The waiting is the hardest part

Why does it take so long to vote for President?

Would you prefer a Republican railroad commissioner, or a Libertarian one? Video lottery terminals to fund public education—yea or nay? How about euthanasia? Gay marriage? Adoption rights for unmarried couples? Think fast! These are the sorts of agonizing questions Canadians don’t have to deal with during federal election campaigns. But in Texas, Maryland, Washington, Arizona, Arkansas and other states, voters must decide on these crucial matters of statehood at the same time they choose between John McCain and Barack Obama (and Bob Barr and Ralph Nader, for that matter). To take a purely random example, residents of Crystal, Minn., vote today for a President, a Senator, a Congressman or woman, a state representative, mayor, and soil and water conservation supervisors for three separate districts, as well as on amending the state constitution to protect safe drinking water and on two separate funding issues regarding the local school board. In Fort Bend County, Tx., there’s all that plus a state senator, a straight-party vote (Republican, Democrat or Libertarian), the aforementioned railroad commissioner, more than a dozen judgeships, and county attorney, sheriff, tax assessor, comissioner, justice of the peace and constable.

In part, this explains one of the other key differences between Canadian and American elections: the often enormous queues, especially in urban areas. There are reports today of 75-to-90 minute waits in Virginia (a state notorious for election mayhem), and three hours in New York City. Computer glitches during early voting in Georgia, meanwhile, led to waits of up to eight hours during the early polling last Monday. Having whittled the wait down to two to three hours by the next day, election officials in Gwinnett and Fulton counties actually sounded pleased. “So far, so good,” one told the Journal-Constitution. asked Stuart Comstock-Gay, director of the Democracy Program at Demos, a non-partisan public policy research organization that monitors voting irregularities, for his top three causes for long lines at the polls. They are:

  1. Unexpectedly high turnout.
  2. Faulty voting equipment—as shown in in Virginia today, where some polling places have simply closed their doors.
  3. Good, old-fashioned “inadequate preparation”: too few registrars and too few voting machines where they’re needed. “You would expect that election officials would say, ‘hey, we’re going to have really high turnout from low-income communities and communities of colour [on Nov. 4],’” he says, but in some cases, it seems preparations have again been found wanting.

Demos’s 2008 Election Primer lists all manner of other worrisome election issues, from misplaced registrations to “partisan operatives improperly challeng[ing] voters’ eligibility,” that are bound to cause delays. There are also any number of lawyers hanging around, which is never good. But improvements are possible. Comstock-Gay says he’s encouraged that there haven’t been any reports today of enormous wait times or other irregularities from Ohio, for example—the scene of massive lines in 2004 and subject of numerous conspiracy theories in the years since. He suggests election officials there have “taken seriously” the charges against them, devoting more resources to polling stations and “being more thoughtful about [voting] machine allocation.”

But a wholesale solution is far from at hand, he notes, because federal elections are run differently in every jurisdiction. “There aren’t national standards except not to discriminate,” he says. “So there’s not a lot of room for someone to come in and say, ‘this is the way you have to do it.’” Short of a lawsuit—and there are always plenty of those—he says voters are pretty much “stuck” with whatever plan their local officials come up with. Voting by mail never looked so good.