[Image courtesy of nydailynews]
Earlier this week, MIT’s Charles Stewart released a paper entitled “Waiting to Vote” based on some of the findings of his 2012 Survey of the Performance of American Elections (SPAE). That paper was widely cited in the media for its finding that racial minorities waited longer to vote than did whites – almost twice as long for African-American voters. On their face, those statistics would suggest that the current focus on Election Day lines as a voting rights concern is valid.
But NPR’s Frank James took a longer look at Stewart’s paper and discovered that racial disparities in voting wait times might actually be driven by something else:
Although it would be easy to jump to the conclusion that some form of discrimination might have been at work, Stewart suggests that other factors could be at play, such as geography.
The data, for instance, indicate that waits tended to be longest in cities and shortest in rural ZIP codes as a general rule, though there were exceptions. Stewart writes:
“On the whole, states with the smallest populations had the lowest waits. This is related to the fact that rural areas had the shortest wait times and cities had the longest. Among respondents living in the most rural ZIP codes in the study, the overall national average wait was 5.7 minutes; among those living in the most densely populated ZIP codes, the average wait was 17.7 minutes.”
This conclusion is supported somewhat by the finding that white voters in more densely populations tended to wait longer, too:
In a finding that argued for the difference being more about geography than racial discrimination against particular individuals, Stewart says white voters residing in the “most racially diverse ZIP codes” also waited longer — an average of 13 minutes, compared with seven minutes for whites living in ZIP codes whose populations were 95 percent or more white.
Of course, not every big city or urban area had long waits – Los Angeles County, which is the biggest local jurisdiction in the country (and larger than many states) had reported wait times of just seven minutes; as Stewart observes, “while large, urban areas may be prone to longer lines, they are not destined to have them.”
None of this is to suggest that concerns about racial disparities are unfounded; rather, such concerns need to be put into context of the communities where minority voters stand in line (or not) to cast their ballots. Stewart again:
The strong influence of race — both at the individual and aggregate levels — clearly deserves greater attention from researchers. The preliminary analysis is that the differences are due to factors associated with where minority voters live, rather than with minority voters as individuals.
Of course, none of this analysis – which, to my knowledge, isn’t happening anywhere else – would be possible without the invaluable data gathered by the SPAE. There is so much more data in the Survey that I expect far more research from Stewart and his colleagues in the months to come … and if this latest paper is any indication that research will continue to grow the field’s knowledge of election issues by leaps and bounds.