Voting Lines Are Shorter — But Mostly for Whites

By: - February 15, 2018 12:00 am

Voters in Phoenix, seen here waiting for polls to open at dawn in November 2016, had to wait as long as four hours to vote during the presidential primary earlier that year. Minority communities have not benefited as much as white communities have from innovations to shorten lines

Matt York, The Associated Press

On the day of Arizona’s 2016 presidential primary, the line outside the Maryvale Church of the Nazarene, the Maricopa County polling place for 213,000 mostly Latino, low-income people, extended through the parking lot, down busy North 51st Avenue, and into a neighborhood lined with palm and eucalyptus trees on the western edge of Phoenix.

Some voters waited for four hours or more in the 80-degree heat to cast their ballots, according to Martin Quezada, a Democrat who represents the area in the Arizona Senate. Quezada said the long wait time was more than an inconvenience.

Latino voters don’t trust the system, Quezada said. “If they don’t have a good experience on Election Day when they are casting their ballot, their likelihood of participating in a system they don’t trust again in the future becomes that much harder.”

Across the country, elections officials are marshaling data on registered voters, historic turnout, parking spaces and other information to reduce wait times at polling places. Also helping to decrease wait times is voting by mail, which is available in 22 states, and early voting, which is now offered in 37 states — though a couple of states have rolled back their early voting.

But white voters are benefiting far more from such innovations than Hispanic or black voters are. As the nation gears up for what is shaping up to be a high-energy midterm election this November, the disparity is likely to loom large.

In the 2016 presidential election, black voters, on average, waited 16 minutes to vote, while Latino voters waited 13 minutes, according to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology survey of voters. In the same election, white voters waited 10 minutes. In 2012, black and Latino voters stood in line for more than 20 minutes to cast their ballot, nearly twice as long as white voters.

Stephen Pettigrew, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, has found if there are two neighborhoods in the same city, and one is majority-white and the other has more blacks and Hispanics, voters in the white neighborhood have a shorter wait.

Voting rights advocates call the disparity a “time tax.” They argue that it violates the fundamental right to vote — and that it is often intentional.

“We are in a state of threat to voting rights,” said Denise Lieberman, co-director of the Power and Democracy program at the Washington, D.C.-based Advancement Project, a civil rights organization. “Some actions, like changing polling places, may seem benign on its face, but they are creating havoc.”

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Matt Vasilogambros
Matt Vasilogambros

Matt Vasilogambros covers voting rights, gun laws and Western climate policy for Stateline. He lives in San Diego, California.