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Waiting to Vote

Summary: Long waits at polling places are disruptive, disenfranchising, and all too common. Black and Latino voters are especially likely to endure them.

Published: June 3, 2020


The pictures of Milwau­keeans wait­ing in line to vote on April 7 with homemade personal protect­ive equip­ment were both beau­ti­ful and horri­fy­ing. It was beau­ti­ful — inspir­ing even — that with a deadly pandemic on their door­steps, so many people still cared so much about their right to vote that they went to the polls. And it was horri­fy­ing that they had to risk their health in order to do so.

News reports indic­ated that Milwau­kee, the most diverse city in a largely white state, had reduced its usual 180 polling sites to just five. Covid-19 has exposed seri­ous prob­lems in our elec­tion systems, and it has made the need for reform urgent. Voters of color and demo­graph­ic­ally chan­ging communit­ies all across the coun­try already knew this, though. As this report details, Black and Latino Amer­ic­ans face longer wait times on Elec­tion Day than white voters. In the past, long wait times were disrupt­ive and disen­fran­chising. In the middle of a pandemic, they could also be deadly.

Though completed before the erup­tion of the coronavirus, this report is even more crit­ical now because it provides inform­a­tion regard­ing community needs as well as mistakes commonly made in plan­ning for and staff­ing in-person voting. While the risk of Covid-19 will no doubt move more voters to cast their ballots by mail, some communit­ies — more typic­ally communit­ies of color rely on polling places. We must make sure that there are in-person options, and that they have enough of the right kinds of resources.

The period lead­ing up to the Novem­ber general elec­tion will be marked by extreme disrup­tion and hard­ship in all facets of Amer­ican life. At the time of public­a­tion, the pandemic has killed more than 100,000 Amer­ic­ans. It has also caused schools to close, people to lose their jobs, and Amer­ic­ans to distance them­selves from one another. Our funda­mental right to vote and our demo­cratic processes are more import­ant than ever: The offi­cials we elect will make high-stakes decisions that will impact our health, safety, and welfare.

In these dire times, our coun­try will not bene­fit from the judg­ment and exper­i­ences of all its citizens unless all Amer­ic­ans can vote freely and safely.

Myrna Pérez
Director, Voting Rights and Elec­tions Program
Bren­nan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law


The 2018 general elec­tion saw the highest turnout in a midterm in decades. foot­note1_r7o7oqu 1 Jens Manuel Krog­stand, Luis Noe-Bustamante, and Anto­nio Flores, “Historic Highs in 2018 Voter Turnout Exten­ded Across Racial and Ethnic Groups,” Pew Research Center, May 1, 2019, https://www.pewre­­ded-across-racial-and-ethnic-groups; Emily Stew­art, “2018’s Record-Setting Voter Turnout, in One Chart,” Vox, Novem­ber 19, 2019,­ics/2018/11/19/18103110/2018-midterm-elec­tions-turnout; Ella Nilsen, “The 2018 Midterms Had the Highest Turnout Since Before World War I,” Vox, Decem­ber 10, 2018,­ics/2018/12/10/18130492/2018-voter-turnout-polit­ical-engage­ment-trump; Jordan Misra, “Voter Turnout Rates Among All Voting Age and Major Racial and Ethnic Groups Were Higher Than in 2014,” U.S. Census Bureau, April 23, 2019,­ies/2019/04/behind-2018-united-states-midterm-elec­tion-turnout.html; Grace Sparks, “There Was Historic Voter Turnout in the 2018 Midterms — Espe­cially Among Young Voters,” CNN, April 23, 2019,­ics/voter-turnout-2018-census/index.html; and Renae Reints, “2018 Midterm Elec­tion Sets Record as the First to Exceed Voter Turnout of 100 Million People,” Fortune, Novem­ber 7, 2018, While many voters were able to cast a ballot quickly and easily in that elec­tion, others faced hours-long lines, malfunc­tion­ing voting equip­ment, and unex­pec­tedly closed polling places. foot­note2_ed6465t 2 Rebecca Ayala, “Voting Prob­lems 2018,” Bren­nan Center for Justice, Novem­ber 5, 2018, https://www.bren­nan­cen­­ion/voting-prob­lems-2018; “Elec­tion Day 2018: A Bren­nan Center Live Blog,” Bren­nan Center for Justice, Novem­ber 6, 2018, https://www.bren­nan­cen­­ion/elec­tion-day-2018-bren­nan-center-live-blog; Amy Gard­ner and Beth Rein­hard, “Broken Machines, Rejec­ted Ballots and Long Lines: Voting Prob­lems Emerge as Amer­ic­ans Go to the Polls,” Wash­ing­ton Post, Novem­ber 6, 2018, https://www.wash­ing­ton­­ics/broken-machines-rejec­ted-ballots-and-long-lines-voting-prob­lems-emerge-as-amer­ic­ans-go-to-the-polls/2018/11/06/ffd11e52-dfa8–11e8-b3f0–62607289e­fee_story.html; and Erik Ortiz et al., “Midterms 2018: Voters Face Malfunc­tion­ing Machines and Long Lines at Polls Across Coun­try on Elec­tion Day,” NBC News, Novem­ber 6, 2018,­ics/elec­tions/midterms-2018-voters-face-malfunc­tion­ing-machines-long-lines-polls-across-n932156. We estim­ate that some 3 million voters waited 30 minutes or more to cast their ballot. foot­note3_f5e8l8c 3 This stat­istic is calcu­lated by multiply­ing the share of Elec­tion Day voters who waited longer than 30 minutes by the share of all voters who cast a ballot on Elec­tion Day, using data from the Cooper­at­ive Congres­sional Elec­tion Study (CCES). Brian Schaffner, Stephen Ansol­abehere, and Sam Luks, CCES Common Content, 2018, Harvard Data­verse, 2019, This determ­ines the total share of the elect­or­ate that waited 30 minutes or longer on Elec­tion Day, accord­ing to the CCES. This share is multi­plied by the total number of ballots cast, estim­ated by the United States Elec­tions Project. “2018 Novem­ber General Elec­tion Turnout Rates,” last modi­fied Decem­ber, 14, 2018, http://www.elect­pro­ Many of these voters were concen­trated in the south­east­ern United States, home to large shares of nonwhite voters.

Long lines and wait times have plagued several elec­tions over the past decade. foot­note4_rpuy4m0 4 Matthew Weil et al., The 2018 Voting Exper­i­ence: Polling Place Lines, Bipar­tisan Policy Center, 2019, 6, https://bipar­tis­an­­i­ence. The consequences can be far reach­ing. For example, the Bipar­tisan Policy Center estim­ates that more than half a million eligible voters failed to vote in 2016 because of prob­lems asso­ci­ated with the manage­ment of polling places, includ­ing long waits. foot­note5_mssjedz 5 Weil et al., The 2018 Voting Exper­i­ence, 3–4.

For this report, we analyzed data from two nation­wide elec­tion surveys regard­ing the 2018 elec­tion: the Cooper­at­ive Congres­sional Elec­tion Study, a 60,000-person survey on Elec­tion Day exper­i­ences, and the U.S. Elec­tion Assist­ance Commis­sion’s Elec­tion Admin­is­tra­tion and Voting Survey, which asks admin­is­trat­ors detailed ques­tions about how they conduct elec­tions. We also inter­viewed nearly three dozen state and local elec­tion admin­is­trat­ors. foot­note6_l0npbwi 6 Elec­tion admin­is­trat­ors in the follow­ing counties and states were inter­viewed for this report: Shelby County, Alabama; Mari­copa County, Arizona; Forsyth County, Geor­gia; Fulton County, Geor­gia; Gwin­nett County, Geor­gia; Peoria County, Illinois; Prince George’s County, Mary­land; Detroit, Michigan; Macomb County, Michigan; Jack­son County, Missouri; Clark County, Nevada; Washoe County, Nevada; State of New York; Durham County, North Caro­lina; Forsyth County, North Caro­lina; Guil­ford County, North Caro­lina; Butler County, Ohio; Frank­lin County, Ohio; Lick­ing County, Ohio; Marion County, Ohio; State of Rhode Island; Char­le­ston County, South Caro­lina; State of South Caro­lina; David­son County, Tennessee; Denton County, Texas; Fort Bend County, Texas; Harris County, Texas; Hays County, Texas; Tarrant County, Texas; Travis County, Texas; Willi­am­son County, Texas; and Manas­sas County, Virginia. All inter­view tran­scripts are on file with the Bren­nan Center. Further, we examined the elect­oral stat­utes on the books in every state in the nation to under­stand the sources of dispar­ate wait times in 2018 and develop policy recom­mend­a­tions for lawmakers and elec­tion offi­cials ahead of 2020. foot­note7_22ms8c8 7 This report incor­por­ates data from three sources: the Cooper­at­ive Congres­sional Elec­tion Study, the Elec­tion Admin­is­tra­tion and Voting Survey, and the five-year Amer­ican Community Survey. See Schaffner, Ansol­abehere, and Luks, CCES Common Content; U.S. Elec­tion Assist­ance Commis­sion, Elec­tion Admin­is­tra­tion and Voting Survey: 2018 Compre­hens­ive Report, 2019,; and Census Bureau, “Amer­ican Community Survey 5-Year Data (2009–2018),” Decem­ber 19, 2019, Some previ­ous research has invest­ig­ated the rela­tion­ship between wait times and elect­oral resources — specific­ally polling places, voting machines, and poll work­ers. foot­note8_dtlmfyf 8 For instance, Michael Herron and Daniel Smith, “Precinct Resources and Voter Wait Times,” Elect­oral Stud­ies 42 (June 2016): 249, https://www.researchg­­a­tion/299503594_Precinct_resources_and_voter_wait_times. But no prior study has examined the rela­tion­ship on a nation­wide scale. We find:

  • Latino and Black voters were more likely than white voters to report partic­u­larly long wait times, and they waited longer gener­ally. foot­note9_ujex58q 9 Through­out this report, “white” corres­ponds to the census desig­na­tion “non-Hispanic white.” Follow­ing the CCES, we use it as a category exclus­ive of Lati­nos. “Voters of color” refers specific­ally to Black and Latino voters. Latino and Black voters were more likely than white voters to wait in the longest of lines on Elec­tion Day: some 6.6 percent of Latino voters and 7.0 percent of Black voters repor­ted wait­ing 30 minutes or longer to vote, surpass­ing the accept­able threshold for wait times set by the Pres­id­en­tial Commis­sion on Elec­tion Admin­is­tra­tion, compared with only 4.1 percent of white voters. foot­note10_i9bubxp 10 Bren­nan Center for Justice, “Bipar­tisan Pres­id­en­tial Commis­sion Endorses Modern­iz­ing Voter Regis­tra­tion,” Decem­ber 1, 2014, https://www.bren­nan­cen­­tisan-pres­id­en­tial-commis­sion-endorses-modern­iz­ing-voter. More gener­ally, Latino voters waited on aver­age 46 percent longer than white voters, and Black voters waited on aver­age 45 percent longer than white voters.
  • Voters in counties with fewer elect­oral resources per voter, relat­ive to other counties, repor­ted longer wait times in 2018. In this report, we offer the first national-level stat­ist­ical evid­ence that counties with fewer polling places, voting machines, and poll work­ers (referred to here­after as “elect­oral resources”) per Elec­tion Day voter than other counties had longer wait times in 2018. foot­note11_aidj978 11 We define “resources” through­out this report as the number of in-person Elec­tion Day votes per Elec­tion Day polling place, poll work­ers, and machines avail­able By “Elec­tion Day voters,” we mean voters who cast in-person ballots on Elec­tion Day (referred to here­after as “voters”). Voters in counties with the fewest elect­oral resources per voter repor­ted wait­ing two to three times as long to cast a ballot on Elec­tion Day as voters in the best-resourced counties.

Given those two stat­ist­ical find­ings, some might conclude that voters of color wait longer because they tend to live in counties with fewer elect­oral resources. Our analyses do not support this hypo­thesis; on aver­age, we find, counties with higher minor­ity shares of the popu­la­tion did not have fewer resources per voter than whiter counties did in 2018. Our stat­ist­ical models do, however, estab­lish that with fewer resources, the racial wait gap would have been even larger.

  • Counties that became less white over the past decade had fewer elect­oral resources per voter in 2018 than counties that grew whiter. The aver­age county where the popu­la­tion became whiter had 63 voters per worker and about 390 voters per polling place. In compar­ison, the aver­age county that became less white had 80 voters per worker and 550 voters per polling place. foot­note12_smbgejf 12 These differ­ences are signi­fic­ant at the 95 percent confid­ence level.
  • Simil­arly, counties where incomes shrank over the past decade had fewer elect­oral resources per voter in 2018 than counties where incomes grew over the same period. The aver­age county where real incomes grew had 74 voters per worker and 470 voters per polling place, while counties where real incomes declined aver­aged 82 voters per worker and 590 voters per polling place.

Our find­ings suggest that alloc­at­ing equal resources among counties and precincts is not suffi­cient to produce equal wait times for voters, partic­u­larly those of color and of lower incomes. Instead, elec­tion admin­is­trat­ors must target those counties and precincts with a history of long wait times and alloc­ate enough resources to these loca­tions to equal­ize the wait times for all voters. The goal for elec­tion admin­is­trat­ors should be to distrib­ute resources in a manner that produces a similar Elec­tion Day exper­i­ence for all voters.

Given these find­ings, we make the follow­ing recom­mend­a­tions to elec­tion admin­is­trat­ors:

  • Provide resources suffi­cient to minim­ize voter wait times. Elec­tion offi­cials in counties that have encountered long waits in recent elec­tions should increase the quant­ity and qual­ity of resources alloc­ated, and state lawmakers should ensure that resources are alloc­ated sens­ibly between and within counties to prevent dispar­ate wait times.
  • Plan for an above-trend spike in voter turnout. Between the 2014 and 2018 midterm elec­tions, voter turnout spiked from the lowest it had been in 72 years to the highest in decades. foot­note13_o8fw2ya 13 For turnout in 2014, see David Becker, “2014 Midterms Defined by Low Voter Turnout,” Pew Research Center, 2014, For turnout in 2018, see Krog­stand, Noe-Bustamante, and Flores, “Historic Highs in 2018 Voter Turnout.” This created prob­lems where elec­tion admin­is­trat­ors had relied too heav­ily on past turnout trends to alloc­ate resources. foot­note14_awf0z63 14 See “Inad­equate Plan­ning Prac­tices” in Section V. Voter turnout is poised to increase dramat­ic­ally in 2020 over past pres­id­en­tial elec­tions, and elec­tion admin­is­trat­ors should not be misled by past trends when making resource alloc­a­tion decisions. foot­note15_k4863xp 15 Susan Milligan, “Prepar­ing for a Voter Surge,” US News & World Report, Septem­ber 20, 2019,­tions/articles/2019–09–20/experts-predict-huge-turnout-in-2020.
  • Account for policy changes that may impact turnout. State elec­tion policies can change from elec­tion to elec­tion, and these changes may impact the number of indi­vidu­als who vote on Elec­tion Day, early in person, absentee, or by mail. Admin­is­trat­ors must take these new policies into account when estim­at­ing turnout levels and alloc­at­ing resources.
  • Increase compli­ance with resource mandates. State offi­cials should review their stand­ards for resource alloc­a­tion to ensure that counties are in compli­ance and stand­ards are appro­pri­ate given resource levels and wait times. Advoc­ates should hold states to those stand­ards in 2020.
  • Limit polling place clos­ures. Admin­is­trat­ors should exam­ine voter turnout data and early voting usage when making decisions about elim­in­at­ing polling places, and they should not do so without a firm analyt­ical justi­fic­a­tion.
  • Develop compre­hens­ive vote center trans­ition plans. Admin­is­trat­ors should act care­fully when trans­ition­ing to vote centers. Vote centers should be piloted in lower-turnout elec­tions, and admin­is­trat­ors should not close or combine voting loca­tions until they fully under­stand how vote centers will affect turnout.
  • Expand language assist­ance. Juris­dic­tions that narrowly missed the legal mandate to provide non-English-language assist­ance under the Voting Rights Act should nonethe­less offer language assist­ance in the 2020 elec­tion.

End Notes