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End Long Lines

Long lines at the polls prevent millions from casting a ballot. The Brennan Center provides concrete proposals to eliminate this problem and ensure that all eligible Americans can vote.

Published: February 4, 2016

Read our 2018 Demo­cracy report here.

In recent elec­tions, we have seen images of Amer­ic­ans wait­ing for hours to cast a ballot. In the 2012, over 5 million voters waited more than an hour, and another 5 million waited between 30 minutes and an hour.[1] Unsur­pris­ingly, many gave up. One study estim­ated that in Flor­ida, long lines likely discour­aged 200,000 from cast­ing a ballot.[2]

A number of factors may contrib­ute to long lines, but recent Bren­nan Center research indic­ates the way elec­tion offi­cials alloc­ate their resources is espe­cially import­ant. Our 2014 study of long lines in three states found the polling places with the longest lines had fewer machines and/or fewer work­ers than other voting sites.

In Flor­ida, for example, the 10 precincts with the longest lines had nearly half as many poll work­ers per voter as the statewide aver­age. On top of that, the analysis found African Amer­ic­ans and Hispan­ics were signi­fic­antly more likely to wait in long lines, and to vote at precincts with fewer machines and person­nel.[3] In South Caro­lina, for example, the 10 precincts with the longest lines had more than twice as many African-Amer­ican voters. In Mary­land, the 10 precincts with the lowest number of voting machines per voter had more than twice as many Hispanic voters.[4]


Proper resource alloc­a­tion is one way to reduce long lines. The Bren­nan Center found precincts with the longest lines have fewer machines and poll work­ers. Yet, even states such as South Caro­lina and Mary­land, which insti­tuted resource alloc­a­tion require­ments to alle­vi­ate long lines, had some precincts ignore the state require­ments.

State elec­tion offi­cials should set stand­ards to ensure all polling places have suffi­cient resources — and create strong over­sight mech­an­isms to ensure precincts adhere to the policy. They should also pay special atten­tion to precincts with high numbers of minor­ity voters, which often have insuf­fi­cient numbers of machines and poll work­ers.

There are two bills pending in Congress concern­ing long lines. The LINE Act, intro­duced by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), would direct the attor­ney general to work with the Elec­tion Assist­ance Commis­sion to set federal stand­ards for resource distri­bu­tion so that no voter has to wait more than one hour.[5] The FAST Voting Act, intro­duced by Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.), would create a compet­it­ive grant program to encour­age states to reduce wait times.[6]

Why This Can Be Achieved

Reforms to end long lines have been endorsed by a bipar­tisan commis­sion. Many Amer­ic­ans were outraged by the hours-long lines in the 2012 elec­tion. In his speech that night, Pres­id­ent Obama proclaimed, “We have to fix that.” A few months later he formed the Pres­id­en­tial Commis­sion on Elec­tion Admin­is­tra­tion — chaired by former coun­sels from his and Romney’s campaigns — to address the prob­lem. The Commis­sion recom­men­ded a vari­ety of reforms to keep voting wait times to 30 minutes or less.

As the lead­ing demo­cracy of the world, our voting system should be free, fair, and access­ible to all eligible Amer­ic­ans. That means ensur­ing no eligible citizen has to wait hours to cast a ballot.


  • Elec­tion Day Long Lines: Resource Alloc­a­tion: In-depth exam­in­a­tion of precinct-level data in three states where voters faced some of the longest lines in 2012: Flor­ida, Mary­land, and South Caro­lina. Study shows what role race played in predict­ing where lines might develop and how machine and poll worker distri­bu­tion contrib­utes to long lines.
  • The Case for Auto­matic, Perman­ent Voter Regis­tra­tion: Details the key compon­ents of the plan to sign up every eligible Amer­ican to vote and explains the trans­form­at­ive bene­fits of a modern voter regis­tra­tion system.
  • Voter Regis­tra­tion in a Digital Age: 2015 Update: As tech­no­logy has advanced, a grow­ing number of states are using 21st century meth­ods to register voters. This report high­lights exper­i­ences from the 38 states using elec­tronic and/or online regis­tra­tion, which can boost regis­tra­tion rates, increase accur­acy, and save money.

Next: Prior­it­ize Increas­ing Voter Turnout

[1] The Pres­id­en­tial Comm’n on Elec­tion Admin., The Amer­ican Voting Exper­i­ence: Report and Recom­mend­a­tions of the Pres­id­en­tial Commis­sion on Elec­tion Admin­is­tra­tion 13 (2014), avail­able at https://www.–09–14–508.pdf.

[2] Lawrence Norden, Bren­nan Ctr. for Justice, How to Fix Long Lines 1 (2013), avail­able at https://www.bren­nan­cen­­a­tions/How_to_Fix_Long_Lines.pdf; Scott Powers & David Damron, Analysis: 201,000 in Flor­ida Didn’t Vote Because of Long Lines, Orlando Sentinel, Jan. 23, 2013, avail­able at–01–29/busi­ness/os-voter-lines-statewide-20130118_1_long-lines-sentinel-analysis-state-ken-detzner (citing analysis of Professor Theodore Allen).

[3] In the three states stud­ied.

[4] Chris Famighetti, Amanda Melillo, & Myrna Perez, Bren­nan Ctr. for Justice, Elec­tion Day Long Lines: Resource Alloc­a­tion 1 (2014), avail­able at https://www.bren­nan­cen­­a­tions/Elec­tionDayLongLines-ResourceAl­loc­a­tion.pdf.