In the wake of Republican election losses and the GOP’s unfounded narrative of widespread voter fraud, more than a dozen states have passed sweeping elections reform laws that make it harder to vote, including criminalising handing out food and water to people waiting in long lines to cast their ballot at the polls.
Democratic US Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley have introduced a bill that intends to push back on those efforts. The legislation would “end hours-long lines at polling places that suppress hundreds of thousands of American votes, and to restore our Constitutional rights to vote in free and fair elections”.
Scenes of long lines at voting precincts across the US have dominated Election Day coverage in recent years. Roughly 3 million voters waited 30 minutes or longer to cast their ballot in the 2018 elections, surpassing the acceptable threshold for wait times set by the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
With the widespread closures of Election Day polling locations and the consolidation of voting precincts, voting rights advocates have warned that longer wait times could suppress voters who now face diminishing options to vote early or by mail to avoid crowded in-person voting.
More than 500,000 people did not cast a vote because of long lines in the 2018 elections, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center.
The POLL Act would require states to mandate audits by the Election Assistance Commission to determine how long voters wait to cast their ballots, and would supply $500m to states to help reduce wait times in “unreasonably” long lines.
“No one should be shut out of the democratic process just because they can’t spend hours waiting in lines to cast a ballot,” Senator Wyden said in a statement. ”Making voting accessible and convenient shouldn’t be a partisan issue.”
Voters who wait longer than 30 minutes could be eligible for $50 through discrimination complaints, and $50 for every hour after, under the senators’ proposal.
Those penalties would increase if a court determines long lines were the result of intentional voter suppression.
Nearly 21,000 Election Day polling locations closed before the 2020 presidential election, down from previous presidential election cycles in 2016 and 2012, according to an analysis from VICE News, which found widespread closures as districts grappled with coronavirus-related closures, cost-cutting measures and lingering impacts from legislated voter suppression.
The changes represent a 20 per cent cut of polling locations nationwide within just four years.
Poll closures and long wait times disproportionately impact Black and Latino voters compared to white voters, several analyses have found.
In its 2020 report, the Brennan Center found that more than 6 per cent of Latino voters and 7 per cent of Black voters reported waiting 30 minutes or longer to vote. That figure falls to 4.1 per cent among white voters.
More generally, Latino voters waited on average 46 per cent longer than white voters, and Black voters waited on average 45 per cent longer than white voters, according to the report.
Counties that became less white over the past decade also had fewer election resources than whiter counterparts – the average county where the white population grew had 63 voters per poll worker and roughly 390 voters per polling place, the Brennan Center found.
But the average county that became less white had 80 voters per worker and 550 voters per polling place.
The landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act established that states with a history of voter discrimination must have federal approval before changing election rules – but those rules were tossed out in 2013 by a split US Supreme Court. Fifteen states closed more than 1,600 polls between 2012 and 2018.
A report from the Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights said that high court’s decision “catalysed a systemic examination of poll closures and other seemingly innocuous changes that could have negatively impacted voters of colour”.
Senator Jon Ossoff of Georgia – where Republicans have passed a law that criminalises giving out food and water to voters – has promoted a Voter Access to Water Act to undermine those state-level restrictions and address long wait times at the polls.
Republicans have claimed that allowing people to hand out food and water would encourage electioneering at the polls, which is already illegal.
Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed into law an elections bill that, among other measures, makes it a misdemeanor to give out food or water within 150 feet of a polling place or within 25 feet of a person standing in line to vote.
The For The People Act proposes automatic voter registration, at least 15 consecutive days of early voting for federal elections, and standardises mail-in voting options and drop boxes for absentee ballots, among a host of other proposals wrapped into the bill.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is teeing up a vote for the measure, but it is likely to fail against a Republican filibuster, which needs at least 60 votes to overcome in the evenly divided Senate.