Election Day: Is waiting the hardest part?

Lines of voters wait to cast their ballots as the polls open Nov. 6, 2012 in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Well, the day has come. You've already cast your vote, after waiting out this long election season; or maybe you're in line right now at your local polling place. You could be waiting for your favorite ballot measure to pass or waiting to find out the name of the next president of the United States. Whatever you're waiting for, there's a price to pay from your bank account and your psyche.

Way back in 1981, Tom Petty sang that "waiting is the hardest part," Ronald Reagan was president, the economy was bad and so were things in the Middle East. Thirty years later, the economy is worse, things in the Middle East are still tense, and waiting to find out who will lead our county is still the hardest part.

At least it is for Daniel Hamermesh, professor of economics at the University of Texas at Austin.

"I've logged on to the FiveThirtyEight blog five times already today since I woke up at 5 o'clock worrying about the election," says Hamermesh, who is addicted to Nate Silver's political blog. He says he hates waiting, and adds, "My wife says I'm the most impatient person she's ever met."

But even though he's an economist, Hamermesh says there's no way to monetize that kind of waiting. Waiting in line to vote? That he can put a dollar amount on.

"Let's say the average person is waiting only one hour, which is probably low, and two-thirds of the electorate is waiting," says Hamermesh. He multiples all those voters by an average wage of $12 an hour and comes up with a billion in lost wages. That's why Hamermesh is a fan of early voting and voting by mail: they cut down on those lost wages.

But Dick Larson, a professor of engineering systems at MIT who calls himself "Dr. Queue" and has written about the psychology of standing in line, thinks queuing to vote is "feel-good" waiting.

"When you see your neighbors from your own voting distract, and you're standing there having a cup of coffee, chatting, everyone smiling, celebrating the democracy that we live in," says Larson. "Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but I don't see a substitute for that."

He adds that we can't afford a no-wait society because the capital expense would be astronomical. Grocery stores would have to have more check-out lines, highways more lanes. So whether it's the hardest part or the best part -- we're stuck with it.

About the author

Shereen Marisol Meraji is a reporter for Marketplace’s Wealth & Poverty Desk.

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