Lines. We all know what it’s like to get stuck in one. And while having to stand in a line for hours to do something as important as exercising your right to vote is perverse, it’s something Americans encounter every election cycle — and this year is no exception.
Though election officials and experts hope widespread efforts to encourage voting by mail or absentee due to the coronavirus pandemic, as well as record-breaking early voting, will result in fewer people lining up at the polls on Election Day, experts say voters in some areas may need to be prepared for a wait — especially given the unusual circumstances of 2020.
“There will be more constraints on where people are voting and how many poll workers there are and how people have to be socially distant, so lines will be modestly longer than they have been in the past,” said Loyola Law School professor and voting rights expert Justin Levitt. “In most of the country, I still think people will be in and out in a half hour at most. That's not going to be true in some parts of the country, unfortunately.”
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Whether there is a problem or not, experts told BuzzFeed News there are several things voters can do to prepare, help rectify any issues that arise, and make the most out of the situation if they find themselves in a line.
Here’s their advice.
First things first, why are there lines at polling places?
There are a number of reasons why lines may form at your polling place on Election Day, especially this year. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, poll workers are taking more precautions to ensure safe distances between voters and to sanitize voting booths and other commonly touched surfaces. Lines may also look longer than they really are because of social distancing.
“The process is just taking longer and that is likely to be expected because people want to be safe and make sure that all the voters are secure in casting their ballots,” said Ashley Spillane, founder of Impactual, a social impact strategy firm that advises nonprofits, brands, and philanthropists on civic engagement and getting out the vote.
As noted by experts during record-breaking early voting, lines can be a sign of voter enthusiasm, but a line that doesn’t move can also indicate technical issues with check-in and voting equipment, ill-trained poll workers, or a lack of adequate or improperly allocated resources — and, at worst, voter suppression.
“Most Americans when they see long lines see two sides of a coin,” said Abdul Dosunmu, founder and chief strategist of the Young Black Lawyers’ Organizing Coalition, a network of lawyers and law students working to protect and empower Black voters. “On one side of the coin they see voter enthusiasm … but the other side of the coin is a much more troubling side and that is that unconscionably long lines can operate as a form of voter suppression.”
Loyola professor Levitt, who oversaw the Justice Department’s legal battles over voting rights during the Obama administration, said polling place lines are really a reflection of a lack of sufficient resources to administer elections.
“We get the elections we pay for and we don’t pay a lot compared to a lot of other Western industrial democracies,” he said. “Election officials are constrained in the resources they have available and that shows up unfortunately in problems at the poll.”
If you live in an area where there have historically been long lines on Election Day or you see lines in your community before heading to the polls, it can’t hurt to prepare for a long wait. Along with wearing a mask and packing hand sanitizer, experts suggested bringing water, a snack, a book, or even a lawn chair — and going to the bathroom before you head out!
It’s also important to double-check the location of your polling place and whether you live in a jurisdiction that allows people to cast their ballots at vote centers, rather than just at your neighborhood site, as there might be another location blocks away with no line.
If you’re unsure about what you need to bring with you in order to cast a ballot (requirements vary by state), look up your state’s elections office online, typically the secretary of state, or go to howto.vote for guidance. It would suck to wait in line for hours only to realize when you get to the check-in table that you needed some form of identification (that being said, you should still be allowed to cast a provisional ballot under such a circumstance).
“They should be prepared both in terms of their understanding of their rights and in terms of very practical tools to ensure that they're able to stand in line as long as necessary to cast their vote,” Dosunmu said.
Know your rights and STAY 👏 IN 👏 LINE 👏
The most important thing to do if caught in a line is to stay there — even if polls have technically closed for the day. In every state, voters who are still in line at closing time are allowed to vote.
“The big neon sign is: If you are in line when polls close, you must be allowed to vote, so don’t get out of line no matter what anybody around you tells you,” said Sylvia Albert, director of voting and elections at Common Cause. “If you are in line when polls close, do not leave.”
If you have to pee, ask the people around you to hold your spot in line and relieve yourself before the polls close so nobody mistakes you for arriving late (if it’s an emergency, talk to a poll worker).
“It is not guaranteed that that election worker will say OK,” Albert said. “Unfortunately, law doesn't generally say if you're in line but then have to go to the bathroom, you can leave and then come back.”
People also have the right to vote free of racial bias or discrimination and the right to vote free of voter intimidation. If there are disputes regarding their registration status or eligibility, voters must also be allowed to vote by provisional ballot, which are counted after their eligibility can be determined. If a voting machine is broken, voters can request an emergency paper ballot.
Older voters and people who have disabilities must also be provided certain accommodations at polling places under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“How those rights are complied with will vary by jurisdiction, but generally voters who [qualify] have the right to request some type of accommodation, be it curbside voting or to be moved to the front of the line,” Dosunmu said.
With regard to voter intimidation, which has been a chief concern this election cycle due to President Donald Trump’s attacks on the integrity of the election and his comments telling right-wing extremist supporters to “stand by” and go watch polling places, Albert emphasized that voter intimidation is still prohibited even if voters happen to be standing in line outside of the zone where campaigning isn’t allowed.
“Just because you are outside of that ’safety zone’ does not mean that you are not protected,” Albert said. “If you feel uncomfortable, if you feel like you’re being intimidated, speak with an election worker, the captain, or judge of the precinct.”
Document and report issues
If voters experience any issues or have concerns about a line not moving, or if they’re being told they can’t vote after the polls closed, they should contact their local election administrator, usually a town or county clerk or registrar's office, or call the Election Protection hotline at 866-OUR-VOTE (or 888-VE-Y-VOTA for Spanish speakers) to talk to a legal volunteer who can escalate the issue.
“What the election protection community can do is they can intervene with local elections officials or as necessary in the courts to ensure that polling places are kept open if there are fundamental issues with the operation of the polling place,” Dosunmu said. He added that, without stepping out of line, voters should try to get as much information as possible about the problem or what is causing a delay to relay to legal volunteers.
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Dosunmu said that voters should also try to document any issues or their place in line in the event that they’re being told they can’t vote.
“Just have that [documentation] so that if anyone claims that you weren't in line, you can furnish that [documentation] as evidence that you were there,” he said.
One way to make waiting in a line a more joyful experience is to order food for yourself and your neighbors. Organizations like Pizza to the Polls will deliver free food for everyone if you report a long line.
“This is honestly one of the most self-explanatory nonprofits that exists,” said Spillane, who is an adviser for Pizza to the Polls. “If you see a line and you report the location of that line, they will send you pizza.”
She added that it’s helpful if when you report the line that you’re actually in it and can be there when the food arrives to help hand out the food. In addition to pizza, the nonprofit also provides food trucks in more than two dozen cities and works with Uber Eats and restaurants to provide some sustenance to voters.
The key, however, is that the food has to be available to anybody.
“You're basically saying I have food at this library, anybody who wants food can come have it and that library's a polling location so the people in line are likely voters, but if a random person walks by and wants food you have to [give it to them],” Albert said. “You can’t incentivize people to vote even if you’re not incentivizing them to vote for a particular candidate.”
For many voters, this may be one of few instances when you’ve had an opportunity to interact with strangers in eight months, so why not take this moment to bond with another human — masked and from a safe distance — over your love of voting.
There’s nothing better than finding the silver lining in a shit situation and reminding yourself that you’re not alone. You’re literally standing in a line of people just like you!
“This is a really unique situation that we're all in and we are all in it together,” Spillane said. “[This election] is being held under circumstances we just haven't really experienced before in this way and so I think it is worth celebrating even if it’s imperfect ... that we are breaking records and getting it done in spite of a pandemic.”
Who knows, you might make a friend or meet your life partner.
“People have told me it's happened,” Levitt said. “There’s the opportunity to find a friend or something more whenever people are together in the same place around a common activity, and the polls are no different.” ●