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24 Nov 2020 16:16
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  •   Home > News > International

    Why the 2020 US presidential election has millions of Americans waiting in line for hours to vote early

    More than 57 million Americans have already cast their ballots with nine days until election day. Emily Olson follows one voter in the battleground state of Wisconsin to learn why so many are willing to wait in record-long lines to vote.


    The line just wasn't going to be tamed.

    The city had tripled the number of polling stations. The workers had opened the doors 10 minutes early. And a few people left without completing what they came to do, possibly put off by the crowds in the age of coronavirus, or maybe just by the 3 degrees Celsius cold.

    But even 40 minutes after early voting began on Tuesday morning in Wisconsin, the line at Milwaukee's Midtown Center was still swelling instead of shrinking.

    It coiled in two fat loops through the converted storefront, slithered out the door and onto the sidewalk, past the gym, past the grocery store, past the beauty salon, past the abandoned lots and dusty windows and brick walls and "masks required" signs, nearly tumbling into the street.

    At 8:32am, Ulont Sherrod was standing at the end of it.

    "I don't know how long it's going to take, but I'm prepared to wait," she said, shifting onto her tiptoes to assess the mass ahead of her.

    "Yep, I'm gonna wait.

    "It's just that important to me."

    All across the US, early voting is breaking records

    There's still nine days until election day, but already more than 57 million Americans have cast their ballots. That's more than 40 per cent of the overall 2016 turnout.

    That figure includes 39 million mail-in ballots, a voting method that most states increased access to when it became clear that coronavirus was more of a resident than a tourist.

    The other 18 million Americans who voted early did so in-person.

    Lining up for a short window before election day, which is not a public holiday in the US, has always been an option in 43 states, but it's never been such a popular choice before.

    All across the nation, voters are waiting one, two, three, four hours to cast their ballots. In one spot in Georgia, the wait lasted nearly a whole day.

    Some are reading the lines like tea leaves for the election outcome, noting that 49 per cent of the early votes are from Democrats, compared to 27 per cent from Republicans.

    But it's hard to predict whether President Donald Trump's party will close the gap on the actual election day.

    It's also hard to say that the Democrats' turnout will be high and not just early.

    A fear of election day crowds amid coronavirus surely plays a role in why some are casting their ballots now.

    So does a deep distrust of the voting system.

    Some voters don't trust mail-in ballots

    Ulont, for one, just didn't want to rely on the mail-in ballot she could've applied for, excuse-free, in the state of Wisconsin.

    "I'm not paranoid," she says.

    "There's just something about being face-to-face, putting the ballot in someone's hand, that makes me feel safer about it."

    She said she read a lot about Trump's connections with US postmaster-general Louis DeJoy. She doesn't like hearing about the mail delivery delays, or the decrease in mail boxes or the missing mail sorting machines.

    There's stories about external tampering, too, which are harder to believe, but can't be ignored, Ulont says. Not in this election, when the stakes feel personal and urgent.

    "Even my grandchild is watching this election, and she's six. I want her to know that voting can be fair. That the world isn't always this crazy," Ulont said.

    "It's even more important than the Obama election — more important than voting in a black man. We've got to get this current man out."

    So now Ulont is here, dedicated to standing outside for hours on a grey Milwaukee morning, determined to cast an early ballot for the first time in her life.

    8:44am: In a long voting line, headphones and folding chairs are little luxuries

    There's a distinct rhythm to line waiting, and she gets it down quickly.

    Three or four socially distanced steps, every one to two minutes. Stop. Wait. Engage with your choice of entertainment. Shuffle forward again.

    A man a few spots ahead of her has a thermos full of something warm, which he shares with people he's carpooled with for company.

    A woman a few spots behind unfurls a crossword puzzle.

    Headphones, face shields and folding chairs dot the queue like little luxuries, eyed with envy.

    Ulont says she considered going back home for a book once she realised what she was up against, but decided it was better to just "get it over with — just get it done".

    "I don't think the line will be moving this quickly after work," she says.

    "That's when a lot of people come. I was just on the phone with my daughter, and that's when she's coming."

    She nurses a takeaway coffee in her hand, making it last, letting it get cold.

    She pulls out her phone and sends a text, then slides it back into her pocket and watches a car drive past.

    She eavesdrops on the hum of conversation around her.

    By 8:44am, she's in front of the grocery store. A man with a shopping cart pauses to ask her what the line is for.

    "Voting. Early voting," she says, and the man's eyes light up in recognition.

    "Oh, right," he says.

    "Yep, don't be late."

    "No ma'am, I won't."

    Early voting numbers could lead to election delays

    Wisconsin is one of six states where the election is so close that a win or lose in any one of them could be the deciding factor.

    Mr Trump beat Hillary Clinton here by less than one point in 2016. He's been trailing Joe Biden by about five points since summer.

    Yet Democrats aren't resting confidently, in part because of the act of voting itself.

    Wisconsin emerged as a test case for pandemic voting back in April, when the state's Democratic minority lost a Supreme Court battle to delay a primary election.

    The logistics were decided too late, and the result was an election that earned national scorn for videos of Wisconsinites queuing for four hours in the cold, amid peak coronavirus concern.

    The state ended up invalidating roughly 23,000 ballots during that primary. That's nearly the exact amount of votes that delivered the state to Trump in 2016.

    As if Wisconsin weren't already teetering on a political edge, the state's laws say ballots cast early cannot be opened until election night, and a rule about ballot deadlines is tied up in the Supreme Court.

    With a record-setting 1.1 million ballots already cast, with so much distrust in the system, with a race so close, it could be days until Wisconsin's results become clear.

    And Wisconsin is just one state with early voting and messy consequences.

    It could be days until the overall presidential election result becomes clear — days of uncertainty, days of doing what Ulont is doing right now: waiting.

    9:14am: New friendships are forged in the long wait

    At 9:14am, a man in a black leather jacket and blue baseball cap starts walking up and down the line, flyers in hand and a grin on his face.

    "Who y'all know that wants to buy a car?" he says.

    "Anyone in the market for a car? Anyone in the market for a truck, SUV, minivan?"

    It's unclear whether the man is legally permitted to solicit at a polling place, but the crowd doesn't seem to mind. He's found a captive audience, one that appreciates the distraction, if not the goods he's peddling.

    "How about a hearse for Trump?" asks the man directly in front of Ulont. The salesman stops, considers engaging, but shakes his head and presses on.

    Ulont laughs and says: "Nah he don't get it."

    The man turns to tell Ulont why he hopes Trump will lose and within a few minutes, they're in full-on conversation, quick friends brought together by shared purpose in unusual circumstance.

    The man, whose name is Dick Stenzel, stands out like a sore thumb in this line, wearing a sweatshirt when others have coats. He's also white, voting in a neighborhood that's 81 per cent black.

    But when it comes to politics, Dick and Ulont seem to be on the same page.

    Neither is completely sold on Joe Biden, but they believe him to be a far better candidate than Trump, and this, above all else, is the reason why they're waiting. And waiting.

    "The closer we get, the slower we go," Ulont says right around the one-hour mark. She can see the door now. She's maybe 15 people away.

    "It's like we're at a standstill."

    Dick says he waited nearly three hours to vote in the now-infamous primary — the one that served as a test case for pandemic voting.

    Ulont didn't get a chance to vote in that one.

    "When I got off work, the line was hours and hours," said the mum-of-five who works as a nurse's assistant at a local hospital.

    "And with COVID ... you know, I was scared, to be honest. I didn't want to be in that crowd."

    When voting gets hard in America, it gets harder for black Americans

    If Wisconsin's fiasco primary was a test case on voting logistics during a pandemic, then nowhere delivered a clearer lesson than the state's Democratic heart, Milwaukee, and more specifically, Milwaukee's north side.

    In a metro area consistently ranked as America's most segregated, Milwaukee's north side is home to an overwhelming majority of the city's black population, which accounts for 40 per cent of the city's overall population.

    Race is one of the strongest predictors of how long an American will wait in line to vote.

    A 2019 study showed residents of black neighbourhoods waited 29 times longer to vote and were 74 per cent more likely to spend 30 minutes or more voting.

    Milwaukee proved this when the April primary was ordered to go ahead.

    Hundreds of people who signed up to be poll workers suddenly quit out of fear of coronavirus.

    The city consolidated its 180 polling stations into just five. And only one of those polling stations was on the north side.

    The lines at Riverside High School, where Ulont would have voted, stretched longer than anywhere else in the state.

    But, for black voters, the alternative to in-person voting isn't always better.

    In North Carolina, another battleground state, early data sets show 40 per cent of rejected mail-in ballots came from black voters, even though ballots from black voters only accounted for 16 per cent of those returned overall.

    10:24am: The line inside is just as long as the line outside

    It's 10:24am at Milwaukee's Midtown Center, and Ulont has been waiting for nearly two hours.

    "Maybe I should've signed up to be a poll worker," she says while waiting at the second of four stations involved in casting her ballot.

    The desk at this step is empty. There's one poll worker manning it, and she walked off to help a woman figure out a ballot. The line is stagnant.

    Ulont and those around her were in high spirits when they finally got through the door and could watch the wheels of bureaucracy turning. They thought they'd be finished up in a little over an hour.

    But even with all the stations, poll workers and toing-and-froing, it soon became clear the overall pace inside moved just as slowly as the outside. If anything, it was slower.

    "At least we've got a heater now," Dick says. Ulont nods with resignation.

    Experts warn election day could erupt in violence

    Ulont doesn't say anything about a pair of volunteers sitting in folding chairs in the corner of the room, watching voter after voter enter the space.

    They're easy to miss, cordoned off from the action with blue masking tape, but they say they're every bit as integral to the process as the voters themselves.

    As trained poll watchers, their job is to oversee the voting process and report any potential slip-ups.

    And despite the long lines, they say things are going according to plan.

    "The amount of voter fraud that actually happens is negligible," says Bob Wardinski.

    "When you talk about voter intimidation, they do it underground. It's ID laws. It's removing voter places. They're scaring people about going to the polls, saying there's violence."

    Across the US, the long lines and air of uncertainty, combined with a toxic political atmosphere, are leading experts to worry that election day could erupt in physical clashes.

    A report from watchdog groups says Wisconsin is one of five states most likely to see activity from armed militia groups on November 3.

    US media report a far-right militia group known as the Proud Boys is self-stationing members in the Great Lakes region where Wisconsin is located.

    Trump told the Proud Boys to "stand back and stand by" at the first presidential debate while saying far-left groups might erupt in violence.

    The Trump campaign says they've been recruiting poll watchers, which they refer to as "Trump's army", to detect irregularities in key battleground states.

    They said their goal was to train 50,000 monitors nationwide.

    The poll workers at Milwaukee's Midtown Center are Democrats, trained by the state's party.

    They're aware of what's going on with "Trump's Army", and when asked if they were concerned they might encounter tension with other poll watchers, Maria Jaszewski answered with a bring-it-on energy.

    "Well, there aren't any Republican poll watchers here."

    10:48am: It never once occurred to Ulont to leave the line

    When Ulont finally gets to the business of voting, she's flying. There's no hesitation on which candidates she wants. No confusion over how this thing works.

    She takes her finished ballot and moves onto the next station.

    There's no line, and it throws her for a second. She pauses to catch the eye of the woman working the station, who quickly waves her over.

    It's a signature for each of them, then a drop in the box. Ulont grabs an "I voted early" sticker. Then she heads for the door.

    The time is 10:48am.

    It took Ulont 2 hours and 16 minutes to cast her ballot.

    In the grand scheme of American early voting, it wasn't the longest wait or the shortest wait.

    Ulont didn't face voter intimidation or broken voting machines, but what may be most notable is that she didn't lose hope in the process.

    It never once occurred to her to give up and leave the line.

    "I didn't mind it one bit," she says when she's back outside, where the sun is starting to lift the fog.

    "It's my constitutional right, and it's so important. Everything about this election is so important.

    "I'm proud I did it."

    And then she turns and walks away, past a line that's still not shrinking, brimming with voters willing to take steps, no matter how slow, towards change.

    © 2020 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved


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