David Weiner counts himself lucky. Sure, he waited an hour to vote at the Brooklyn Public Library along with, he estimates, several hundred other New Yorkers Tuesday afternoon. But, hey, at least he arrived when the last ballot scanner officially broke. That meant he could just fill out his ballot and shove it in a box. The people in line in front of him, the ones who’d been waiting to use that last ballot scanner, said they’d been in line for twice as long. “The line snaked all the way around the lobby of the public library, which is extremely unusual,” says Weiner, a Brooklyn resident who runs a cannabis media company and has been voting at the same location for three years. “I took that as enthusiasm for voting, but I was sorely mistaken.” Instead, Weiner was just one of a still-unknown number of Americans who watched their country’s voting technology break down right in front of their eyes on Tuesday. Machine malfunctions caused hours-long lines and reports of voters giving up and going home at polling stations across the country. On an already tense Election Day, these technical issues exacerbated voters’ anxieties and concerns about voter suppression. And it’s true that in past election cycles, long lines have disproportionately impacted communities of color.
Based on the social media deluge, it certainly felt like the entire election system was melting down at a rate the country has never seen before. But was it? Charles Stewart III, a professor of political science at MIT and a member of the MIT Voting Project, says it’s far too early to tell. “We’re going to have to wait for the data to come in,” says Stewart, who helped develop the Election Performance Index, which analyzes how effectively states manage elections.
To be sure, the sheer volume of anecdotes about long lines in states across the country is problematic. ProPublica’s ElectionLand project received dozens of complaints throughout New York City. In St. Louis County, Missouri, the director of elections said old machines were to blame for ballot scanners rejecting up to half of the ballots in some precincts. In Richland County, South Carolina, election officials urged voters to review their ballots after reports surfaced of machines flipping people’s votes. In Gwinnett County, Georgia, where fears of voter suppression in a contentious gubernatorial race were already heightened, voters waited in line for hours due to missing power cords for the machines. Meanwhile, officials in Madison County, Alabama, Wake County, North Carolina, and New York City used the Milli Vanilli defense and blamed the rain for their voting woes.