of active efforts to depress turnout, but in others, it’s the result of budget cuts and an unwillingness by city and county governments to invest in making sure people can vote. Whatever the cause, the result is the same: Poor people and people of color have fewer opportunities to cast a ballot.

Voters around the country are encountering long lines

Reports of long lines in New York started to spread on social media on Tuesday morning. Jennifer Hsu, a senior producer at WNYC, reported long waits and broken machines at a polling place in Crown Heights, Brooklyn:

New York City Council member Paul Vallone pointed out similar problems in Queens:

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, heavily favored to become the next representative for New York’s 14th District, which includes portions of the Bronx and Queens, tweeted about the problem, calling for voting reform in New York. The New York City Board of Elections has not yet responded to Vox’s request for comment on the problems voters experienced.

It wasn’t just New York. Voters in Philadelphia also reported long lines and broken machines.

Voters in Chicago, Cincinnati, and Detroit also reported problems. In one town outside Phoenix, a polling place was foreclosed on the night before Election Day, with ballots and voting equipment locked inside.

Many voting problems were reported in Georgia, where voting rights advocates have long been concerned about attempts by Republicans to suppress turnout among black voters. But elsewhere in the country, including areas controlled by Democrats, voting problems may stem from a quieter, less direct form of voter suppression: a failure to spend the money necessary to make sure everyone can vote.

Cities and counties are cutting back on polling places. That hurts some voters more than others.

Thousands of polling places around the country have closed in recent years, according to a USA Today analysis. Some urban areas have been hit especially hard: Chicago’s Cook County closed or moved 95 polling places between 2012 and 2016, Los Angeles County lost 88, and Houston’s Harris County lost 27.

The number of polling places around the country has continued to shrink since 2016, USA Today reports. And election officials in many areas have reduced the number of workers at existing polling places.

Meanwhile, some polling places are using old machines — many purchased in the wake of the Help America Vote Act of 2002 — that are prone to breaking down. This can lead to more long lines, and to polling places that don’t open on time, Powers said. The Lawyers’ Committee has heard reports of broken machines in Philadelphia and New York, as well as in Georgia.

Lack of voting machines is also an issue. An analysis of 2012 voting patterns in Maryland, South Carolina, and Florida — the states with the longest lines — conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice found that precincts with a high percentage of voters of color were disproportionately likely to receive an insufficient number of machines from election officials.

The cuts to polling places have a number of causes, Powers explained. In some cases, as with efforts to close polling places in Randolph County, Georgia, he said, voter suppression is to blame. Elsewhere, however, “you have cities or counties that are strapped for money” and that “struggle with the apparatus of conducting election administration activities.”

“For election officials, sometimes the easier answer is to have fewer locations, fewer workers,” Powers said.

Whatever the case, areas with a high percentage of voters of color have been hardest hit by closures and worker cutbacks. In urban counties where a majority of voters are people of color, voters lost an average of seven polling places and more than 200 poll workers, according to USA Today. Meanwhile, in counties where more than 90 percent of the population was white, voters lost just two locations and two workers on average during that time period.

What’s more, closures have a disproportionate impact on poor voters or those with insecure employment or inflexible work schedules, many of whom are people of color.

“These polling place consolidations have a particularly pernicious effect on the voters who are most vulnerable,” Powers said — “those of a lower socioeconomic status, who may not have access to a vehicle, or may be working odd hours or long hours at a shift where they might not be able to get off.”

In Philadelphia, he said, the Lawyers’ Committee had heard from a woman “who was disenfranchised because she works two jobs and had organized her entire workday so that she could go and vote early in the morning.”

“But when her polling place didn’t open on time, she didn’t have that window,” Powers said. “There was no way she could go back to any polling place before midnight.”

Whether the intent is to suppress turnout or just to save money, the effect is the same: around the country, people of color have fewer places to vote than they once did. And while long lines and broken machines are an inconvenience for some, for others they mean the difference between voting and being unable to do so. Ultimately, long lines and broken machines at polling places are just another way that people of color are routinely denied equal voting rights in America.