At tonight’s State of the Union address, Michelle Obama will be joined by 102-year-old Desiline Victor, who, like many in Florida and elsewhere, waited hours to vote on Election Day. “By the way,” Obama said in his election speech. “We have to fix that.” But how to fix it remains unclear. Though new research on states’ performance in the November election reveals long lines kept thousands from voting, there’s still much we don’t know about what would best speed up the process. Victor’s home state of Florida had the longest average wait timeof any state at 45 minutes. Victor waited for three hours. Other Floridians reported standing in line for up to 7 hours. Not every voter had Victor’s stamina: Professor Theodore Allen at Ohio State University estimated that long lines in Florida deterred at least 201,000 people, using a formula based on voter turnout data and poll closing time. The number only includes people discouraged by the wait at their specific polling site, and not those who stayed home due to “the general inconvenience of election day.” The real number, Allen says, is likely much higher. One study also showed that black and Hispanic voters nationwide waited longer on average than white voters.
Some legislators are already proposing changes. Last week, Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner released a set of recommended election reforms that included allowing counties to expand early voting to 14 days. The proposal would reverse Governor Rick Scott’s decision to reduce early voting in the last election.
Another reason behind Florida’s long lines was the state’s incredibly long ballot, which listed the full text of eleven, wordy constitutional amendments. Detzner has proposed limiting constitutional amendments to 75 words, which could also save counties money. The 2012 election in Florida’s St. Lucie County was roughly twice as expensive as 2008, a hike the county election supervisor blamed on printing, mailing and processing longer ballots.
Researchers say simply expanding voting hours and shortening ballots isn’t enough. The U.S. needs to overhaul how they decide to allocate resources on Election Day. Many counties determine how many voting machines and poll workers to have in a district based solely on the number of expected voters. Others don’t even do that, says Lawrence Norden, Deputy Director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.
But the amount of time it can take to fill out a ballot can vary enormously by county or locale, because both ballots and machines can be different.