Election Day Long Lines: Resource Allocation

September 15, 2014

Lack of poll workers and low numbers of voting machines are key contributors to long voting lines, and precincts with more minorities experienced longer waits.

Although many factors may contribute to long lines, little research has assessed how polling place resource allocation contributes to delays. In advance of the 2014 midterm election, this report attempts to fill that gap by analyzing precinct-level data from states where voters faced some of the longest lines in the country in 2012: Florida, Maryland, and South Carolina. Specifically, the study assesses how machine and poll worker distribution contributes to long lines and what role race played in predicting where lines might develop — providing an important roadmap exploring the causes of long lines that have plagued millions of Americans.

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Executive Summary

The images of voters standing in long lines at the polls in the November 2012 election generated much attention from the media, the public, and from the president. Accounts of individuals waiting for hours to cast a ballot inspired both admiration for those determined to make their vote count, and dismay at a ramshackle election administration system.

In early 2013, President Barack Obama convened a bipartisan commission to address the problem of long lines and determine best practices for local election officials. According to the commission’s findings, 10 million people waited longer than half an hour to vote in 2012. The commission concluded that no voter should wait more than 30 minutes, and issued recommendations for election officials to improve the casting of ballots. Almost two years after the 2012 election, however, policymakers have done little to prevent long lines from recurring. This study offers fresh data to guide reform efforts.

What causes long lines at the polls? Unexpected surges in turnout could be an easy, and in some ways, an accurate answer, but the story is more complex. This study finds that the resources distributed to polling places are a key contributor to long lines. Which precincts have the most voting machines? Do they have enough poll workers? Do they comply with minimum state requirements for how those resources must be allocated? Importantly, this study suggests that the answers to those questions could affect how long voters have to wait in line, and which voters have to wait longer. Many of the lines that manifested on Election Day in 2012 could have been mitigated with planning that looked at factors known before the day of the election, like the number of registered voters and the level of resources allocated to each polling place for Election Day.

Little research has assessed how resource allocation contributes to delays. This analysis attempts to fill that gap by analyzing precinct-level data from states where voters faced some of the longest lines in the country: Florida, Maryland, and South Carolina. Specifically, this study assesses whether and how machine and poll worker distribution contributed to long lines in those states during the 2012 presidential election. Given the media coverage and political commentary in the wake of the 2012 election suggesting a racial component to the problem of long lines, we also sought to understand what role, if any, race played in predicting where long lines might develop. Accordingly, we examined the interplay between resource allocation, race, and long lines across each state. We also examined those same factors in each county so that strong trends in particular counties would not create the appearance of a statewide trend.

Each state studied presents its own nuances and qualifications. There were no perfectly uniform findings. That said, there are unmistakable patterns that emerge:

  • Voters in precincts with more minorities experienced longer waits. This mirrors findings from two prior studies, suggesting a genuine problem that needs to be addressed. For example, in South Carolina, the 10 precincts with the longest waits had, on average, more than twice the percentage of black registered voters (64 percent) than the statewide average (27 percent).
  • Voters in precincts with higher percentages of minority voters tended to have fewer machines. This is the first multi-state study to assess voting machine allocation by race, and the findings are consistent with two county-level studies. In Maryland, by way of illustration, the 10 precincts with the lowest number of machines per voter had, on average, more than double the percentage of Latino voting age citizens (19 percent) as the statewide average (7 percent).
  • Precincts with the longest lines had fewer machines, poll workers, or both. This is the first multi-state study to assess machine and poll worker allocation. Our findings are consistent with the one other study of machine allocation, which focused on one particular county. In Florida, for example, the 10 precincts with the longest lines had nearly half as many poll workers per voter as the statewide average.
  • There is widespread non-compliance with existing state requirements setting resource allocation. Both Maryland and South Carolina set certain requirements for what polling places are supposed to provide voters, but we found that only 25 percent of the precincts studied in South Carolina and 11 percent of the precincts in Maryland complied with these requirements.

Election Day Long Lines: Resource Allocation