September 20, 2020

Waiting to Vote

One of the underreported stories from last week’s election was the effect of long waiting lines at polling places. Many polling places in Ohio, for example, had lines of three hours or more. Though many voters waited, determined to cast their votes, quite a few must have been driven away. Not everybody has three hours to spend at the polling place.

A story in the Boston Phoenix, by David S. Bernstein, points to significant reductions in the number of polling places in some parts of Ohio, compared to the 2000 election. According to the article, polling places were consolidated on the theory that voters would cast their votes much more quickly on the touch-screen systems that were to be used in this year’s election. But then many counties put aside the touchscreens due to security concerns, and used the old punch-card system instead. The result is the same voting system as before, but with many fewer polling stations. Add in a higher than usual turnout and long lines result.

How did this affect the election results? Some data from the article:

Of Ohio’s 88 counties, 20 suffered a significant reduction — shutting at least 20 percent (or at least 30) of their precincts. Most of those counties have Republicans serving as Board of Elections director, including the four biggest: Cuyahoga, Montgomery, Summit, and Lucas.

Those 20 counties went heavily to Gore in 2000, 53 to 42 percent. The other 68 counties, which underwent little-to-no precinct consolidation, went exactly the opposite way in 2000: 53 to 42 percent to Bush.

In the 68 counties that kept their precinct count at or near 2000 levels, Kerry benefited more than Bush from the high turnout, getting 24 percent more votes than Gore did in 2000, while Bush increased his vote total by only 17 percent.

But in the 20 squeezed counties, the opposite happened. Bush increased his vote total by 22 percent, and Kerry won just 19 percent more than Gore in 2000.

This suggests that the long lines may have driven away more Kerry voters than Bush voters. But it’s only a suggestion at this point, not a solid inference; and in any case the effect doesn’t look big enough to call Bush’s victory into question.

It would be great to see a carefully, methodologically sound study of this issue.


  1. aNonMooseCowherd says:

    I saw one voter spend a good ten minutes at the touch-screen machine. I wonder if the easy-to-use technology encourages some people to wait until they’re actually at the machine to decide how to vote.

  2. I’m amazed by the reports that it can take up to three hours to vote. Is it common for the voting process to take more than, say, half an hour?

    I’ve only ever voted in Australia, and I don’t think I’ve ever spent more than 5 minutes waiting in a queue. (The queues can be quite long, but they move quickly.) Voting is compulsory here, so perhaps the number of voters is somewhat more predictable, but I can’t imagine it makes this much difference. Oh, we also vote on Saturdays, which perhaps makes for a somewhat more steady flow over the day. (No peaks before and after work.)