Home / Dave Brockington / Waiting in Line to Vote

Waiting in Line to Vote


The past few days have seen several stories on waiting times at the polls in November, spurred by the release of a couple of studies, including one by Charles Stewart at MIT with an N of over 10,000. Key findings from the MIT survey are illustrated here in the NYT piece. With these data we can’t be at all certain that these resulted from the much discussed Republican vote suppression efforts, but the effects that are observable did have a substantive effect on voters, and were systematically related to politically predictive demographic categories such as race and income.

Democrats waited an average of 15 minutes, Republicans 12.4. Waits were longer in more urbanized settings and for those on lower income brackets. Most damning is that Latinos and African-Americans waited an average of 20.2 minutes, while whites 12.7 minutes. The state with the longest wait was Florida at 45 minutes. This Nation piece on Florida, which conducted its own examination into the problem, includes this brilliant quote by the incumbent Florida Secretary of State: “I can confidently say Florida conducted a fair election in 2012.” Perhaps when compared to some past Florida elections of note, but perhaps not when compared to 2012 cross-nationally. Work done “by an Ohio State University professor and The Orlando Sentinel, concluded that more than 200,000 voters in Florida “gave up in frustration” without voting.” The NYT article states that the overall cost to Democrats numbered “hundreds of thousands of votes”.

Positive reform (not to be confused with voter ID) at the Federal level is encountering the usually justified obfuscation from Republicans:

Conservatives have complained that Democrats are politicizing an issue that should be handled by the states, not the federal government. “It’s ridiculous to stand in line a couple of hours to vote,” said Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “But I think it’s also ridiculous to make a political issue out of it when it’s very easily handled.”

And that’s one of the more ridiculous things I’ve read today. Voting is a political issue, and making voting easier (or harder) is all about politics. When African-Americans and Latinos have to wait nearly twice as long as whites, it’s political. We know, and they know, that efforts to suppress votes masquerading as fraud prevention result in Republicans having a larger percentage of a given electorate, while easing the costs to voting (e.g. easier / no registration, more polling places, shorter lines, etc.) increase the Democratic percentage of a given electorate. While it’s a starkly political issue, there is one key difference: we’re right on the normative merits. Anybody who wants to vote should be able to vote. As a society, we should be reducing, not erecting, roadblocks to the act of voting.

I cobbled together a state level dataset to quickly examine if there are determinants of the average wait by state. While the studies discussed in the NYT and Nation articles are based on survey data, what does this look like at the state level? The dependent variable in the little model that follows is the average wait time courtesy of the MIT survey. I included some standard state level measures, including PVI, wealth, aggregate population, poverty rate, as well as percentages African-American and Latino of the overall state population. I also hypothesized that unified Republican control of the state government (defined as both chambers of the legislature and the executive) would lead to longer wait times, as it was the Republicans pulling back on early voting windows and introducing Voter ID laws (which they achieved anything, achieved longer lines). There are 25 such states. Finally, I included the margin of victory for the state winner in the Presidential election.

Several notes prior to viewing the table in all its glory are warranted. First, interpretation of the effects will be a product of your own view of the significance of statistical significance. I think it is often mis-applied. In this model, it could be argued that I have the universe of cases at my disposal, hence I’m not trying to ascertain the probability that the effect I’m observing in this sample is the result of random chance. Furthermore, with an N of only 48 (two states are not included in the model; Washington relies heavily on postal voting, while Oregon is exclusively so, rendering waiting lines at polling places an irrelevant concept), only the strongest substantive relationships will be significant. A lack of significance does not equate no relationship, it simply means that the relationship has not been observed with the precision necessary to be arbitrarily comfortable generalizing from our sample to the target population. Second, the measures are not normed to a common metric, meaning size is not relative. Third, as this is state-level data, it is not fine enough to capture precinct-level variations, and I suspect a lot of the vote suppression tactics were conducted at precinct level.

“Significant” relationships are found with state wealth, percentage African-American, and poverty rate (the bi-variate correlation between poverty rate and per capita GDP is low.) The actual estimate for wealth required moving the decimal a few spaces to show a real number, but a rough norming of the measures indicates that it has the second strongest substantive impact on wait times: the wealthier the state is, the shorter the wait. Counter-intuitively, the higher the poverty rate, the shorter the wait as well, and I’m not sure what to make of that. The overall winner, in terms of both significance levels and normed substantive effect is % African-American. For each percentage point increase in a state’s black population, the average wait increased nearly half a minute. This doesn’t seem like a lot, but this measure ranges from 0.8% in Montana to 37.6% in Mississippi, hence the overall range effect is around 18 minutes. Moving on to the measures that did not report significant estimates: there really isn’t anything going on with overall population size, states with larger Latino populations had longer waits, the greater the margin in the election, the shorter the wait, and states under unified Republican control waited nearly two minutes longer when everything else in the model is taken into account. A straight bi-variate analysis is starker: the average waiting time for states under unified Republican control was 13.42 minutes, while 9.13 minutes for those with at least a modicum of Democratic input (and this relationship is significant with a one-way ANOVA).

Finally, the overall model fit is only .31: these variables only explain 31% of the variance in waiting times. While some variation is just random, there’s with near certainty several additional unobserved determinants of waiting times.

As I only just slapped all this together, I’m not completely sure what the story is beyond the obvious: your wait time will be shorter in a richer state, but longer in a more heterogeneous state. I think, given the nature of the data and the significance of the bi-variate relationship, we can also be confident that states under unified Republican control had significantly longer lines to vote.

And that’s pretty much exactly the way they like it.

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  • tt

    Do you have any insights into the politics of mail-in voting? There seems to be a strong regional signal which isn’t entirely explainable by partisanship.

  • daveNYC

    Could you do some mojo and maybe do voting district population density in there with minority % of the population?

  • West of the Cascades

    Ah, yes – the solution presents itself in a parenthetical: “(two states are not included in the model; Washington relies heavily on postal voting, while Oregon is exclusively so, rendering waiting lines at polling places an irrelevant concept)”. Oregon has had pure vote-by-mail for over a decade with no fraud and high voter participation. My ballot shows up in the mail, along with the voters’ guide, I grab a pen, I vote. Sometimes I make myself a cup of coffee, which may result in a three or four minute wait time to vote.

    Why more states are not going to postal voting as their exclusive means of voting is beyond my comprehension.

    • wengler

      You gotta have a mailbox and you lose the right to a secret ballot. Also the vote is not in a secure ballot box until it is actually received at the elections office. There are three problems with vote-by-mail off the top of my head.

      • Breadbaker

        You don’t have to have a mailbox; there are drop off places where you can drop off your ballot without mailing it. And the ballot is inside a “security envelope” that is not opened until after your signature is verified. That is how you have a secret ballot.

        • dave brockington

          I vote in Clackamas County, Oregon. This November, an election worker was indicted for filling in ‘roll off’ ballots (those with lower tier races / decisions blank) for Republican candidates. It’s not 100% secure just because you stick your ballot in the supplied security envelope.


        • Nathanael

          How do you PICK UP your ballot if you don’t have a mailbox?

  • Jason

    Washington is now a completely vote-by-mail state; no more polling locations.

  • Davis

    I was somewhat surprised to see Maryland with the third longest wait. I live in a wealthy suburban county near Baltimore and have never waited more than few minutes. Hmmm. I wonder where all the really long lines were?

  • Murc

    Boy, aren’t Oregon and Washington going to feel silly after the post office is abolished and they have to pay FedEx an exorbitant amount every year to handle all their ballots.

    • Fed Ex (and UPS & other delivery service) use the Post Office extensively. I am hoping they will stop Congress from destroying it.

      • Green Caboose

        The Post Office is established by the Constitution.

        • Murc

          Oh, for gods sake.

          No, it ISN’T.

          The Constitution empowers Congress to establish Post Offices and Post Roads. It in no way, shape, or form imposes a requirement on them to do so, nor does it require they be well-run and well-funded if they do.

          • Nathanael

            You know, I just noticed that the US government is not really a government of “limited powers”. Congress is granted the power

            “…to provide for… the general welfare of the United States”. This is a much more powerful clause than the one about regulating commerce.

  • Woodrowfan

    I noted this on Balloon Juice. I was an election officer in Fairfax County Va. We had long lines, not because of a lack of voting machines, but because two of the three poll books in our heavily Democratic precinct were run by two elderly Republican women who were so concerned to make sure every single solitary detail on the poll book and ID matched (why does the poll book read John Thomas Smith and your driver’s license reads John T. Smith?) that they took at least three times as long to check off a voter than I did. And Spanish names, with the two part “last name” really confused them!

    • wengler

      Yeah, old people running elections is a big part of the problem. They tend to screw up even simple things that turn into a long time sorting out after the polls have closed.

      • volunteer

        Without retirees there would be no one working at the polls though. $75 for 16 hours is not going to attract anyone with something better to do. My county relies heavily on county employees (normal days pay) and it still pleads for volunteers every election.

      • boctaoe

        It wasn’t old people who cut early voting,had a 4 page ballot because of 9-10 convoluted amendments, didn’t use any money provided to provide at least 2 scanners for the ballots and made waiting into almost 4 hours. It was strictly political polices and Republican ones at that. Now that they were caught out, they are looking to win by changing the Electorial College or other means of Gerry mandering.

    • drkrick

      It can’t help that the rules change every year (bug or feature?). Also in Fairfax County – Waited about 40 minutes. We had a choice between a machine or a paper ballot. The paper ballots went a lot quicker, but most people chose the machine.

  • Bill Murray

    I am happy to see that my Republican controlled state (South Dakota) had very short wait times. I guess being homogeneous and not completely run by tea party idiots has at least a small benefit. I think the last time I had to wait longer than 30 seconds was 1992 Presidential election when I lived in Utah

    • drkrick

      The shenanigans don’t start until elections become competitive. Watch the fun start if enough precincts start turning blue.

  • It appears that the more blatant about vote suppression the repugs are, the more likely a lot of people are to stand in line for however long it takes.

  • Bill

    Interesting stuff… Do you think you could post the state-level dataset you used to put this together?

    • Dave Brockington

      I’d be happy to. Reach me through the twitter or facebook links provided in our “who we are” page, and I’ll email it.

  • H-Bob

    Why not a mandatory early voting period of at least a week, including both Saturday and Sunday before the election ? It could be required for federal offices (President, Senators & Congresspersons) and the states will probably go along for state & local offices. A lot of the voter suppression tactics will have less effectiveness if they have to keep it up for a week.

    • Murc

      This isn’t a bad idea, but the biggest hurdle to election reform is you gotta do it state-by-state. The Feds explicitly lack the power to tell the various states how to conduct their elections beyond certain VERY broad strictures.

      • holiday

        The feds could start by making election day a federal holiday
        and encouraging govt employees at all levels to work the polls.

  • Jackmormon

    I waited two hours, mostly outside in near-zero temperature. This was in a neighborhood in Crown Heights that has gentrified faster than I’ve ever seen or heard tell of before, which was the main reason for the problem—more people moved into the area than the election workers had expected. Not one person left the line and gave up (although this was hardly a toss-up district).

  • Matt

    Perhaps it would make Sen. Grassley happier if the DoJ “left it to the states”, and just started invoking the 2nd section of the 14th Amendment…

  • Loud Liberal

    The wait time at my designated polling place in South Florida during early voting was 6-7 hours, on the three occasions I tried to vote there. I gave up on that location and found an alternate early voting location where the wait was two and a half hours.

    One of the problems was the 10 page ballot. A bigger problem, IMO, is that there were only about 25 early voting polling places open in the entire county during early voting. On election day (where you must vote at your designated polling place), there were about 700 polling locations open.

  • Nathanael

    “Counter-intuitively, the higher the poverty rate, the shorter the wait as well, and I’m not sure what to make of that. ”

    High poverty is correlated with rural areas. Short wait time is correlated with rural areas (because people live so far apart, each polling place handles fewer people than in urban areas).

    That’s probably your lurking variable. If you correct for rural/urban differences, you’ll probably find that higher poverty rates mean longer wait times.

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