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Will Bunch: 12-hour voting lines give me hope, even as America looks like a banana republic

By Will Bunch, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Op Eds

Like most Americans, Stacy Bogan - a headshot and wedding photographer who lives in the sprawling Texas exurb of Mansfield, south of Dallas-Fort Worth - has had a rough 2020. While working to keep her studio afloat, her husband lost her job at the business services giant Cintas, which she blames on the mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mostly, the couple shelters at home - but not when Texas opened polling stations for early voting on Tuesday.

Bogan was hardly alone in venturing out to vote at the very first opportunity. Standing in a line that wrapped all the way around a local courthouse in Mansfield, she ultimately waited five-and-a-half long hours before she could cast her vote for Joe Biden and down-ballot Democrats - and she doesn't regret one minute of it.

"I was tired toward the end, but I was determined to vote yesterday and stand in line until my voice was heard," she told me in a Twitter interview. "I was determined to vote for equal rights, 216,000+ dead Americans that can't vote this year. I voted for healthcare, and sanity."

The remarkable thing about what Bogan did this week was how unremarkable it was. Millions of Americans - mostly wearing masks, trying to stand 6 feet apart, bringing a lawn chair if they were smart - stood on similar lines not just in Texas but in Georgia and other states that allow for in-person early voting. In the suburbs outside of Atlanta, some voters said they ultimately waited as long as 11 hours, thanks to voting book glitches and simply not enough polling stations. In some locales, chefs brought food to the idled voters.

The numbers so far are staggering - more than 15 million Americans had already voted by the mid-point of October, and that figure will be higher by the time you read this. Despite a deadly pandemic that's killed more than 216,000 U.S. citizens, both early in-person and mail voting are shattering any known records. And the information posted so far shows Democrats and African Americans are voting disproportionately higher. But statistics don't truly do justice to images of exhausted citizens stretched across parking lots and down tree-lined streets in the autumn heat of the Sunbelt, more determined to exercise their right to vote than any presidential election in living memory.

To some observers on social media, the endless lines looked like something you'd expect to see in a faraway banana republic where beleaguered residents were voting for the first time after decades under a military dictatorship, not images you should be seeing in a nation that's long branded itself the Cradle of Democracy.

The long-awaited start of 2020 voting has taken the focal point of the war to save America finally away from a White House where an infected and increasingly manic and desperate authoritarian in chief is clinging to power, and finally into our battered communities, bringing along a Texas-sized flood of emotions, and nagging questions.

Should Americans be feeling deep anger that decades of voter suppression engineered by one party, the Republicans - shutting down many early or traditional polling places in Black and brown neighborhoods or college campuses that skew Democratic, trying to limit drop boxes or voting hours, or anything that would make it easier to vote instead of harder - now force everyday folks to risk their health in a pandemic to stand up and be counted?

Or should we be feeling an almost exuberant sense of pride that - despite both government-sanctioned voter suppression and efforts by President Donald Trump to discourage turnout by convincing folks that the election is rigged or that their ballot won't be counted - everyday people are willing to stand on their aching feet and get this done, even if it takes 11 exhausting hours? And that the majority are doing so to reject American autocracy?

The answer, of course, is both. The beautiful sight of doggedly determined voters, despite everything that 2020 has thrown at them, is giving me a surge of hope that I haven't experienced in months. Experts like voting guru Dave Wasserman, looking at this record-setting week, now predict as many as 150 million or even 160 million citizens will cast ballots this fall, shattering 2016's total of 137 million and suggesting American willpower is stronger than any policy of voter suppression. But the other thing about voting lines is that it doesn't have to be this way.

"It's unconscionable in America that people should have to wait for hours to vote," journalist Ari Berman, author of "Give Us the Ballot : The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America," told me in an email interview. "Yes, it's a sign of voter enthusiasm but it's also a modern-day poll tax to make people with jobs/kids/families wait 3 or 6 or 12 hours to vote. Many people do not have the luxury to wait that long to vote and a certain number of people will leave the line or decide not to vote at all if the lines are that long."

Another important thing about voting lines is that they are racist. Berman noted that in Georgia's 2020 primary, when turnouts were lower, wait times were six minutes in predominantly white neighborhoods but 51 minutes in predominantly Black ones. A recent study from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law found similar problems in the 2018 vote - that lines were much longer in African American and Latinx neighborhoods.

 

The center estimated more than 3 million voters waited more than 30 minutes that year, and the worst problems were in Deep South states mostly covered by the 1965 Voting Rights Act before the Supreme Court gutted it in 2013. In the seven years since then, GOP-led state and local governments have reduced polling places in mostly nonwhite communities - about 1,600 across the Sunbelt - or otherwise slashed resources.

But here's the thing: The crux of the Republican war on ballot box involves aiming to discourage voters by making it harder on them - making it difficult to find a polling place, or produce proper ID, and navigate a byzantine system. But these measures still aren't enough to deter voters who see an election as a matter of life or death, which is what we're seeing in 2020.

"I've always taking voting seriously and thought that I wanted to get my vote in as soon as possible," Robert Carrasco, a 32-year-old comic shop owner in San Antonio, told me after he stood for five-and-a-half hours on a line that wrapped around that city's Wonderland of Americas Mall to vote on Tuesday. "That's always a worry for a lot of people," he said of getting his vote counted, "but I'm putting faith in our system that it will be."

But here's the best part of what we've seen over the past week. It could be the start of a virtuous cycle of democracy. If citizens, especially in Black and brown communities, overcome this campaign of GOP suppression to vote those folks out of office, the Democrats who replace them owe to the people to make it easier to cast their ballot in 2022 and beyond.

"The fix is to give people as many voting options as possible and to make voting as convenient as possible," Berman said. "Make it easy to vote by mail and have people trust the mail system, because there's no wait if you vote from home. Make sure there's enough poll workers and the voting machines work properly. Every state should have weeks of early voting and polling places at every school, library, sports arena and public institution if feasible."

Congress will have a lot on its plate in January. If Trump and Senate Majority Leader (for now) Mitch McConnell continue on their current track, both the pandemic and the recession will be even worse, and in need of urgent attention. But lawmakers can't forget that the erosion of our voting rights is how we got such an unresponsive government in the first place. The John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would update and thus restore the key provisions of the 1965 law, should be one of the first acts of a Democratic government, not an afterthought.

The gritty determination of those voters in Houston or Atlanta patiently baking under the October sun to make a stand for American democracy is a scene that I will never forget - and it's something I never want to see again after Nov. 3, 2020.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Will Bunch is the national opinion columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Visit The Philadelphia Inquirer at www.inquirer.com

(c)2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
 

 

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