Can Kanye West Bend the Meaning of Time? We Asked the Experts

After a late filing, West's lawyer is arguing that 14 seconds after 5 p.m. is still 5 p.m. in order to get him on the ballot in Wisconsin. We asked experts who study the perception of time if this claim holds water.
August 11, 2020, 8:05pm
Can Kanye West Bend the Meaning of Time? We Asked the Experts
Getty Images

Wisconsin Democrats say that Kanye West missed the deadline to file his paperwork to be on the state’s presidential ballot by 14 seconds. In a 23-page response filed Monday and obtained by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, West’s lawyer Michael Curran considers the nature of time itself to argue that 14 seconds after the stated cut off of 5 p.m. was still, technically, 5 p.m.

"The statutory provision does not distinguish between minutes and seconds," the document said. “For the average observer, arriving before 5:01pm is arriving 'not later' than 5pm. The phrase 'not later' is particularly instructive in that it indicates the presumption that the seconds from 5:00:00 to 5:00:59 are inclusive to 5pm. As the statute states '5 p.m.', for something to be filed later than '5 p.m.' it would have to be filed at 5:01 p.m.”

As it stands, West’s presidential bid may now hinge on just 14 seconds and the human conception of time. Now, his attempt to run for president is highly, highly fraught—state Democrats alleged his nomination papers included signatures from "Mickey Mouse" and "Bernie Sanders"—but what if he is onto something with regards to time? Does 5 p.m. really begin and end as soon as the clock ticks over from 4:59:59, or is there something more going on here? Perhaps academia has the answer. 

We often think of time as a concrete concept, something unbreakable and standardized. But human methods of time keeping are malleable social constructs. “Clock time is a convention, a social understanding between human beings. That way we can meet at 5 pm and don't have to rely on notions like ‘after sunset,’” Marc Wittmann, a neuropsychologist at the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health and the author of Felt Time: The Psychology of How We Perceive Time, told Motherboard in an email.

According to Wittman, the standards of clock time are different in different contexts. "5 p.m." may indeed encompass the seconds after 5 o'clock in some contexts, but not in others. 

“With clock time you have a directionality of time and a given deadline is fulfilled when this exact time is reached. Not at 4:59:58, or 4:59:59, but at 5:00:00,” he said. “In reality you give leeway." For example, he said that someone arriving at an airport gate seconds after 5 p.m., when it is meant to close, but before 5:01, may still be allowed entry. 

But in other places—such as basketball games and, possibly, political campaigns—clocks create hard deadlines. “5 p.m. is, technically speaking, over at 5:00:01 even if 5:01 has not begun,” Wittman said.

According to Hal Hershfield, a psychologist at UCLA who has studied human perception of time, Curran’s argument doesn’t hold water. 

“When time is divided up into minutes and seconds, we can confidently say when it’s 5:00 p.m., which is when the clock ticks over from 4:59:59 to 5:00:00,” Hershfield told Motherboard in an email. “After that, we’ve moved into the 5 p.m. hour. Similarly, if there was a restriction on a children’s ride and you had to ‘not be taller than 4 feet,’ could you really sneak on if you were between 4 feet and 4 feet 1 inch? Clock time, like height and weight, is precisely measured, and as a result, it’s hard to argue that there’s malleability with how we can read the clock.”

Individual perceptions of the passage of time aside, it seems like West may be on thin ice with his argument. But politics is the art of the possible, and according to West's lawyer, the phrasing of the deadline was the problem.  

“The legislature could have made a law that stated that the nomination paperwork should be filed not later than 5:00:00 p.m.,” Curran said in the response document. “Or, similarly, the legislature could have stated that the paperwork must be filed ‘by’ 5 p.m. The legislature took neither of these paths and instead the legislature codified the common conception of time which is that if a filing is made by before the expiration of 5:00 p.m., it is filed at 5 p.m.”

Hershfield agreed that time is malleable, but clock time is concrete. “My own research has found that people differ in when they think the present ends and the future begins,” he said. “Again though, that’s abstract, and I have my doubts if we’d find that there are big differences in when people think about a specific time starting...like, 5:00 p.m."

Motherboard reached out to the Wisconsin Election Commission for comment on this story, but it missed our publishing deadline.