High voter turn-out is causing delays at the ballot box

Long lines at the polls in Georgia.
Long lines at the polls in Georgia.
Image: REUTERS/Leah Millis
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This year, Americans really, really want to vote. An estimated 40 million people have already cast their ballot via early voting, according to the U.S. Election Project, up from 27.5 million early voters in the 2014 midterm elections. But high turnout at the polls has today (Nov. 6) caused headaches for voters and poll workers alike, with polling stations reporting hours-long lines, full ballot boxes, or running out of ballots altogether.

It’s often constraints on polling stations’ resources, such as the number of volunteers, that prevent last-minute adjustments, said Trey Grayson, the director of Harvard’s Institute of Politics. “With more absentee and early voting, predicting election day [turnout] can become more challenging.”

Joseph Lorenzo Hall, from the Center for Democracy and Technology, forecast midterm poll workers requiring additional “stock of ballots or emergency balloting instructions,” and said that full ballot boxes often resulted in poll workers developing DIY secure boxes. He gave the example of fishing tackle boxes secured with locks and duct tape. “The law is uniformly silent on [such improvisation],” he said, “which is weird because almost every jurisdiction eventually has to do something like this.”

In many states, high turnout this year was compounded by technical problems or a lack of machines, resulting in long lines, especially early in the morning.

In New York, which does not allow discretionary early voting, morning lines topped two hundred, with some voters forced to wait for over an hour and a half. Emily Chen, a voter at PS11 in Brooklyn, told ProPublica that the line was “probably longer than when Obama was on the ballot,” while other longtime residents described the queues as historic. “This is the longest line in generations,” Catherine Saunders, a 68-year-old Brooklynite. “I’ve been voting here for 27 years.”

A voter in Wells, Maine, said she had “never seen it so busy at the polls, even for Presidential elections,” while outside of Charleston, South Carolina, voters waited for well over an hour. Brian Wiffley, a voter in Sunnyvale, California, told Quartz it was the first time in five years that he’d seen any line whatsoever at his polling station. Each ballot was slid through a slot in the ballot box, he said. By 10am, “apparently, it was getting harder to find the space inside [the ballot box] for sliding to occur.”

Full ballot boxes were reported across the United States, usually without incident. At the Thousand Oaks Library in California, the ballot box was either full or jammed by 10am, with voters instructed to drop their ballot off in a sealed, City Clerk-approved overflow box behind the circulation desk.

Other polling stations simply ran out ballots. By 8:30am, the North Valley Church of Christ station in Phoenix, Arizona, was all out of ballots, citing concerns about having too many Spanish-language ballots. “I was going to go back in there and try [to vote]” voter Gabriel Preminger told Arizona Central, “but people were flipping out when [poll workers] were telling them” they couldn’t vote.

In Monroe County, Indiana, several polling places ran of ballots and had to replenish their supplies after voter turnout surpassed expectations. County clerk Nicole Browne told Indiana Public Media that they had planned for turnout slightly above 2014’s 26%. By 2pm however, turnout was already at 41.9%.

Beyond voter gusto, there may also be another reason why lines have been so long and ballot boxes so full: Americans have fewer places to cast their vote than they have in the past. Since the Supreme Court struck down aspects of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, nearly 1000 polling places have been closed down.

This story started as a tip from ProPublica’s Electionland project, which monitors voting problems around the country. If you had trouble voting, or if you saw something you want to tell us about, here’s how.