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. 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 is a warning sign of people's lack of faith in the election system, doubt about the impact of their own votes, general disengagement, and being underinformed.

While healthy, “established” democracies usually have higher voter turnout than other nations, voter turnout in the U.S. tends to be lower than in many similarly established democracies. Between 2000 and 2016, an average of 55% of the voting-age population voted in presidential elections. Turnout in midterm elections is usually far lower, with an average of just 43% of eligible voters showing up at the polls between 2002 and 2018. The 53% turnout in the 2018 midterm elections was the highest midterm voter turnout in four decades.

Especially in presidential and ​midterm congressional elections, many nonvoters 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 GAO came to a different conclusion.

Long Waits to Vote Were Rare

Based on its survey of local voting jurisdictions, the GAO’s report estimates that between 78% and 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 subjective. Some people will stand in line for two days to buy the latest, greatest cellphone or concert tickets. But the same people will not wait 10 minutes for a table in a restaurant. 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 eight 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
  • Availability and allocation of voting resources

According to the GAO's findings, affecting voter wait times on Election Day can be:

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

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

In two of the jurisdictions, long ballots were the primary cause of long wait times. In one of those two jurisdictions, state constitutional amendments made up five pages 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, the GAO found that no long wait times were reported.

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.

View Article Sources
  1. Amandi, Fernand, et al. Knight Foundation, 2020, pp. 1–2, The Untold Story of American Non-Voters.

  2. Voter Turnout in Presidential Elections.” The American Presidency Project, UC Santa Barbara.

  3. Voter turnout rates among selected age groups in U.S. midterm elections from 1966 to 2018.” Statista, Oct. 2019. 

  4. Misra, Jordan. “Behind the 2018 U.S. Midterm Election Turnout.” The United States Census Bureau, U.S. Department of Commerce, 23 Apr. 2019.