Voters had shorter average wait times at polls in 2012, study shows

U.S. citizens vote in the presidential election at the Owen Jax Recreation Center November 6, 2012 in Warren, Michigan. 
Bill Pugliano, Getty Images

A Pew Charitable Trust report on states' elections performance found that the majority of states performed better on various voting metrics in 2012 than they did in 2008 including wait times, the number of states with online voter registration and rates of nonvoting due to disability or illness.

The Elections Performance Index found that 21 states and the District of Columbia improved their voting experience at a rate greater than the national average, 19 states saw improvements that were lower than the national average and just 10 states saw their performance decline. Other trends in the study show that high-performing states tended to remain that way, with the same outcome for low-performing states, and gains were seen on most of the index's indicators.

The study tracks 17 metrics, including factors like disability- or illness-related voting problems, rejected and unreturned mail, military and overseas ballots, the availability of online registration, the use and rejection of provisional ballots, registration or absentee ballot problems, turnout, voter registration, voting wait time, and more. Based on scores calculated from those criteria, Pew concluded there was a 4.4 percentage point improvement from 2008.

There were notable gains in six areas including wait times, which decreased by an average of about 3 minutes. There was also an expansion of online voter registration which existed in just two states in 2008, and had grown to 13 states by 2012. Rates of nonvoting due to disability or illness declined by nearly half a percent nationwide, and went down in 27 states and D.C., as did rates of nonvoting due to registration or absentee ballot problems, which decreased nationally by 0.4 percent.

Voter turnout was one of the factors that declined in the four-year period. It was down by 3.4 percentage points, coinciding with the reduced interest in the 2012 election compared to 2008. The number of provisional ballots issued also increased 25 percent, and the percentage of those which were rejected increased by 7.

There are regional variations at play, with the South and Northeast doing the worst on nonvoting due to disability- or illness-related problems. The Midwest also beat the South's turnout rate by 6.2 percentage points. The states with the two highest turnout in 2008 and 2012, Minnesota and Wisconsin, are both in the Midwest, whereas four of the five with the lowest turnout in 2012 - Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas and West Virginia - are in the South.

The study also found that jurisdictions with longer wait times tended to be concentrated in the South - eight of the ten states with the longest wait times in 2012 are in that region. Florida had one of the largest increases in wait times between 2008 and 2012, with a 16.1 minute increase. And while South Carolina and George saw some of the largest decreases in their wait times from 2008 to 2012 - 61.5 minutes to 25.2 minutes and 37.6 to 17.8 minutes, respectively - both remained among the states with the longest wait times.

The long wait times during 2012 in states like Florida prompted President Obama to assemble a Presidential Commission on Election Administration after he was re-elected. The nonpartisan panel delivered its findings earlier this year, recommending that states embrace technology, introduce more flexibility in the voting process, and provide better resources for voters to improve the speed and ease of casting a ballot.

"A lot of the recommendations they've made are common sense, they are ones that can be embraced by all of us," Mr. Obama said when he met with the panel in January. "We intend to publicize this and then to reach out to stakeholders across the country to make sure that we can implement this."

He said that no American should have to wait more than half an hour to vote.

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for