Long lines to vote in last fall’s November have gotten a lot of attention — so much that President Obama has established a commission to tackle the issue. How big a problem was it, really? It depends on your race and where you live, according to a new study from Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Charles Stewart.
Voters wait in a long line at Greenbriar Middle School Nov. 6, 2012, in Chesapeake, Va. (Brian J. Clark/The Virginia Pilot via Associated Press)
For the majority of voters, lines were not a huge problem. “Two-thirds of voters in 2012 waited less than 10 minutes to vote, and that only 3% of voters waited longer than an hour,” he writes in a new study of the election. The national average wait time actually fell between 2008 and 2012 from 17 to 13 minutes, he finds.
But when it was bad, it was very, very bad. For those who waited longer than an hour, the average reported wait time was 110 minutes. Where was it bad? In Florida, Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia and South Carolina, wait times exceeded 20 minutes, with Florida voters enduring the worst lines.
There was also significant variation within states. Dense urban areas saw longer lines than less-populated territory. Race was a major factor. ”Viewed nationally, African Americans waited an average of 23 minutes to vote, compared to 12 minutes for whites; Hispanics waited 19 minutes,” Stewart writes.
Again, that comes back to geography. Residents of Zip codes where the population is more than 75 nonwhite waited an average of 24 minutes to vote. Residents of Zip codes where the population is less than a quarter nonwhite waited, on average, 11 minutes.
Stewart notes that the worst lines in 2012 were generally found in the same places where long lines were common in 2008. There is no “magic bullet” to deal with the problem, he says; at this point, “we simply do not know where to start in making things better.”
For the study, which will be published in the Journal of Law and Politics, Stewart relied on data from the Survey of the Performance of American Elections (SPAE), supplemented by responses to the common core of the Cooperative Congressional Election Study and information from county election Web sites. A caveat — these polls were conducted online and do not meet Washington Post polling standards.