Waiting at the polls: Long lines and the right to vote

With the 2016 elections nearing, a new study confirms that long lines and wait times are a serious barrier to voting for many citizens, with areas of Florida, South Carolina and Virginia having some of the biggest problems accommodating voters. (Photo of a 2012 voting line in Miami by Phillip via Flickr.)

Every big election year, horror stories surface around the South and the rest of the country of voters having to wait for hours to cast their ballots. In 2008, reports came out of Georgia of voters having to stand in line for up to 12 hours to vote. In 2012, the battleground state of Florida garnered national headlines with accounts of voters waiting six hours at the polls.

In 2013, President Obama assembled a 10-member bipartisan commission to look into the experiences of voters in the previous year's elections and to propose solutions to help streamline the voting process. The commission found that the Florida and Georgia experiences weren't isolated: More than 10 million people had to wait more than half an hour to vote in 2012.

Arguing that "no citizen should have to wait in line for more than 30 minutes to vote," the group outlined a series of ways election officials could make voting easier, saying that "jurisdictions can solve the problem of long lines through a combination of planning … and the efficient allocation of resources."

Yet despite a flurry of election law bills at the state level, many states have failed to act on the commission's proposals and make improvements to ensure long wait times don't taint the 2014 mid-term elections.

In some cases like North Carolina -- which will feature one of the key races to decide the balance of power in the U.S. Senate -- lawmakers have gone the opposite direction, curtailing the number of early voting days. A study highlighted by the American Civil Liberties Union, drawing on the research of two scholars who have studied the impact of curtailing early voting, estimates that 18,000 North Carolina voters would have given up on voting due to long waits if the cuts to early voting enacted by the state legislature in 2013 had been in effect for the 2012 elections.

This month, the Brennan Center in New York released a new report adding fresh data to the debate over what causes long lines, which voters are most affected, and what can be done about it. Looking at the states of Florida, Maryland and South Carolina, the Brennan Center study finds that how voting resources are allocated is a big factor in determining who has to wait in line. Among the report's findings:

* Race plays a role in who has to wait the longest to vote: Mirroring two earlier studies, the Brennan Center found that precincts with larger numbers of African Americans and Latinos experienced longer wait times. In South Carolina, the 10 precincts with the longest waits had on average more than twice the percentage of black registered voters (64 percent) than the statewide average (27 percent).

* Voters in African-American and Latino precincts tend to have fewer voting machines: Noting that their report is "the first multi-state study to assess voting machine allocation by race," Brennan found that minority areas had a fewer number of voting machines per voter.

* Places with fewer machines and poll workers tend to have longer lines: Having fewer machines and fewer poll workers on hand correlated with longer wait times for voters, in the study's analysis. In Florida, for example, the 10 precincts with the longest lines had nearly half as many poll workers per voter as the statewide average.

The failure of states to invest adequate resources in their elections creates a bad experience for voters, which may cause those with health problems, tight work schedules or family obligations to give up on voting altogether. It also may mean states are breaking their own election laws.

In South Carolina, for example, the Brennan Center found that only 25 percent of precincts they studied may be meeting state requirements for what polling places are supposed to provide for voters.

Despite the evidence that boosting resources for machines and poll workers could make voting easier for thousands of voters, few states have made such efforts a priority. While North Carolina has cut early voting days, this year the state elections board didn't request any additional funding for voting infrastructure. It did, however, request -- and received in the final budget [pdf] passed by state lawmakers -- money to hire three new staff to investigate potential voter fraud.