The Consequences of Longer Wait Times at the Polls for African Americans

By Tihanne Mar-Shall

The recent election and the pandemic combined, have highlighted various issues African Americans have faced for decades. African Americans face barriers to voting at every stage of the process. Historically, poll taxes, literacy requirements, violence during Reconstruction and Jim Crow all served as initial barriers to voting for African Americans in the US. The restrictions to voting are a result of structural racism and inequality. Elections and voter turnout are yet another example of the historical effects of institutionalized racism in the culture of American society. Presently, research has shown that Black and Latino people are more likely to endure longer wait times at polling sites. Additionally, longer lines diminish voter turnout in future elections. The lack of efficiency at these polling locations are another way to restrict the African American vote.

African Americans surged to the polls with historic levels of early voting in this year’s election. In the recent election, there was an emphasis on exercising the right to vote more than in past years partially due to the heightened human rights issues at stake. African Americans spoke of the sense of urgency to protect the idea of democracy. The importance of the fundamental right of voting should not be unfairly restricted in any way. This population may have also felt the importance of voting in-person despite the risks of the pandemic because mail-in ballots face higher rejection rates for Black voters.

At the start of early voting in the recent election, there were hour-long waits at some polling locations with record-high turnouts. For example, people who voted in Cobb County, a county in Georgia, faced wait times of six hours or more. This is alarming because Cobb County has voted for Democrats in recent elections. Due to the pandemic, more people have chosen to vote with mail-in ballots. Fortunately, the likelihood of voter turnout does not change for this group of people but this has led to states reducing the number of in-person polling places. For example, in Milwaukee, the number of polling stations was reduced from 180 to just 5. This is problematic because that is the most diverse city in a very white state. The pandemic also resulted in a shortage of poll workers in comparison to the number of workers in previous election years.  

The consequences for long lines could linger for years to come and further depress the African American population’s votes. Since there was an emphasis placed on voting this year, counties should have been better prepared for higher voter turnout, especially in communities of color. Election officials should be accounting for policy changes that may impact voter turnout when deciding how many polling locations should remain open. Counties that faced longer wait times in the recent election need to increase the number of resources to ensure everyone has equal access to this fundamental right. Long waits at polling places are disruptive and disenfranchising and should not be as common as they are. Making sure counties that are heavily populated with minority voters have equal access to in-person voting is the least election officials can do.

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