Does It Really Take Too Long to Vote?

Voters in Florida waiting in long line to cast ballots
Joe Raedle / Getty Images

When it comes to politicians we don’t like, we get lots of chances to “Throw the rascals out!” But when the elections come and the polls open, we don’t show up. Now the Government Accountability Office (GAO) says one of the main reasons Americans give for not voting may not be valid.

The health of a democracy depends to a great extent on high voter turnout. Low voter turnout can be a warning sign of the peoples’ political disengagement or intentional disenfranchisement, along with a feeling that neither candidate nor party will be effective in changing public policy.  

While healthy, “established” democracies usually have higher voter turnout than other nations, voter turnout in the U.S. tends to lower than in many similarly established democracies. In recent U.S. national elections, about 60% of the voting-eligible population has voted during presidential election years, and about 40% has voted during midterm elections. Turnout in state and local, and in odd year, primary elections is usually far lower. The nearly 50% turnout in the 2018 midterm elections was the highest midterm voter turnout ever recorded. 

Especially in presidential and ​mid-term congressional elections, many non-voters claim that the process of voting simply takes too long due to long lines at the polls. However, after doing a detailed, nationwide study of polling places on Election Day 2012, the Government GAO found otherwise.

Long Waits to Vote Were Rare

Based on its survey of local voting jurisdictions, the GAO’s report estimates that from 78% to 83% of the jurisdictions did not collect voter wait time data, because they had never experienced wait time issues and did not have long wait times on Election Day 2012.

Specifically, the GAO estimated that 78% of local jurisdictions nationwide had no polling places with wait times election officials considered to be “too long,” and only 22% of jurisdictions reported wait times officials considered too long at only a few scattered polling places on Election Day 2012.

How long is ‘too long?’

“Too long” is in the eye of the waiter. Some people will stand on line for two days to buy the latest, greatest cell phone or concert tickets. But the same people will not wait 10 minutes for a table in a restaurant. So how long will people wait to choose their elected leaders?

Election officials varied in their opinions of the length of time they considered as “too long” to vote. Some said 10 minutes, while others said 30 minutes was too long. “Because there is no comprehensive set of data on wait times across jurisdictions nationwide, GAO relied on election officials in the jurisdictions it surveyed to estimate wait times based on their perspectives and any data or information they collected on voter wait times,” wrote the GAO in its report.

Causes of Voting Delays

As a result of its survey of local election jurisdictions on Election Day 2012, the GAO identified nine common factors that affected voter wait times.

  • Opportunities to vote before Election Day;
  • Type of poll books (lists of registered voters) used;
  • Methods of determining voter eligibility;
  • Characteristics of ballots used;
  • Amount and type of voting equipment;
  • Level of voter education and outreach efforts;
  • Number and training of poll workers; and
  • Availability and allocation of voting resources.

The GAO stated, “These factors can affect voter wait times at different stages in the voting process on Election Day:

  1. Arrival
  2. Check-in, and
  3. Marking and submitting the ballot.”

For its survey, the GAO interviewed officials of 5 local election jurisdictions that had previously experienced long voter wait times and had taken “targeted approaches” to address their specific problems.

In 2 of the jurisdictions, long ballots were the primary cause of long wait times. In 1 of those 2 jurisdictions, state constitutional amendments made up five of its eight-page ballot. State law required the entire amendment to be printed on the ballot. Since the 2012 election, the state has enacted a law placing word limits on constitutional amendments. Similar ballot-length problems plague states that allow citizen-lawmaking through ballot initiatives. In another jurisdiction with ballots of similar or longer ballot length, no long wait times were reported, noted the GAO report.

The authority to regulate and conduct elections is not granted by the U.S. Constitution and is shared by federal, state, and local officials. However, as the GAO states, responsibility for conducting federal elections primarily resides with about 10,500 local election jurisdictions.