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Waiting to Vote

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

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, Brian Blanco/Getty

Foreword

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

Introduction

The 2018 general election saw the highest turnout in a midterm in decades. 1 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. 2 We estimate that some 3 million voters waited 30 minutes or more to cast their ballot. 3 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. 4 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. 5

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. 6 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. 7 Some previous research has investigated the relationship between wait times and electoral resources — specifically polling places, voting machines, and poll workers. 8 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. 9 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. 10 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. 11 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. 12
  • 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. 13 This created problems where election administrators had relied too heavily on past turnout trends to allocate resources. 14 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. 15
  • 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.

Endnotes

Download the full report


Hannah Klain is an Equal Justice Works Fellow in the Democracy Program, focusing on documenting and combatting discriminatory electoral resource allocation in traditionally disenfranchised communities. Klain graduated from the Harvard Law School, where she was president of the Harvard Law chapter of the American Constitution Society and a research assistant to former Dean Martha Minow. While in law school, Hannah interned with the Brennan Center's Democracy Program, as well as with the ACLU Voting Rights Project, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the Campaign Legal Center. Klain graduated cum laude from Columbia University and her work after college included serving as a staff member in the Communications and Policy Departments of the Hillary Clinton 2016 Campaign in Brooklyn. Her Equal Justice Works fellowship is sponsored by the Selbin Family.

Kevin Morris is a quantitative researcher with the Democracy Program, focusing on voting rights and elections. His research focuses on the impact of laws and policies on access to the polls, with a particular focus on rights restoration and voter list maintenance.

Prior to joining the Brennan Center, Morris worked as an economic researcher focusing on housing at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and an economist at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. He has a BA from Boston College in economics. He has a master’s degree in urban planning from NYU’s Wagner School, with an emphasis in quantitative methods and evaluation.

Max Feldman is counsel in the Voting Rights and Elections Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. He litigates voting rights cases, counsels lawmakers and administrators on voting legislation and policy, and researches voting law trends. He has coauthored several reports on state voting laws and regularly writes about and comments on voting issues in a variety of media outlets.

Prior to joining the Brennan Center, Feldman was a lawyer in private practice. He began his legal career as a law clerk to Hon. Bruce M. Selya of the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. He has also served as head speechwriter to Gov. David Paterson of New York and as a speechwriter to Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico during his campaign for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.

Feldman received his JD magna cum laude from NYU School of Law, where he was elected to the Order of the Coif and served as an articles editor of the NYU Law Review. He received his undergraduate degree from Harvard College.

Rebecca Ayala is a research and program associate at the Brennan Center for Justice.

The Brennan Center fights to make elections fair, end mass incarceration, and preserve our liberties — in Congress, the states, the courts, and the court of public opinion. Join us in building an America that is democratic, just, and free.