Study: Black People Wait Longer to Vote

Photo: Michael B. Thomas (Getty Images)

On the night of the 2018 midterm elections, Senior Reporter Terrell Starr reported on an incidence of voter suppression that is becoming more prevalent. Hundreds of voters at a Southwest Atlanta election precinct waited as long as four hours to cast a ballot.

“When the location, which combines two precincts, opened at 8 a.m., they only had three working voting machines,” Starr dictated to The Root’s election coverage team over the din of frustrated would-be voters. “The wait to vote at this particular location has been as long as 4 hours and currently stands at a 2-hour wait with a hundred or so citizens still trying to exercise their right to vote.”

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Of course, it is easy to dismiss this episode as an isolated incident and not an indication of a more widespread problem. But a new study by Keith Chen, an economist at the University of California, Los Angeles, used smartphone location data to reveal that voters in black neighborhoods face significantly longer wait times at the polls. Of course, this is not a shock to most people but it is always good to have scientific data to measure white supremacy.

“Racial Disparities in Voting Wait Times: Evidence from Smartphone Data” used geolocation data from cell phones to “document large racial differences in voting wait times.” The study used a firm that anonymized the location of voters in the 2016 election, covering 80 percent of the 110,000 polling places in America. Previous studies have shown that black voters wait twice as long as white voters, but much of that research was based on self-reported surveys and in-person polls.

When the researchers collected information from 150,000 voters, they also adjusted their calculations for every variation they could think of, including the length of the ballots, the time of day and the voting method (electronic ballots, touchscreens, paper ballots, etc.), which enabled the economists to quantify the wait times based on census block data. The results were startling.

  • The average wait time for voters in black neighborhoods was 29 percent longer than it was for voters in white neighborhoods.
  • Black voters were 79 percent more likely to wait for more than 30 minutes before they cast a ballot.
  • Even within the same county, voters in a hypothetical all-black precinct would wait 15 percent longer than voters in an all-white precinct.
  • And if you’re thinking that this holds true for Hispanic and non-white voters...Nope, just black.
  • Or, maybe you think the inequality has more to do with poverty and not race. Well, the researchers tried variations of other demographic and economic data and only found “a remarkably stable coefficient” for black wait times. The disparities didn’t hold true for poor whites, Asians, Native Americans or densely populated areas. Just black people.
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The researchers concluded that there is “substantial and significant evidence of racial disparities in voter wait times.”

While this might not be a result of white people sitting in smoke-filled rooms plotting on ways to disenfranchise black people, (they rarely smoke, nowadays) there are a number of ways to achieve these results with minimal effort. In Georgia’s 2018 midterm elections, black precincts seemed to have fewer voting machines and many of them suspiciously cast ballots for the wrong candidates, forcing poll workers to stop using some of the equipment.

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Black voter registrations are disproportionately purged, forcing voters to cast provisional ballots. States have reduced early voting times, a change that affects black working voters. And since 2017, Southern states (where the black population is highest) have shut down hundreds of polling places, many in black precincts and even on HBCU campuses. And if all else fails, they just cheat.

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But luckily, there are ways to fight back. Studies say that voting lines are shortest at noon, at 5 p.m. and at the end of the day. If your state has early voting and you live in a black neighborhood, vote early even if you don’t need to. It decreases the wait times for other black voters. In many states, you can check your registration status online so you won’t face any surprises at the poll. And one of the most effective ways to ensure you won’t become a victim of voter suppression is also the simplest:

Be white.

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About the author

Michael Harriot

World-renowned wypipologist. Getter and doer of "it." Never reneged, never will. Last real negus alive.