Long Voting Lines: What Causes Them, How to Fix Them

As evidence of widespread delays at the polls continues to mount today, it is important to put reports of long lines in context — to look at who they impact, why they form and how they can be prevented in future elections.

November 8, 2016
Today, as millions of voters head to the polls to vote, we are already seeing numerous reports of long lines and delays at polling places in Alabama, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Virginia. This comes after long lines during early voting, during state primaries, and in the 2012 presidential election.
 
While many Americans will vote with little problem today, some will face great inconvenience on their way to the polling booth. For voters that have not cast a ballot yet, it is important to not be discouraged and to exercise your right to the franchise.
 
As evidence of widespread delays at the polls continues to mount today, it is important to put reports of long lines in context — to look at who they impact, why they form and how they can be prevented in future elections.
 
Who Lines Impact
 
Researchers studying voting lines from 2012 identified clear demographic trends in the data. Voters affected by long lines tend to live in urban areas that are home to higher percentages of African American and Latino voters. While white voters waited just 12 minutes, on average, African American and Latino voters stood in line for 23 and 19 minutes, respectively. Long lines have real costs. The same researchers estimated that somewhere between 500,000 and 700,000 votes were lost in 2012 because of long lines.
 
Another study, estimated that in Florida alone — the state with the longest wait times in the country in 2012 — more than 200,000 votes were lost because of long lines. The potential economic costs of long lines are also staggering. One analysis estimated that wait times yielded a total cost of $500 million in wages.
 
What Causes Lines
 
In Wisconsin’s April primary, a new photo ID requirement appeared to be the culprit. Last month in North Carolina, some counties drastically reduced the number of early voting locations. In 2012, in Florida, state legislators voted to slash the early voting period and lines exploded across the state.
 
Empirical research offers specific answers. The study of voting lines, called queuing theory, suggests that lines are caused by a mismatch between the volume of voters and available resources to process them.
 
In 2014, the Brennan Center took an in depth look at the causes of long lines. We discovered that in Florida, Maryland, and South Carolina — three states with some of the longest lines in 2012 — precincts with the longest lines had fewer machines, poll workers, or both. We also found that areas with higher percentages of African American and Latino voters tended to have fewer voting machines, and that, these precincts also tended to have longer waits.
 
Last Friday, we built on this work. We analyzed the causes of long lines during the presidential primary in Maricopa County, Arizona (where Phoenix is located). Some Phoenix-area voters faced delays of more than five hours after the county drastically reduced the number of voting locations. Long lines tended to occur at vote centers with fewer resources — like electronic poll books and poll workers — and, in urban areas with higher percentages of Latino voters.
 
How to Fix Long Lines
 
Following the long lines in 2012, President Obama famously remarked, “We have to fix that.” But four years later, long lines still plague our elections. Studying the problem can only do so much.
 
It’s time for concrete federal action to ensure that voters are not waiting for hours to cast a ballot. Federal minimum standards for the allocation of polling place resources — like machines and poll workers — are a first step. Recent legislation from last year would do just that. The LINE Act, introduced last year, would establish federal standards for how election resources are distributed and set a 30-minute limit on wait times.
 
It is also important that, as local election officials plan for future elections, they play close attention to the areas that tend to see the longest wait times: urban communities and precincts with higher percentages of African American and Latino voters.
 
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