This is Why People Don’t Vote

My voting experience today:

7:20 AM: Dropped off one son at the bus. Went back to the apartment to pick up my other son. He had to be at preschool at 9:00. The plan is to go vote, go back home to make/pick up his lunch, and then go to his school, which is four blocks from our place.

7:25 AM: Arrived at polling station, PS 290 in Manhattan, two and a half blocks away.

7:30 AM: Arrived at the end of the line at the polling station. Line extended roughly half a city block, avenue to avenue. It was cold, but not very cold, at roughly 37 degrees.

7:50 AM:  Entered the PS 290 cafeteria/gymnasium. It wasn’t clear where I should go. Some people already knew their electoral district, but I didn’t, so after a minute or two, I was directed to a table where a poll worker helped me out. The person before me, though, kept giving his last name, and the poll worker wanted to know his street address; that’s what the book had. But there was no sign telling us that. There was, literally, nothing.  The poll worker kept saying “I don’t need that” but it wasn’t clear that he was talking to the guy in front of me (who kept saying his last name). He could have been talking to anyone.  I’m sure it only took about a minute or two to shake this all out, but it felt like forever. I’m finally instructed to go to Electoral District 54.

7:57 AM: Found the line for Electoral District 54. (Yes, it took seven minutes to find the right line.)

8:00 AM: Still in line — and, in fact, the line isn’t even moving. We notice that three of the six ballot scanning machines are broken. A poll worker tells someone else that a technician has been called in, but who knows when he or she will reply. The end of the line for ED 54 is probably ten or fifteen people behind me, but it snakes around the lines for EDs 61, 75, and 76. At one point, I’m standing next to the last person in the line for 61, who is facing the person who is at the back of the line for 76, but thinks he’s the last person in line for 75 because those two lines momentarily merged.

I tweeted out the words my son and I had been hearing: “‘chaos’ ‘disorganized’ ‘ confusing’ are the words of the day at the voting location. Broken scanners, impossibly shaped lines.

8:05 AM: The line still isn’t moving. There are three people in front of me, all of whom, like me, went to the table described above to find out which ED they were in. All three were directed to ED 54, like me. All three had voted in the past and, therefore, should still be registered. All three were told that their names weren’t on the voting rolls. (One of the three had even gone to another polling location first, and directed to PS 290.)

Of the three, two were older. One lady had been voting at PS 290 for 35 years, as she said over and over, and was insistent that she be able to vote. Good for her, but there wasn’t much the poll workers could do — they had no idea what was happening, either. They offered to give her an absentee ballot (their words) and an affidavit (again, their words) but she wanted to vote right then, right there.  The other two people also had similar objections but she was leading the argument. I’m not sure what ended up happening with them.

8:10 AM:  I finally get my ballot (and thank you to the poll worker who pretended to look for my son’s name in the rolls; nice touch!) and walk across the room to the little voting stations. Distance: five feet. But I’m going across the flow of (heavy) foot traffic, so getting their was tough, and I was pulling my four year old along, too. I fill out my ballot, explain it to my son, and go to get in line for the scanners. At this point, the line is so long that I actually have to walk past the scanning stations because the line is snaking back and forth.

8:20 AM: We haven’t moved more than a few feet yet. My wife texts me to ask if I’ll be on time for my son’s preschool; 50/50. She decides to meet me there with his lunch.  (Good call.)

8:28 AM: Line is still moving very slowly. We’re less than half way to the scanners. But now I know why it’s going so slowly: five of the six scanning machines are now broken.

8:37 AM: The line starts moving, and quickly. Why? Because all six scanners are now broken, so our ballots are now being put into “emergency ballot boxes” to be scanned later.  The poll worker takes my voting card, circles the scanner I used (“E”), but doesn’t check off the box that says “This is an Emergency Ballot.” I point that out, and she says that it isn’t an emergency ballot. I point to the box I just put my ballot into, which reads “emergency ballot box” and she looks at me, says “oops, yeah…” and then flips through all the cards where she didn’t check off the box. She checks my box off and then says “that won’t matter,” confidently.  The next person’s box is checked off without any conversation.

8:40 AM: We’re out of there, having (probably) voted.

8:45 AM: We arrive at my son’s preschool.

The total trip took about an hour and fifteen minutes, which is long but isn’t terrible. But factor these three things in as well:

1) This is my ballot (blank). The Presidential election (as far as NY’s electoral votes are concerned) is a lock for Obama. Gillenbrand is a 40 point (!) favorite for Senate. The Maloney/Wight House race is considered non-competitive with Maloney to win. The same goes for both the State House and State Senate races. And the ten people running for judge are unopposed.

2) Upon arrival, there was no way to know how long the process would take. At 8:28, I had been waiting in the scanning line for about 20 minutes and was less than half way there. And I had been waiting, in total, for an hour. A person who arrived next to me at 7:25 could have reasonably expected a two hour wait, if not longer. But they also could have expected a wait of 10 to 20 minutes — that’s how long it took to get in the building, and there were rumors of things moving quickly inside. (That’s potentially true; for all I know, all six scanners may have been operational at 7:30.)

3) There are too many points where people can rationally drop out. When building a web product, you try and minimize the number of steps. The reason: each time you add a step, you add a place for someone to drop out.  There were five times a person could rationally dropped out here: (1) getting in the line outside; (2) getting into the building and figuring out where to go next; (3) waiting in the ED54 line while the three lost people were tended to; (4) waiting in the incredibly long scanning line; and (5) turning in my ballot without it being scanned.  I know of at least one person who left at step 1, two who turned around at step 2, and I saw one person leave at step 3. I almost left in step 4 — I had to get my son to school at 9:oo, and would have had to carry my ballot with me until I could get back to the voting booth. (Update: Others did the same.)  And if I were in a swing state and/or a cynic, I may have left in step 5, and only returned when the scanners were working.

Voting turnout numbers aren’t just low because of apathy. It’s way too difficult. This is why people don’t vote.


Originally published on November 6, 2012