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Lines at the Polls: Problem or Not, They're Not New

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[Image courtesy of nydailynews]

Reports out of Washington suggest that President Obama is going to use the State of the Union address next week to double (triple?) down on his comments on Election Night and Inauguration Day about the problem of long lines at the polls. I've already talked a lot about those efforts, but today I wanted to share a little nugget about lines that might help put the looming debate in perspective.

In particular, MIT's Charles Stewart - whose data on lines has gotten lots of play in recent weeks - made this observation last week on the Election Updates blog:

I've been mucking around in surveys other than my own that document how long voters wait to vote. I found that the Pew Research Center on the People and the Press asked this question in 2004, 2008, and 2012. Unfortunately, the response categories are different from those in the Survey of the Performance of American Elections (SPAE), but the broad trend is the same as I reported at the December Pew Voting in American Conference.

The big trend is that the average line length to vote has been basically unchanged in recent presidential elections. For instance, Pew estimates that 82% of in-person voters waited half an hour or less to vote in 2004, compared to 83% in 2008, and 84% in 2012. So, whatever we think of lines in 2012 -- that they were too long, too short, or just right -- it's likely they were that way in 2004 and 2008, too. [Links added]

To be honest, it's possible to view this data in different ways: you could cite this data as proof that lines are a chronic problem for which a solution is long overdue, OR you could argue that what's changed is not the length of the lines but our willingness to tolerate them. The view you take, and the approach to reform (if any) you choose as a result, could have very different impacts on the election process.

But one thing you really can't say is that the existence of lines - problem or not - is a new phenomenon.

1 Comment


  • Rather than the average wait times from one election to the next, it is important to consider which voters tend to face the longest wait times and where they reside.

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