Gena Gunn McClendon and Michael Sherraden

When it’s time to vote, will you be able to cast your ballot?

We, the authors, have often volunteered as poll workers in general elections, intentionally seeking assignments in low-income, predominantly black communities. We have witnessed failures of process and of infrastructure, including long lines and wait times at polls; shortages of paper ballots; broken and faulty equipment; and lack of proper assistance for people with disabilities. At some polling locations, these appear to be frequent occurrences, and we began to wonder: Is casting a ballot is easier for white and higher-income voters?

We decided to do the research.

Our study examined differences across polling sites in St. Louis and St. Louis County on Election Day in 2018. We sent field observers to a representative sampling of 20 different polling sites. They collected data on whether conditions at polls differed by the dominant race or income level of the community in which they were situated, and at how these differences may have impacted registered voters. City and county election administrators of both parties, who are themselves keenly interested in identifying potential barriers to voting, facilitated this research, granting our team full access to the sites.

Our analyses show that deficiencies in voting access and process are most prevalent in predominantly black and low-income communities. Polls in these communities had fewer election judges, and there was more interference with the free passage of voters – for example, crowded doorways and electioneering. Voting-machine malfunctions and confusion about polling pads were reported only at polls in predominantly black communities. We also found that long lines, as well as a lack of seats for waiting voters, were more common in predominantly black communities. Path obstructions – which impede those with disabilities and some older adults – were documented primarily in high-poverty and predominantly black communities. 

Why do these conditions matter? If conditions hamper access, registered voters may not be able to vote. If election judges don’t show up or are stretched too thin, wait times may grow longer, and voters may go without needed assistance. If wait times are very long, some registered voters will leave the line to meet work, family, or other obligations – and on the next election day may think twice about trying to vote.

Overall, we find that challenging circumstances in which a voter casts a ballot to vary by the race and income of the community where the voter resides. We are not saying that this is intentional. Nevertheless, in this study, it is a clear, identifiable pattern.

These findings on electoral process add to evidence that black people and those with lower incomes face barriers to participation in the electoral process. When these barriers are purposeful, they are often described as voter suppression. Suppression tactics may include sweeping voters off voter registries, strict voter ID laws, disenfranchisement of criminals even after they have served their sentences, and more.

Alongside such anti-democratic suppression strategies, we must now consider the effects of the electoral process itself: the buildings, equipment, staffing, and procedures for casting ballots. Even if these are not intended to create bias, their adverse effects can be all too similar. 

As the U.S. once again prepares for national elections, we hope that voters in the St. Louis region will join with elections administrators in strengthening our democratic processes. On election day, it is critical that we all work to note and report voting process barriers. Citizens also can contribute by serving as election judges, by helping to register new voters, and by working with civic organizations to ensure that Missourians have the identification they need to vote.

Nothing is more vital to democracy.

Gena Gunn McClendon is the director of Voter Access and Engagement and adjunct professor at the Center for Social Development in the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis. Michael Sherraden is the George Warren Brown Distinguished University Professor at Washington University and founder and director of the Center for Social Development. McClendon, Sherraden, and colleagues are coauthors of the study “Will I Be Able to Cast My Ballot? Race, Income, and Voting Access on Election Day.”

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