Patience is a (Relative) Virtue: New Mexico Data Illuminates How Voters FEEL About Wait Times

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[Image courtesy of olivetree]

As the Presidential Commission on Election Administration wraps up its work and gets ready to issue its report later this year, the issue of long lines at the polls is likely to get renewed attention. But a new study from a team led by University of New Mexico political scientist Lonna Atkeson finds that we can’t treat line length solely as an objective measure, given how different voters perceive the impact of waiting. [Hat tip to Pew’s Election Data Dispatches …]

Specifically, Atkeson and her colleagues surveyed voters in Bernalillo County (Albuquerque) and got some interesting results:

[V]oters were asked if they considered their [self-reported] overall wait time to be “no wait time,” a “short” wait time, a “moderate” wait time or a “long” wait time. Voters who indicated “no wait time” averaged about 2 minutes with a range of 0 to 15 minutes. Those indicating a “short” wait time averaged about 8 minutes with a range of 0 to 30 minutes. Voters indicating a “moderate” wait time averaged 28 minutes in line with a range of between 0 and 60. Finally, voters indicating a “long” wait averaged 72 minutes in line with a range of between 30 and 120 minutes. These data suggest that wait times under 30 minutes are acceptable to voters and less than 15 minutes are most preferable. Wait times over 30 minutes are clearly seen as a long wait time and administrators should do all that they can to ensure voters do not wait in line to vote this long. (p.105)

This fact alone is fascinating, but it’s doubly significant because a voter’s perception of wait time affects their views on voting generally. Here’s what the researchers found when they surveyed voters using the county’s vote centers:

We found a relationship between the perception of length of wait time and preference for the former precinct method of voting. Voters who believed they had to wait a moderate time or a long time were much more likely to indicate that they preferred the former method of voting. Over three-quarters (77%) of voters who indicated they waited “no time at all” or “a short time” disagreed with the statement that, “I preferred to vote at my precinct instead of at the voter center,” while a minority of voters (45%) disagreed with the statement when they perceived their wait time as moderate or long. (p. xxi)

I’d be especially interested to see how this data breaks down on demographic factors – i.e., do voters with different race or ethnicity have different tolerances (or lack thereof) for waiting, and what might that mean for balloting in their communities?

The takeaway, I think, is that even as we improve our data collection on the actual length of lines, we need to deepen our understanding of how voters perceive the impact of wait times – getting our heads around the subjective component of wait times as well.

Congratulations and thank you to Lonna and her team for this data – there’s so much more in the report to love – check it out!

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