Long lines at the polls can undermine the voting experience, even to the point of discouraging people from voting. Long lines and the wait times that ensue are not only problems in and of themselves, but they can be symptoms of other underlying problems in the voting process. That’s why, after the 2012 election, President Barack Obama singled out long lines as a problem that the United States should fix and cited it as the first order of business for the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA), which he launched in early 2013.
As soon as President Obama shone a light on the problem of long lines at polling places, it quickly became clear that little was known about polling place lines: where they occurred, how often they occurred, and why they occurred. However, the PCEA initiated a host of studies and collaborative projects that have helped fill in the knowledge gaps about polling place lines. This report summarizes many of these efforts and highlights the actionable knowledge they have produced with seven major takeaway points.
Lines at polling places can be studied—and brought under control—by using approaches and tools that businesses have been employing for decades.
These tools, part of “queuing theory,” are used in an astounding array of settings, from designing the set-up of checkout stations in grocery stores to designing the flow of electrons through a computer. Luckily, the core principles of queuing theory are intuitive and can be implemented using simple applications and procedures.
To effectively manage polling places and reduce lines, election officials must collect information about the number of people in line on a regular basis at every polling place in their jurisdiction.
The Bipartisan Policy Center’s project to promote the recommendations of the PCEA has developed a procedure that relies on collecting information about the number of people in line on an hourly basis. This procedure was used by 88 jurisdictions in the 2016 general election, and it proved to be easy to implement. BPC and MIT’s Election and Data Science Lab worked together to provide each participating county with detailed reports about wait times at their polling places; most importantly, election officials used this information to identify problematic polling places and unwieldy wait times, and to design specific solutions to reduce lines. The most important takeaway from the effort is that collecting hourly line data at every polling place is a best practice that should be adopted by every jurisdiction in the country. This level of attention to how voters flow through polling places is specific enough to effect meaningful change to operations at polling places.
Long lines can be reduced through best-practice management techniques and policies that encourage a smooth flow of voters in polling places.
The number of voters who waited longer than the PCEA’s benchmark of 30 minutes fell between 2012 and 2016. More significantly, states that had the longest wait times in 2012 saw the biggest improvements in 2016. These improvements were the result of multipronged efforts by election officials and legislators, and they demonstrate that the application of simple line-management techniques can produce significant benefits for voters.
Long lines are not the norm for most voters, but at a substantial fraction of polling places, voters wait longer than the 30-minute PCEA goal; and at a smaller but still troubling group of polling places, lines can stretch over one hour.
Public-opinion surveys have shown that the vast majority of voters do not face long lines. In 2016, 74 percent of respondents to the Survey of the Performance of American Elections reported waiting 10 minutes or less to vote, and 92 percent said they waited 30 minutes or less. Some voters nonetheless waited more than the PCEA’s 30-minute goal: 7 percent reported waiting 30 to 60 minutes, and 1.8 percent reported waiting over one hour. The local jurisdictions that participated in the BPC/MIT study saw similar distributions of wait times in the precincts that were studied: 74 percent of polling places had an average wait time of 10 minutes or less; 92 percent of precincts had an average wait time of 30 minutes or less. Eight percent of precincts exceeded 30-minute goal set by the PCEA, with 4 percent of precincts reporting a 30- to 60-minute wait time and another 4 percent reporting an average wait time of over an hour.
Lines can be caused by issues that are unique to a polling place or by more general problems relating to chronic capacity shortages.
Long lines can be caused by a shear lack of capacity to deal with the crowds who come out to vote, or they can be caused by unexpected events, such as a power outage, sick poll workers, or broken voting machines. Regardless of why long lines occur, the proper documentation of line lengths on an hourly basis is essential to identifying the problems and finding solutions.
Lines are longest on the morning of Election Day.
While a commonly told story about elections is that there are two peaks of voting, early in the morning and late in the day, the BPC/MIT study found that the greatest crush of voters tended to arrive in the morning and create long lines at the start of the day. This finding was consistent across many counties and many states. There were exceptions to this common pattern, of course, and careful measuring of each polling place is still needed to determine exactly when the bottlenecks emerge. But as a general matter, to the extent that election officials can allocate resources to address this morning crush, they will have more success keeping down wait times.
Longer lines are correlated with larger precincts; precincts unable to handle early morning lines; and precincts that are more urban, dense, and have higher minority populations.
Precincts with large numbers of registered voters often have too few check-in stations or voting booths to handle the volume of voters assigned to the precinct, even under the best of circumstances. Precincts that are unable to clear the lines from the first three hours of voting are virtually guaranteed to have long lines throughout the day. Polling places in urban areas often face design challenges—small, inconvenient spaces—that undermine many election officials’ best efforts to provide adequate resources to these locations.