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Expert Brief

Voting Problems Present in 2016, But Further Study Needed to Determine Impact

The data isn’t in yet to assess the impact of restrictive voting laws on the 2016 race, but there’s ample evidence that long lines, malfunctioning machines, and confusion created problems on Election Day.

Published: November 14, 2016

The 2016 elec­tion is over, and while much has been writ­ten about who voted and for whom, and what the media missed, there has been frus­trat­ingly little post-elec­tion cover­age on the prob­lem of Amer­ic­ans being disen­fran­chised by predict­able and avoid­able short­com­ings in the ways we admin­is­ter elec­tions.

Elec­tion admin­is­trat­ors had to fend off a lot in 2016 before the elec­tion even star­ted — claims that elec­tions were rigged, hacks into voter regis­tra­tion data­bases, out-of-date tech­no­logy, calls for private citizens to appoint them­selves watch­ers of polling places, and politi­cians passing laws restrict­ing access to the ballot. Each of those issues contrib­uted to prob­lems at the polls. They were compoun­ded by a persist­ent prob­lem of insuf­fi­cient resources.

Even before the data comes in to enable research­ers to assess the impact of restrict­ive laws and other issues, there is still ample evid­ence that too many voters had to contend with:

  • Long lines
  • Malfunc­tion­ing voting machines
  • Confu­sion over voting restric­tions
  • Voter intim­id­a­tion
  • Voter regis­tra­tion prob­lems

Obvi­ously, 2016 was not the first elec­tion in which these prob­lems have occurred — and that itself is a prob­lem.

Below is a sampling of these prob­lems, as repor­ted by news outlets. More inform­a­tion will be avail­able soon, once the results of nation­wide surveys and Elec­tion Protec­tion hotlines are released.

Long Lines: “We Have to Fix That,” Still

Despite the pres­id­ent’s oft-quoted admon­ish­ment in 2012 that “we have to fix” long Elec­tion Day lines, in 2016, hours-long lines were repor­ted during early voting and on Elec­tion Day. Long lines were in a diverse range of places, includ­ing swing states and non-swing states, states with restrict­ive laws, and those without. Some places that received partic­u­lar atten­tion this elec­tion season were:

Other states with reports of hour-plus waits included Arizona, Cali­for­nia, Flor­ida, Massachu­setts, New Jersey, New York, and Nevada, among other places.

There are many causes of long lines, includ­ing not enough voting sites, inad­equate resources, and equip­ment glitches. These prob­lems were visible this year. For example:

Too often, resources are not distrib­uted prop­erly, lead­ing to even longer lines for minor­ity voters.

Outdated Voting Equip­ment Failed Voters

Aging voting machines are a known risk to the func­tion­ing of the voting system and public confid­ence. In 2015, the Bren­nan Center warned that 42 states use machines that are at least a decade old and approach­ing the end of their projec­ted lifespans.

There were many repor­ted machine prob­lems across the coun­try in 2012, but even more this year. These prob­lems took a number of forms:

Voting machine prob­lems were also repor­ted in Alabama, Mary­land, Michigan, and South Caro­lina.

But the prob­lems were not just limited to just machines. This year’s elec­tion also presen­ted a relat­ively new prob­lem from a prom­ising tech­no­logy: elec­tronic poll books. When func­tion­ing prop­erly, elec­tronic poll books can speed up the process for check­ing in voters. But on Elec­tion Day in Durham, North Caro­lina, elec­tronic poll books failed by incor­rectly indic­at­ing which voters had already cast ballots, which forced poll work­ers to check-in voters by hand. Even­tu­ally, some polling places began turn­ing away voters after running out of the paper forms that were used to check in voters instead. This led to long lines and the exten­sion of voting hours in eight Durham precincts. And in Color­ado, the state’s voter regis­tra­tion data­base shut down and caused rippling disrup­tions. There were prob­lems with this tech­no­logy in a hand­ful of places in 2012 (Kansas, Virginia, Mary­land, and Michigan), but noth­ing affect­ing an entire county and requir­ing the drastic meas­ures used this year.

Voting Restric­tions Sowed Confu­sion

The 2016 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion was the first in 50 years without the full protec­tions of the Voting Rights Act, and the first in which 14 states had new voting restric­tions. It will take time to assess how many people were impacted by these new restric­tions. But in addi­tion to the harms to affected voters, these restric­tions also sparked wide­spread confu­sion among voters and offi­cials that further kept some citizens from exer­cising their right to vote.

The most prom­in­ent example is Texas, where the coun­try’s strict­est photo ID require­ment was found illegal by a federal court on the basis that it was discrim­in­at­ory. The court-ordered fix for the 2016 elec­tion still required voters who could show photo ID without diffi­culty to do so. But voters who faced a “reas­on­able imped­i­ment” to obtain­ing ID should have been able to vote after sign­ing an affi­davit and show­ing one of a much longer list of IDs. Unfor­tu­nately, this remedy was not prop­erly imple­men­ted. There were numer­ous reports of (a) public educa­tion mater­i­als in the polling places being incor­rect as to what the ID require­ment was; (b) poll work­ers not under­stand­ing the ID require­ment; and (c) voters not having enough inform­a­tion before Elec­tion Day to under­stand the ID require­ments.

In Wiscon­sin, where a court also modi­fied a photo ID require­ment, confu­sion on the part of offi­cials may have blocked voters from obtain­ing docu­ments that could be used to vote. Follow­ing Elec­tion Day, the exec­ut­ive director of Milwau­kee’s Elec­tion Commis­sion repor­ted that his city “saw some of the greatest [turnout] declines [from 2012] in the districts [they] projec­ted would have the most trouble with voter ID require­ments.”

And even in places without new restric­tions, there was misin­form­a­tion and confu­sion. A few of the many examples:

  • In Connecti­cut, poll work­ers improp­erly insisted that voters provide ID, misin­ter­pret­ing the state require­ment.
  • In New Jersey, signs were posted indic­at­ing ID was required when that was not the case.
  • Voters were also confused by precinct and moving rules in Ohio.

These chal­lenges exten­ded to those affected by the nation’s felony disen­fran­chise­ment laws, which barred over 4.7 million Amer­ic­ans living in their communit­ies from voting in this year’s elec­tion because of a past felony convic­tion. In Virginia, two citizens with restored voting rights had prob­lems cast­ing their ballots perhaps because the voting status of those with previ­ous felony convic­tions was tangled. The governor issued an exec­ut­ive order restor­ing voting rights to 200,000, but that order was reversed by a court. Then the governor took sub subsequent exec­ut­ive action to restore voting rights to approx­im­ately 60,000. One voter needed four trips to his polling place before offi­cials allowed him to vote. Another, despite having previ­ously been restored and having voted before, was denied a regu­lar ballot and instead given a provi­sional ballot. Another, whose voting rights were restored by the governor just this year, described having registered to vote in person and then learn­ing at her polling place that elec­tion offi­cials had no record of her. “It was a kick in the gut,” she said.

And else­where, citizens with past convic­tions repor­ted not even know­ing that they could vote — like one man in Texas who was never told he was eligible — and an Iowa elec­tion offi­cial who conceded that some “people think that they just can’t vote” when they actu­ally could.

Prob­lems Not Making the List

Elec­tion Day news reports sugges­ted prob­lems in multiple states with those wish­ing to cast ballots find­ing out they were not on the voter regis­tra­tion list. This occurred in multiple states, includ­ing:

Reports of Intim­id­a­tion Increased

Although incid­ents of intim­id­a­tion were not as wide­spread as some feared given the calls for voters to police other voters, there was an appar­ent increase in the number of reports of voters being intim­id­ated — a possible increase over the incid­ents covered by the news in past years.

In some cases, police officers were repor­ted as the source of the intim­id­a­tion, includ­ing in Orange County, Flor­ida, Greene County, Missouri, and Denton, County, Texas.

There were also reports of race-based intim­id­a­tion:

Other disrup­tions were repor­ted, includ­ing a man with a holstered gun in Pima County, Arizona, a loud disrup­tion at a Delaware polling place, voters and poll work­ers scream­ing in Pennsylvania, and a group block­ing the entrance to a polling place until police moved them in Broward County, Flor­ida.


More work and study needs to be done before we can quantify how many voters exper­i­enced trouble when voting in 2016, and what impact those prob­lems had on the elec­tions. But, we can say that the ways in which elec­tions are admin­istered, includ­ing how well they are resourced, can have a negat­ive impact on citizens’ abil­ity to cast a ballot and the confid­ence the public has in the system. In the upcom­ing legis­lat­ive cycles, we have an oppor­tun­ity to improve our elec­tion infra­struc­ture and give Amer­ican voters the best elec­tion process possible.