Waiting to vote

The long lines at polling stations in Ohio and elsewhere were outrageous -- it was a miracle voters didn't give up.

Topics: 2004 Elections

The real scandal of this election became clear to me at 6.30 p.m. on Election Day as I drove a young African-American voter, a charming business student, seven months pregnant, to her polling place at Finland Elementary School in south Columbus. We arrived in a squalling rain to find voters lined up outside for about a hundred yards. Later the line moved indoors. We were told that the wait had averaged two hours for the entire day. By the time the doors closed at 7:30 p.m., it was considerably longer.

Why such a line? Yes, turnout was a factor. But the real problem was a grotesque shortage of voting machines. Finland Elementary serves three precincts: Ward 37, A, B and C. The election officer at the door told me that the smallest of these precincts has some 400 registered voters, the middle-sized one has more than 800 and the largest “thousands.” Because of the length and complexity of the ballot, voters were being limited to five minutes to finish their ballot, and most were using all that time.

Each precinct had two functioning voting machines. The largest precinct was supposed to have three machines. One was broken at the precinct’s opening and later replaced with another machine that also did not function. It’s not hard to do the math. Five minutes per voter means 12 voters per machine per hour. Ohio polls were open for 13 hours, for a maximum throughput of 156 voters per machine, or 312 voters per precinct. That’s barely enough for a 75 percent turnout in the smallest precinct of the three. For the larger precincts, it was a joke — on voters.

This situation played out all over the city of Columbus and the state of Ohio on Election Day, with lines reported at 90 minutes to two hours from start to finish. One of my drivers spent two and a half hours accompanying a single elderly voter to the polls.

How high was the turnout really? I don’t yet know the answer to that. But I do know that you cannot judge from the lines. You have to know the number of machines and the time it takes to vote.



The miracle was the mood of the voters. They arrived in all their all-American splendor — work clothes and sweat suits, ponchos and umbrellas, baby packs and walkers — with almost infinite patience and good humor. In the 40 minutes I waited at the door, only a half-dozen voters left without voting. As I wrote this, waiting in the car at 8 p.m. a half-hour after the polls officially closed, perhaps 300 more were still waiting inside the school. Most of them likely stayed there until they could vote. My young friend also toughed it out.

Were the long lines the result of incompetence? Of insufficient funding for the new touch-screen machines? Or were they part of a strategy to discourage and suppress the vote? I report; you decide. But whatever the reason, the failure to provide enough machines for Americans to vote without having to wait for two hours or more is a scandal.

James K. Galbraith organized a conference on the “Crisis in the Eurozone” at the University of Texas at Austin on November 3-4. Papers and presentations can be found at http://tinyurl.com/3kut4k5, along with a video archive of the full meeting.

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