The waiting-time poll tax

We don’t collect poll taxes in cash any more. But is it really better to make someone spend hours waiting in line?

Right now, it seems very unlikely that John Kerry would have won this election under more liberal counting rules or with voting technology less inviting of voter error. (Al Gore, by contrast, might have carried Florida had all the undervotes with clear evidence of voter intent been counted, and would almost certainly have done so if the overvotes had been counted or if the Palm Beach “butterfly ballot” hadn’t cost him three thousand votes.)

Nor have I seen any convincing evidence that the opportunity for vote-stealing provided by no-audit-trail electronic voting systems was taken advantage of, though it’s hard to prove a negative.

But that doesn’t mean that voting technology isn’t a big problem. Even putting aside the problems of spoiled ballots and vote theft, the issue of waiting in line remains.

On Election Day, the media treated reports of voters waiting hours in line as good news, indicating an aroused electorate and a high turnout. For those purposes, it was good news.

But in a larger sense, it’s terrible news. Poll taxes in cash have been banned, but a poll tax in waiting time isn’t necessarily less onerous, even putting aside those whose disabilities make standing in line for hours difficult or impossible. That’s especially true if — as has been reported — long lines are especially characteristic of large urban precincts, and in particular minority precincts.

There’s a potential political issue here. (Doesn’t the Help America Vote Act come up for re-authorization at some point?)

But prior to that there’s a research topic. What, in fact, is the distribution of waiting times for voting, and how does that distribution vary by geography, size of place, race, and income? How many voters will fail to vote if voting takes half an hour rather than five minutes, an hour rather than half an hour, and so on?

Los Angeles, which used to have punch-cards, now uses opscan. The big advantage of that group of technologies is that the voting stations themselves are dirt-cheap, and therefore can be provided in quantity; I have never waited as much as five minutes to vote, and the line, if there is one, is always at the point of verifying your identity and getting a ballot rather than at the voting stations.

One simple legislative approach would be to require any precinct where the wait at the previous Presidential election ever got to be as long as 30 minutes (or some other limit) either to increase the number of voting stations according to some formula or (if that’s too expensive) to have an inexpensive back-up system (opscan or paper ballot) to be used whenever the wait gets up to the designated limit in the future.

Given the equal protection precedent set in Bush v. Gore, it would seem to me that there’s a strong case that large variations across voters in the size of the waiting-time poll tax are unconstitutional. The argument would be even stronger if those variations turned out to correlate with race. (I don’t know how the Voting Rights Act works, and therefore I don’t know whether waiting time might constitute a claim under the VRA.)

But again, that’s to put the cart before the horse. Before we discuss remedies, we need to know more about the problem. This seems to me like a great topic for a dissertation in political science or public policy. And I’d bet funding wouldn’t be hard to come by. Any takers?

Update Some data here.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: