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The Waiting Game

Long lines at polling sites and benefits offices are no accident

On March 3, the line at the Texas Southern University polling site emerged from the library and stretched across the courtyard. Members from the voter registration and youth engagement nonprofit MOVE Texas were handing out pizza, snacks, and water to encourage voters to stay. To bide the time, a saxophonist played jazz; one voter brought a folding chair.

Hervis Rogers stepped in line and cast his vote six hours and twenty minutes later, then went on to work his night shift, knowing he was going to arrive late. He told a local news network, “I wasn’t going to let anything stop me, so I waited it out.”

Meanwhile, a few miles to the north, at the Baker Ripley House polling site, Mackenzie Maupin arrived at 6:30 pm. “It just kept going and going all around the building, I’ve never seen lines like this,” she said. Her waiting time: three hours and forty minutes.

At one polling station in Milwaukee during Wisconsin’s April 7 primary, within an hour of opening, the line to vote reportedly stretched for a quarter of a mile. The exigencies of the coronavirus pandemic have dilated the issue of long lines, throwing into sharp relief the inordinate waiting time some voters have had to endure to cast a ballot. The spectacle of these long lines, seen at polling sites across the country, marks the lengths people have to go to in order to participate in the electoral process.

More than the accumulated result of polling site under-staffing, machine failures, and increased voter turnout, waiting is also a political tool. Over the last two decades, social theorists  have increasingly focused on the study of time and waiting, offering ways of understanding chronic waiting as varying expressions of political subordination.

In his 2008 study of the labor crisis in Senegal during the early 2000s, Michael Ralph found the unemployed youth “killed time” by drinking tea, and that this ritual served as a rhetorical proxy for the high rates of unemployment plaguing the country. He observed the “unemployed young men loiter in the public sphere: social obstructions that disrupt the neoliberal dream, citizens who try to soothe their troubles by drinking tea while they await politicians capable of serving them.” If the standardization of time signals modernity, as social historians have argued, then unemployment can be read as a disjuncture along the linear path of social reproduction that maintains capitalism.

The state can exercise its power by re-creating “innumerable acts of waiting” that work to turn people away from the entitlement they seek, or deprive them of time that would have otherwise been spent at work or in leisure

In Senegal, loitering functions as an “active waiting”; preparing and serving tea gives cultural and political form to long-simmering discontent over the stalled fruits of citizenship. But in other sites, like the line at Texas State University or at a government welfare office in Buenos Aires, waiting is imposed and has disenfranchising effects. For his 2012 study Patients of the State, sociologist Javier Auyero researched the experience of waiting among the urban poor in Buenos Aires at different “waiting sites,” including lines and lobbies. According to Auyero, waiting is not just wasted time; for those in poverty, waiting is doldrum, it is to be expected. Being told “not yet” by various apparatus of the state—politicians, bureaucrats, and officials—locks the poor into a relationship of clientelism. Those forced to bide their time are fundamentally frustrated with the interminable cycle of waiting, yet they are simultaneously bound to it, as a patient to their patron.

Auyero spent time outside the Registro Nacional de las Personas, where legal residents of Argentina go to obtain an ID card, a prerequisite to receiving any government welfare benefit. He also observed people from lower-income sectors of Buenos Aires form a line that resurfaces every day; waiting in it can take up to eight hours. While they wait, the residents eat, drink, chat, sit on the sidewalk, stand with their bodies against the stone walls, or sleep—to be attended on, they must endure. He writes:

people in the waiting room know that they have to come back several times to obtain a positive response, they know they have to demonstrate endurance to the state agents, and they know they have to wait because . . . as Mario, who is waiting on a housing subsidy so eloquently put it, “in this country, waiting is a classic, you live in the waiting.”

Or, as Paula, who waits in the welfare office to claim a benefit from the Nuestras Familias program, says “this has been the longest wait . . . They asked me to come many times; there was always something (a document, a paper) missing.” “It is really exhausting to wait here,” she continues, but “you have to have patience. This is an aid that the government gives you, so you have to be patient.”

Ralph and Auyero show how for some, waiting is a state of being. The state can exercise its power in subordinating the poor by making them wait, by re-creating “innumerable acts of waiting” that work to turn people away from the entitlement they seek, or deprive them of time that would have otherwise been spent at work or in leisure. Auyero, for instance, finds the Buenos Aires’s central welfare office as a space mostly of women and children: by making the receipt of a benefit contingent on long cycles of waiting, mothers have to perform reproductive care in the lobby of a public government office.

Of course, long lines at polling places also have their own unique American history.

As slave owners attempted to shore up the fledgling Confederacy’s institutional backbone in the mid nineteenth century, they were worried, and they had reason to be. When Tennessee finalized the extension of the Confederacy in June 1861, white men accounted for approximately one-third of the overall population—and poor white men took up a portion of this. White slaveholders were a demographic minority. As Jill Lepore writes in These Truths, “the leaders of this fundamentally antidemocratic state needed popular support,” but such support was “difficult to gain and impossible to maintain.”

The key to the Confederacy’s futurity, then, was the suppression of dissent through anti-literacy laws, the gag rule, and censorship. As Frederick Douglass argued in his 1860 “A Plea for Free Speech in Boston,” “though Faneuil Hall and Bunker Hill Monument stand, freedom of speech is struck down”—because those in power knew too well that “slavery cannot tolerate free speech.”

Some of the voter disenfranchisement tactics that propped up white supremacy in the making of the Confederacy served the same purpose in the newly reunited Republic once secession failed. The voter protections guaranteed through the Reconstruction Acts, which split the former Confederate states into five military districts with assigned federal troops, were bargained away in the 1876 election, marking the end to the brief and partial interlude of black male enfranchisement. State governments quickly legislated literacy tests, poll taxes, and residency requirements in order to secure white Democrats in the seats of power.  

Today, waiting functions in a similar way to these historically rooted forms of voter suppression that safeguard the political order at the expense of democratic will by functioning as institutionalized obstacles to the right to vote. The experience of primary voters across the country shows that while the collective act of waiting has become an intrinsic aspect of participating in the electoral process, this waiting is unevenly distributed, concentrated in minority communities, in cities, and among students.

Research by The Leadership Conference Education Fund finds that Texas, a state undergoing demographic change with a growing and diversifying electorate, has closed 750 polling places since 2013. Harris County, where both Hervis Rogers and Mackenzie Maupin voted, has a population that is 42 percent Latino and 19 percent black. It is a majority minority county; since 2013, fifty-two of its polling sites have closed. In an official statement following the most recent disaster at the polls, Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman apologized and admitted that there was still work to be done in improving polling “deserts” in marginalized communities.

Milwaukee, which is home to nearly 70 percent of Wisconsin’s black population, typically has 180 poll sites, but on the day of the April primary, this number was reduced to five. Madison, an overwhelmingly white city with approximately half the population of Milwaukee, had sixty-six open sites.

Winding lines on election day can be explained in part by the closure of polling sites since the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County vs. Holder decision, which struck down Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, eliminating the requirement to obtain federal approval prior to changing state voting law. This pre-clearance requirement was in place in nine states—seven of which are former Confederate states—in their entirety, and it also covered a selection of counties and townships in six additional states. In the decision’s immediate aftermath, Texas passed a voter identification law that had been previously blocked under Section 5, and in the years that followed, each of the nine states released from federal oversight of voting law change has reduced its number of polling places. In total, 1,688 polling places in 757 of the 860 counties and county-level equivalents previously covered by Section 5 were closed between 2012 and 2018.

In delaying without entirely destroying access to political capital, waiting stifles dissent and keeps everyone in order: no one wants to wait longer than is necessary.

While lines presuppose voters have infinite time at their disposal, a 2013 U.S. Election Assistance Commission study finds it is minority communities, students, and urban dwellers who experience the longest waits. This geography of waiting means that on average, black voters wait in line longer than white voters: a 2019 study of wait time during the 2016 general election found that residents of entirely black neighborhoods waited 29 percent longer to vote and were 76 percent more likely to spend thirty minutes or more at the polling station compared to residents of entirely white neighborhoods. For these voters, lost time “imposes economic costs.” It also has psychic effects, dismantling confidence that their ballot matters.The 2013 U.S. Election Assistance Commission study also shows that of voters who had to wait over an hour to cast their ballot on Election Day, only 21 percent were confident that votes nationwide were counted as intended. For those who do not experience a long wait time at their own polling sites but live in states that are known to have long lines, the wait becomes a signifier of disrupted bureaucracy, and these voters, too, have lower voter confidence. Ultimately, the numbers show that long lines undermine the public’s confidence in the electoral system.  

Now, amid uncertainty about when or if the coronavirus pandemic will end, there are calls for universal mail-in ballots as the primary calendar continues on and the general election nears. There has been concerted pushback from Republican leaders who see vote by mail as the death knell of their electoral majority. Priscilla Southwell, a political scientist from the University of Oregon, argued in The Atlantic that “vote by mail simply makes it easier to vote”—the very reason some are wary of its nationwide implementation.

Around the world, some have turned the act of waiting on its head through the public performance of loitering, but for many others, being told “not now, not yet” deflates trust in political agency. As one woman told  Auyero while she waited in Buenos Aires’s  welfare office, “look at people’s faces, people leave this office very, very tired.” In delaying without entirely destroying access to political capital, waiting stifles dissent and keeps everyone in order: no one wants to wait longer than is necessary.

In the United States, along with voter identification laws, roll purges, and gerrymandering, waiting time forms a part of a larger history of whittling down the contours of the national electorate, and of democracy. The imposition of waiting in a long line in order to participate in the electorate can be read as another tool in the arsenal of voter suppression: a twenty-first century poll tax, a rendition of citizen-as-patient.