The election that dominated our country for the last two years is quickly fading into memory. But I’m still smarting from my own experience as a voter here in South Carolina last week. I regret that I could not do more to address it as it unfolded on Tuesday, but after having had time to research the relevant statutory law, I believe it’s something that needs to be addressed for the future.
I live on a rural barrier island just outside of Charleston. Three precincts, St. Johns 1A, 1B, and 2 vote at St. Johns High School, the only high school on the island. According to data compiled by the SC Election commission, Johns Island 1A has 1825 registered voters; Johns Island 1B has 1784 voters; and Johns Island 2 has 2738 voters. By law (SC § 7-7-710), SC requires precincts to be 1500 voters or smaller unless the precincts are “isolated by water.” I imagine Johns Island certainly qualifies under this rule, though its intent is murky to me. Bottom line, the total number of voters who could have voted at St Johns High was 6347.
SC § 7-13-740 directs the number of voting booths required for each polling place. That number is clearly NOT to be based on expected turnout but, instead, on total number of registered voters. The formula is 1 machine per 250 voters (or significant fraction thereof) per precinct. Whether you calculate the number of voting booths on a precinct-by-precinct basis or by totaling all of the registered voters designated to vote at St. Johns High, the number of machines required is 7, 7, and 11 or 25. As far as I can tell there is no exception to this requirement for those precincts “isolated by water.”
At St. Johns High there were 17 voting machines–eight fewer than required by law. Voters were asked to form a single line, regardless of precinct (which violated the instructions contained in the S.C. Poll Manager’s Handbook). At the end of the line, voters were directed to one of three pollworkers using computers to check each voter in. Voters were given a card which gave another pollworker instructions as to how to set up the voting machine depending on each voter’s assigned precinct.
How did this affect the voter experience? I can only offer anecdotal evidence, but it is damning: I arrived at the precinct at 7:45 AM. It took nearly 15 minutes just to find a place to park. I made it to the back of the line at 8 AM in a cold, light rain. My fellow voters and I remained outside for nearly 2 hours as we snaked around the school building in a single-file line. After another 20 or so minutes, we made it to the front of the line and were able to vote. When I left the polling place the line appeared to be far longer than it had been when I arrived. Later in the afternoon my husband and son went to vote (around 2:30, I think), and the wait time was only marginally better–about 1 hour and 45 minutes from start to finish.
In all, exactly 3000 people voted under these conditions at St. Johns High. There are three other Johns Island precincts (considerably smaller) that voted at Haut Gap Middle School and one small precinct for each of Seabrook and Kiawah; these two wealthy precincts voted separately. I do not know what the wait times or machine allocations were at those polling places. What we do know is that voter turnout is substantially higher in the smallest, wealthiest precincts of Seabrook and Kiawah. Whether this relationship is correlative or causal isn’t clear yet. What is clear is that the status quo is unacceptable. What is clear is that we will never know how many voters simply turned and walked away from St. Johns High because the lines were outrageous. We can do better. We must do better.