It's crazy that the US has lines to vote. It doesn't have to.

U.S. voters often vote on digital machines

It always shocks me to see the long lines for voting at some polling stations in the USA. As a Canadian, where elections are so simple that it rarely takes more than a couple of minutes and lines are very rare, the complexity of US ballots and machines results sometimes in hours of wait. Obviously this doesn't happen everywhere, or turnout would be lower than it is, but every time it happens, it's a disenfranchisement. Nobody counts how many people see the long line and turn away.

Lines don't have to exist, at least not for voters who are willing to take some simple steps to avoid them. The problem is that some voting officials don't mind long lines. The disenfranchisement helps their party, so why do anything about it?

But it some cases the lines exist simply because people don't know what steps to take. Here are some steps that could eliminate most lines, except in unusual situations like voting machine breakdown or major poll-worker shortages.

Sadly though, much of this won't happen -- sometimes because it's become an adversarial system, where one party or another won't adopt obviously good steps because it might help the other side -- and also just because voting in the US is managed by a mishmash of local authorities who don't get together on much at all.

Step one -- Appointments

Voters should be able to get appointments to vote. They can get one when they register, or do it by mail or IVR, or of course over the web for the vast majority that can access the web. A suitable block of voting resources should be allocated to those with appointments, and they should never have to wait.

The system should be dynamic, allowing people to make same-day or even same-hour appointments if capacity is available, to wait-list for better appointments. It should expect people to miss appointments, though they may then face a line or at least not get first preference for replacement appointments. To avoid DDOS attacks, only one miss would be permitted.

Lots of early voting

Of course, there should be as much early voting as possible. In particular, perhaps appointments would only be available for early voting, but with enough supply for everybody. Everybody who wants to vote with no line can do so if they can make their appointment.

Step two -- Virtual queue

For those who don't make an appointment, they should be able to join a virtual line, and get updates on their computer or phone as the queue moves. This is how it works at the DMV these days, if they can do it, so can the polls.

Those without a phone might have to queue in person, though via a "take a number" ticket with a big display showing the progress of the numbers (both virtual and physical.) Or even the simplest phone can get a text (which is what they do at the DMV.)

Step three -- Prepared voters

Voters wanting an appointment should agree they will have already studied their ballot and made their choices. As such, they will only be allocated enough time (based on studying other people's voting duration) to enter such decisions, with a modest extra margin. If they take much more time than this, they would get a warning, and by 2nd warning possibly escorted out to vote later, though that could be problematic. There should be some disincentive for taking much too long.

Step four -- Fast count mail in ballot

If a line does develop, a system to quickly switch the voter's desired voting method from in-person to vote-by-mail should be available, along with a way to pick up ballots, then drop them in a special box. In particular, the polling place could promise that it will count those ballots first, before even reading the totals of voting machines inside, or in proportion to doing so. As such, nobody will feel their vote gets counted later if they take this option, though there is possibly a greater risk with a mail-in ballot that an adversary will find a reason to get your ballot declared spoiled.

Step five -- better, more reliable mail-in ballots

The states that allow it are doing better with mail-in ballots. They are screening the signature and other external parts of the ballot in advance if you mail in early, and sending electronic messages that it's received, or that there's a problem, allowing you to correct the problem. That can't easily apply to mail in ballots deposited on election day. Apps to help you check your ballot for errors as I described earlier, could help with that. Indeed, such apps could become official and even be used to help checking at the polls.

Digitally signed ballot

In order to speed up the counting of mail-in ballots, one could also allow a digital signature to go on them. Voters who opt for a digital signature would have a means to write or affix a number on the ballot that can be easily scanned and checked. The signature would just say, "This ballot probably came from this registered voter." It would not guarantee that, of course, it would simply fast-tack the ballot into a queue for automated checking. You would get your code or sticker through a variety of possible means:

  • You might have to come into some office or station at some time before voting, prove who you are, and get a code.
  • You might be able to prove it digitally by answering questions about information the government has on file about you and/or logging in to online accounts of state or federal agencies, banks or other high-value accounts.
  • It could be as simple as a sticker mailed or delivered to you other than along with your ballot

Of course none of these systems are fully secure. However, it would mean that a poll worker could simply scan the ballot and immediately pull up the on-file signature record and other needed data for a quick comparison. Indeed, software could probably do the comparison and send the ballot for human checking only if it fails those tests.

If your sticker/number were stolen you could report that. If you lost it, you would just not get into this fast queue.


The unfortunate truth is that there are not so many cases where "the lines exist simply because people don't know what steps to take." It's almost always, as you write, "that some voting officials don't mind long lines. The disenfranchisement helps their party, so why do anything about it?".

It's not only voting officials though. There isn't that much you can do if the state won't fund voting machines for your county, and disallows you from setting up the measures that you listed. If you try, you might even get sued, and with the President's court-stacking over the last few years, courts are increasingly finding in favor of disenfranchisement (a good chunk of these seats should have been filled by President Obama, but were held open by Senator McConnell).

Random quotes from recent articles:

- WaPo: "In the new lawsuit, Texas Republicans argued that the Harris County Clerk’s Office had violated the state elections code by expanding access to drive-through early-voting sites"

- CNN: "Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a proclamation Thursday limiting the amount of drop-off locations for mail-in ballots to one site per county. The move significantly affects the Democratic stronghold of Harris County, which is the state's largest county by population -- one of the most populous in the country -- and covers a massive area. It must now reduce its 12 drop-off locations down to one starting on Friday, according to Elizabeth Lewis, spokeswoman for the Harris County Clerk's Office. Travis County, which includes the reliably Democratic city of Austin, must limit its four drop-off locations to one."

- NYT: "Secretary of State Frank LaRose of Ohio, a Republican, on Wednesday pushed back against a court ruling that had paved the way for counties to deploy multiple drop boxes for absentee ballots in November."

There's heaps and heaps of these. Heck, the Trump campained had a file with 3.5M Black Americans marked for "deterrence".

Of course people can mail their ballots if they trust the postal service, so it makes sense that Trump would install a reformer to reduce service in the months before the election.

Until district lines are drawn by nonpartisan commissions and until election officials are nonpartisan positions, these shenanigans won't stop.

(OK, you'll probably also need to also reinstate the consent decree that forced the Republican party to stop sending off-duty cops to patrol polling locations in and scare minorities —; and make election day a holiday; and a host of other measures)

Lines don't exist for voters who take steps to avoid them in much of the USA. You fill out your ballot at home, and drop it off at the early voting location.

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