There are many ways to look at long lines at polling stations on Election Day. They are, fundamentally, a sign of a robust and engaged democracy, which most people like. But they are still lines, which most people do not like.
With tight races for the presidency and the US Senate and a large turnout across the state, Massachusetts voters experienced epic waits at some polling stations Tuesday, with reports from parts of Boston and Somerville of morning lines stretching to three hours.
“I just waited in what I thought was the line; that was the preline — I’ll see you never,” one Somerville voter was overheard saying in the labyrinthine morning queue at the Dante Club.
Even after the polls closed at 8 p.m., there were still long lines of people waiting to vote. At the Condon School in South Boston, more than 300 voters were awaiting their chance to cast ballots.
Officials said the lines were a simple function of a lot of people voting at peak times, before and after work. But many voters pointed the finger elsewhere: at a shortage of election workers and the sheer length of the three ballot questions.
The summaries of the three ballot questions — dealing with physician-assisted suicide, medical marijuana, and motor vehicle repair information — totaled more than 1,800 words, more than double the length of this article. The average person reads prose at 250 to 300 words per minute, although the legalese on the ballot questions — which are written by the state attorney general and must be, per the constitution, fair and concise – are not easy reading.
In the last presidential election in 2008, summaries of the three ballot questions totaled just more than 700 words.
“We have 3 million people trying to conduct the same exercise in a 13-hour period with an army of temporary workers,” said Secretary of State William F. Galvin, whose office mailed 3.5 million voter guides before the election. “That’s half the population. It’s not easy.”
Galvin said the three ballot questions were long because they were complicated, and the attorney general has an obligation to make sure all aspects of the issues are presented.
The long summaries increased what is known as the “service time” for the queue, said Richard Larson, an MIT professor who is a specialist in the science and psychology of waiting in line, known as queueing theory. He estimated that the ballot questions accounted for 90 percent of the service time at Massachusetts polls, as most voters know which candidate they are voting for.
In many precincts, the complaints were squarely on the number of poll workers. Many voters said there were hundreds of people in line, but only one or two poll workers checking people in and issuing ballots.
Galvin said that after the 2010 Census, the state, by statute, redrew all precinct lines to equalize resources. But Boston is exempt and is a “problem” because it has not changed its precincts since the 1960s.
Boston also has a lot of voters who only turn out for national elections. He listed Ward 21, Precinct 2, near Boston University, as an example. For some elections, the polling station may have 10 voters. On Tuesday, it had 278 by noon.
Dot Joyce, spokeswoman for Mayor Thomas Menino of Boston, said, “Waiting is something that’s happening not only here in Boston, but in most major cities.” Joyce said the city has pushed for early voting, but that the idea went nowhere legislatively.
Then there were complaints about the design of the ballot. Some voters found it confusing when the questions continued from the front to the back side.
Galvin said ballot design is a complicated process that varies from precinct to precinct and is largely controlled by the need to meet “timing marks,” the technical aspects of the card that allow it to be counted by computer. To line up properly with those timing marks, Galvin said, the design is often an odd combination of white space and microprinting.
Many precincts also require bilingual ballots, and Galvin said the design was geared to try to keep the ballots to a maximum of two pieces of paper.
But for all the long lines and the complaints, the process behind the democratic process is something many voters cherish. The duration we are willing to wait, said Larson of MIT, is proportional to the value of the service we think we are getting.
“In places like Afghanistan, that haven’t had many elections, they’ll stand in line for six, seven, eight hours, and they’re happy with that,” Larson said. “To me, that’s a celebration of democracy.”