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Expert Brief

Long Voting Lines: Explained

If past elections are any indication, at least some voters will wait hours in line to cast their ballot. So what causes long lines on Election Day — and how can officials prevent them?

  • Christopher Famighetti
Published: November 4, 2016

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In just days, millions of voters will cast ballots in tens of thousands of polling places. For the most part, they will have a brief and pleasant experience. But if past elections are any indication, at least some voters will wait hours in line to cast their ballot.

There have already been scattered reports of long lines during early voting in North Carolina and Texas. During the primary season, many waited hours to vote in Wisconsin and Arizona. And in 2012, voters in Florida waited up to seven hours, leading President Obama to declare in his victory speech, “We have to fix that.”

So what causes long lines on Election Day — and how can officials prevent them?

There are several contributing factors. In Wisconsin’s April primary, voters faced a new photo ID requirement, for example. In North Carolina this fall, some counties eliminated early voting locations. In Florida in 2012, state officials drastically reduced the number of early voting days. Less than two weeks ago, in Texas, there were reports of vote-flipping and other machine malfunctions. These issues can certainly cause backups on Election Day.

But how resources — such as voting machines, poll workers, and poll books — are allocated to each polling location can also make a big difference.

Brennan Center research from three states with some of the longest lines in 2012 (Florida, Maryland, and South Carolina) showed precincts with the longest lines had fewer machines, poll workers, or both. Areas with higher percentages of minority voters tended to have fewer machines, we found, and voters in precincts with more minorities experienced longer waits. Other research backed up our results, finding those who waited the longest tended to live in urban areas and were disproportionately African American and Latino.

Preliminary data from the 2016 presidential primary election shows similar trends. When Arizona held its primary in March, there were reports that some voters waited as long as five hours to cast a ballot. At the time, the lengthy wait times sparked outrage from state officials and made national headlines.

The long waits were concentrated in Maricopa County, which contains Phoenix. With a population of about 4 million, Maricopa is not only the most populous county in Arizona, it is the fourth-most populous county in the United States. Press accounts at the time suggested that a dramatic reduction in polling places was the culprit. In the 2012 primary, for example, there were more than 200 polling locations. In 2016, there were 60 vote centers. Voters could cast a ballot at any vote center in the county – regardless of address. The drastic reduction in voting locations followed cuts to state election funding. Nonetheless, contemporary accounts suggested that the fewer places to vote may have disproportionately affected Latinos. (Last month, the county instituted a planning process to avoid long lines in future elections.)

In an effort to understand what happened in Maricopa County more deeply — and compare it to line problems from 2012 — the Brennan Center analyzed the 2016 primary election data.[1]  Among the key findings are:

  • On average, vote centers across the county closed more than two hours late. Vote centers in Phoenix closed, on average, more than four hours late. 
  • Latino voters faced disproportionately long wait times. Across heavily Latino census tracts, the average wait time at the closest voting center was more than four hours. 
  • Vote centers with longer wait times tended to have fewer resources, such as poll workers and electronic poll books, per voter.

With just days left before the 2016 election, polling place resources — such as poll workers, machines, and poll books — have likely already been allocated. Going forward, election officials should ensure these resources are distributed equitably and there are contingency plans should long lines occur.  Furthermore, we recommend officials pay special attention to voters living in racially diverse neighborhoods and urban areas.

Long Voting Lines Explained by The Brennan Center for Justice on Scribd