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Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg December 22, 2016

Wait times at the polls improve in 2016, but battle isn't over

Tweets about illegal voting and hacked voting machines may grab headlines, but the average voter is arguably more disrupted by a breakdown in the boring mechanics of running the polls.

After long lines marred the 2012 election, President Barack Obama reassured voters that it would get better during his acceptance speech:

"I want to thank every American who participated in this election. Whether you voted for the very first time or waited in line for a very long time -- by the way, we have to fix that. … You made your voice heard, and you made a difference," he said.

Obama created the Presidential Commission on Election Administration in 2013 by executive order, giving it the job of suggesting ways to make sure "voters have the opportunity to cast their ballots without undue delay."

The commission delivered a report chock-full of practical ideas, such as smoothing out the voter checklist task and using early voting to take the pressure off polls on Election Day. It provided local officials a waiting time simulator so they could figure out where to deploy limited resources.

How well did it work?

On average, fairly well.

Charles Stewart, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, oversees one of the best tools around for measuring how well elections run, the Survey of the Performance of American Elections.

"Looking at state-by-state comparisons, average lines were down significantly in 2016 compared to both 2012 and 2008," Stewart said.

The president's commission uses a 30-minute wait as a benchmark. By that standard, the fraction of people who had to put up with that or worse fell by about a third between 2012 and 2016. This table comes from a presentation Stewart gave in December.





Did not wait at all




Waits over 30 min.





The states that had the most improvement were Florida, South Carolina, Maryland, Virginia, Michigan, Louisiana and the District of Columbia. These were the same states with the longest average wait times in 2012.

Stewart said the commission's guidance helped, but at the end of the day, the real credit goes to the state and local officials who actually run elections. And he cautions against declaring victory too early.

"It's still the case that a significant number of voters in these states are still waiting longer than the 30 minutes set by the Presidential Commission on Elections Administration," Stewart said. "The battle is not over, but the battle is going very well."

Stewart also noted that African-American voters have longer waits than white voters. While that disparity fell since 2012, it still remains. The average African-American voter waited 16 minutes compared to 10 minutes for the average white voter

The country has made progress, but the problem Obama outlined isn't fixed. We rate this as a Compromise.

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Molly Moorhead
By Molly Moorhead March 29, 2013

Commission formed to study fixes

President Barack Obama put voting reform front and center, by mentioning it at the beginning of his acceptance speech on Nov. 7, 2012.

"Tonight, in this election, you, the American people, reminded us that while our road has been hard, while our journey has been long, we have picked ourselves up, we have fought our way back, and we know in our hearts that for the United States of America, the best is yet to come.  

"I want to thank every American who participated in this election. Whether you voted for the very first time or waited in line for a very long time -- by the way, we have to fix that. … You made your voice heard, and you made a difference,” he said.

Almost five months into his second term, Obama announced the formation of a Presidential Commission on Election Administration.

"The commission shall identify best practices and otherwise make recommendations to promote the efficient administration of elections in order to ensure that all eligible voters have the opportunity to cast their ballots without undue delay, and to improve the experience of voters facing other obstacles in casting their ballots, such as members of the military, overseas voters, voters with disabilities, and voters with limited English proficiency,” his March 28, 2013, executive order said.

The commission"s two co-chairs are the lawyers for Obama and rival Mitt Romney in the 2012 election: Ben Ginsburg of the Romney campaign and Ben Bauer, Obama"s campaign lawyer. The panel will have up to nine members appointed by Obama. He is asking for a report in six months on issues including management and number of polling places, training and number of poll workers, voting machine technology, provisional and absentee ballot issues and ballot simplicity.

The group"s work is "intended to serve as a best practices guide for state and local election officials to improve voters" experience at the polls under their existing election laws,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.

Already, the panel has its critics -- conservatives who think the effort is a federal overreach into a state issue, and liberals who see voting irregularities as a serious problem that the commission isn"t empowered to fix. Indeed, election rules and procedures are directed primarily by state and local governments.

But the forming of the commission is a first step. We rate this promise In the Works.

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