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Report

Election Day Long Lines: Resource Allocation

Published: 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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AnchorExec­ut­ive 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.