Waiting in Line to Vote
Working Paper No.:  114
Date Published:  2013-07-28


Charles Stewart III, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Stephen Ansolabehere, Harvard University


 Waiting in long lines discourages some people from voting, undermines confidence in the electoral system, and imposes economic costs on voters.

  • Estimates of lost votes due to long lines in 2012 range from 500,000 to 700,000.
  • Voters who wait in long lines are less confident their votes are counted as intended, and that votes nationwide are counted as intended. o Long lines affect the confident of voters in states with long lines, even when individuals do not experience the long lines themselves.
  • The economic cost to voters of standing in line to vote is approximately $500 million. 

Waiting in long lines was not universal in 2012.

  • Average wait times ranged from 2 minutes in Vermont to 39 minutes in Florida.
  • Wait times in states and counties were consistent with patterns in 2008.
  • There was significant variation in wait times within states, and even within counties.
  • Minority voters, early voters, and urban dwellers experienced the longest lines. 

Most standard recommendations for shortening lines derive from simple, straightforward application of queuing theory.

  • These recommendations revolve around reducing the number of in-person voters, increasing service points, and decreasing transaction times.
  • There is little empirical evidence that the recommendations prescribed as solutions to long lines have actually been effective in reducing waiting times.
  • Budgetary and space constraints weigh heavily in implementing reforms to reduce lines. 

Unlike the response to the “lost votes” that beset the 2000 presidential election, there are no easily implemented reforms that have been demonstrated to be effective through systematic study.


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