Why Minorities Usually Wait Longer to Vote in Elections

PHOTO: Lines of voters wait in the rain to cast their ballots as the polls open November 6, 2012 in St. Petersburg, Florida.Edward Linsmier/Getty Images
Lines of voters wait in the rain to cast their ballots as the polls open November 6, 2012 in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Racial minorities waited a lot longer than whites to vote last November.

Lines weren't a big issue for most voters, according to a new study from Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Charles Stewart III, but they were a huge issue for some - and those people tended to be African-American or Hispanic and live in urban areas.

African Americans waited an average of 23 minutes to vote while Hispanics waited 19 minutes and whites just 12 minutes. Those numbers are startling when you factor in that about two-thirds of all voters waited less than 10 minutes to cast their ballots. That means some people, albeit a small percentage, waited a very long time.

Stewart found that just three percent of voters waited more than an hour, with the average wait time at about 110 minutes. The author of the post you're reading waited nearly three hours in the Columbia Heights neighborhood in Washington, D.C.

Stewart suggests that the time differences "are due to factors associated with where minority voters live, rather than with minority voters as individuals." In other words, poll workers weren't generally discriminating against minority voters on purpose (whites in minority neighborhoods waited just as long as minorities in those neighborhoods). It's just that those minorities may just be more likely to live in areas with outdated voting machines or slow check-in processes.

Density also predictably played a role. People in heavily populated urban areas waited longer in general than more rural places.

Perhaps more concerning is the fact that this isn't a new problem and we don't know exactly how to fix it.

Stewart found that places with long lines -- he names Florida as the worst offender, with wait times averaging nearly 40 minutes -- in 2012 were also the places with long lines in 2008.

The cause of long lines, Stewart writes, "remains unknown."

He said theories have "barely made a dent in the actual practice of election administration," and that anecdotal news accounts present anomalies not the entire picture.

While President Barack Obama has launched a commission designed to improve the voting experience, a number of states have proposed limits to early voting in 2013 that voting rights activists say will create even longer lines and deter people, especially minorities who are less likely to have flexible work schedules and transportation options, from casting ballots.

The bipartisan commission is expected to release a report with suggestions later this year.

The study, Waiting to Vote in 2012, will be published in the Journal of Law and Politics.