I. In Focus This Week
First systematic evidence says 2016 voting lines were shorter than 2012
Overall, average in-person wait time in 2016 was 11 minutes
Department of Political Science
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology
In the midst of an election campaign full of concerns over whether voting machines were being hacked and vigilantes would confront voters in polling places, there is good news about the administration of elections in 2016. The first systematic evidence about the experience of voters in the election reveals that lines waiting to vote were shorter than in 2012.
This evidence is contained in the preliminary results from the Survey of the Performance of American Elections, conducted in the aftermath of the 2016 election. This survey, like the ones before it in 2008 and 2012, asked all in-person voters how long they waited in line to vote. (For those interested, the methodology of the SPAE is discussed at the end of this article.)
Overall, the average in-person voter waited 11 minutes to vote in 2016, compared to 13 minutes in 2012 and 16 minutes in 2008. The biggest improvements came in the states that had the longest lines in 2012. Racial disparities were reduced in 2016, though they still remain in some places, especially in early voting.
In 2012, voters from five states and the District of Columbia reported average wait times of greater than 20 minutes — Florida, D.C., Maryland, South Carolina, Virginia, and Michigan. All of these states’ voters reported significant decreases in average wait times in 2016. The most dramatic decrease came in Florida, which fell from an average of nearly 45 minutes in 2012 down to 8 minutes in 2016.
In past years there have been significant differences in wait times, comparing Election Day and early voting. For instance, in 2012 Election Day voters waited an average of 13 minutes to votes, compared to 20 minutes for early voters. These differences virtually disappeared in 2016, with Election Day voters waiting an average of 11 minutes to vote and early voters waiting 13 minutes.
Of great concern in the past have been racial discrepancies in wait times. These discrepancies were reduced in 2016, though not eliminated entirely. In 2012, whites waited an average of 12 minutes to votes, while Blacks waited 22 minutes. In 2016, average wait times for whites declined to 10 minutes, while the average wait time for Blacks declined to 16 minutes.
The report of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration declared that no voter should wait more than 30 minutes to cast a ballot. Although wait times in 2016 were significantly better than in 2012, the thirty-minute benchmark still has not been achieved in most states. Overall, 9 percent of voters waited more than 30 minutes. In 18 states plus DC, more than 10 percent of voters waited longer than 30 minutes.
This analysis was based on data that were literally hot off the press. More work needs to be done to probe the nuances of the data and, perhaps most importantly, explain what accounts for the improvements in 2016.
Upon initial examination, one explanation does not appear to hold much weight. It does not appear that shorter wait times were due to lower turnout or shifting voters out of Election Day into early voting or absentee modes. The sheer number of voters in 2012 was roughly the same in 2016, which eliminates lower turnout as a major contributor to short wait times.
Furthermore, the greatest improvements in wait times were in states, such as Florida, where early voting was not significantly different from 2012. Therefore, the most likely explanation for improve wait times in 2016 has to do with capacity building and other administrative improvements. These are factors that will probably not be easily documented through the survey research evidence, but will have to await other forms of investigation to verify.
The SPAE contains a treasure-trove of information about the experience of voters in the past election. Wait times are just one aspect of the election that was documented through this survey project. As the final dataset is prepared and careful examination of the data undertaken, expect more “voter-eye views” of the election to follow.
The Survey of the Performance of American Elections (SPAE) has been conducted following the federal elections of 2008, 2012, 2014, and 2016. The purpose of the SPAE is to document the experience of American voters as they cast their ballots in the federal election. The survey is administered to 200 registered voters in each state plus the District of Columbia, for a total sample size of 10,200. The survey was conducted by YouGov using an Internet panel. Observations have been weighted to provide a representative view of voters in each state. A full report of findings from the SPAE will be published in early 2017. The Survey of the Performance of American Elections was initially designed by members of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project and funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, which bears no responsibility for any of the analysis conducted here.
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