Texas has closed 750 polling stations since 2012. While this makes it more difficult for anyone to vote, it’s hard not to see the closures as calculated when 542 of the 750 closed polling sites were in the counties that gained the most Black and Hispanic residents, as analyzed by The Guardian. There is currently one polling place per 7,700 Texas residents. On Super Tuesday this year, a virtual map of polling stations’ wait times in one Texas county showed a sea of red—the majority of waits were over 20 minutes, with one wait time a reported 10 hours. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident.
Coast to coast, Americans choose between not voting and waiting for as long as seven hours in line to cast their ballot. This was the situation web developer Scott Duncombe saw the weekend before Nov. 8, 2016. Using a leftover $1,000 from a one-off action committee he had worked on earlier in the campaign cycle, Duncombe and friends called a Cincinnati pizza place to deliver pies to a half-mile line in Ohio. The Twittersphere lapped it up. In less than a day, a handle, website, and Slack channel for volunteers were created. They called it Pizza to the Polls.
By the time the last ballot was cast, about 72 hours after the website launched, the team had sent 2,368 pizzas to 128 polling places across 24 states, using $43,307 from 1,728 donors. When I read those numbers, my first reaction is gratitude for those willing to help strangers by making their wait less miserable. Then my heart sinks. No money should be spent on exercising the most basic of democratic rights. When tens of thousands of dollars are needed for people to cast their ballot, that’s a sign of a broken system.
“America is full of people who genuinely want to help. There are people willing to stay in line, and there are people willing to help the people in line,” said pizza donor Emily Dsida. “This organization is wonderful, but the circumstances that required its creation are awful.”
Like Dsida and like me, Duncombe would prefer that Pizza to the Polls “didn’t have to exist.”
“All of the co-founders are from Oregon. So we almost never have lines when we vote because we all vote in our living rooms and we vote by mail,” he said. “We wish all elections were properly administered and properly resourced.”
Oregon ranks within the top 10 states with the highest voter turnout. Pizza to the Polls is responding to areas where voter suppression is rampant. In 2018, they noticed Georgia was a hotspot. This is a state that exercises laws like “exact match,” and strips voting rights from convicted citizens until completion of their sentence, including probation and parole.
Voting by mail or on your lunch break is a privilege divided along the lines of class and race, lines more sharply etched in red states as opposed to blue. The startup is not, however, politically partisan.
“We’re actually incorporated as a 501(c)4,” Duncombe explained. “So technically we could have a little more partisanship than we do. But we have tried to stick to a guiding philosophy of ‘more voting, more better’ and making it as easy as possible.”
This is the basic principle that all levels of government should be held accountable to, partisanship completely aside. Congress should expand the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to such an extent that mail-in voting is not only possible for all citizens but mandated. Currently, the system is currently implemented state by state. Pressure should be put on local jurisdictions to justify any polling station closures and to organize voting procedures in a way that prevent and mitigate lines longer than an hour.
Instead, the Voting Rights Act’s essence—protection against discrimination experienced by minorities—was gutted by a 2013 Supreme Court decision. This decision is one of many voting rights related initiatives, often implemented by Republicans, that have had a detrimental effect on participation, particularly among voters from marginalized groups. Meanwhile, individuals are attempting to apply band-aid solutions to a deeply systemic issue that has plagued American democracy since its inception, with some solutions arguably more performative than effective. One example: tweeting about Pizza to the Polls without following and bolstering those fighting for electoral justice reform.
While it is active political participation, the philosophy also evokes the failed startup Brigade, a Tinder for politicians that, in 2016, asked provocative questions inspired by speed-dating to match users with a candidate. Co-founded by Sean Parker, who also co-founded Facebook, Brigade accepted $9.5 million in financing from angel investors. None of that funding was used to support political candidates; it paid for a sleek-looking app. Capitalizing on our broken electoral system is a way to postpone real change.
Eitan Hersh is a professor of political science at Tufts University and author of Politics Is for Power: How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action, and Make Real Change. He separates the motivations of Pizza to the Polls from other Silicon Valley-type endeavors like Brigade responding to electoral injustice.
“Engaging in politics means working with others, with goals and strategies, to influence the government. In the case of Pizza to the Polls, there’s good research to suggest that when you make Election Day more festive, interesting, and social, it increases participation,” Hersh said. “The way I think about political ‘hobbyism’ is that it’s not targeted toward anything. It’s really just to flatter yourself, to serve your own emotional or intellectual interests—endlessly following the news, debating big ideas, following drama about Trump.”
Millions of dollars and status updates are continually funneled into a problem that will remain bottomless until it’s stopped at the source. Addressing this problem requires solutions that offer tangible results and efforts that are taken seriously, not just treated as a hobby—especially as the 2020 election cycle is upended by the novel coronavirus. Hersh predicts a surge in new voting systems and people who need help navigating them. This could be an opportunity to more fully address electoral injustice more substantially than crowdsourcing money for pizza on Twitter to feed voters in long lines. As long as these conditions persist, we do not live in a democracy, and that is the problem worth investing in.