Almost 21,000 Election Day polling places have been eliminated heading into the 2020 U.S. election, a drastic dip in voting locations driven by a heavy shift to mail voting, coronavirus-related consolidations, cost-cutting measures, and voter suppression.
VICE News obtained data from all 50 states and Washington, D.C., on the number of physical polling locations they will have in place on November 3, and compared their numbers to how many sites they had in 2016 and 2012.
What emerged was a patchwork of cuts large and small across the country. Many states made these cuts as they were expanding mail voting — 23 states made it easier to vote by mail this year because of COVID. But the overall trend is clear: Most states are eliminating polling locations, a trend that could disproportionately impact poor, young and non-white voters.
Of the 45 states that weren’t using mail voting exclusively before the 2020 election, 40 of them have decreased the number of Election Day voting locations from 2016. Of those 40 states who made cuts, 35 are not sending mail ballots to everyone, and 19 require many voters to take it upon themselves to apply for a mail ballot application. The five states that refused to allow mail voting for most people all cut voting sites, including the emerging swing state of Texas.
The net result of all of these changes: A 20% dip in polling places across the country from 2016, and a 22% drop since 2012. And while the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated this trend, it didn’t create it: There were more than 3,000 fewer polling locations in 2016 than in 2012.
“Closing this many polling places at such a vast scale really does affect voters. Fewer polling places can lead to longer lines, longer wait times, and hurt people, particularly people who are disabled or don’t drive and rely on public transportation,” said Leigh Chapman, the voting rights program director at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
Every state has its own election rules and approaches — and even within states there can be huge disparities between counties. And the impact in a year where people are flocking to vote early by mail and in person in unprecedented numbers won’t be clear until Election Day.
Recent polling shows that a majority of Americans plan to vote before Election Day, up from 41% who did in 2016 and 25% in 2012. Almost 40 million people had already voted early by mail or in person in the U.S. as of Oct. 21, with almost two weeks to go before Election Day — more than two-thirds of the 57.2 million votes cast before Election Day in 2016. If the pace keeps up, 2020 will smash early-voting records, taking the pressure off Election Day in many states because so many people will have already voted. Long early-voting lines in some locations in states like Texas and Georgia could end up taking the pressure off on Election Day, or they could be a sign of coming problems.
President Trump’s frontal assault on mail voting and attacks on the U.S. Post Office also have had a big impact. It’s led Republicans and some Democrats not to trust mail voting and pushing them toward in-person voting, both early and on Election Day. Republicans are voting by mail in much lower numbers than Democrats are, which could, ironically, create the kind of massive logjams in more GOP-leaning communities this year that traditionally have been more common in urban and suburban Democratic-leaning communities.
A handful of states, including California and New Jersey, have drastically revamped how they conduct elections, pivoting heavily to mail voting and slashing polling places to reallocate resources to handle mail ballots. These states represent most of those who made the deepest cuts. Many, but not all, of these shifts have been in response to the coronavirus. In those states, it will be easier for many people to vote — but not everyone.
But other states reduced Election Day polling sites without doing much else to make voting easier in spite of the coronavirus pandemic, like Texas and Georgia. Some of these cuts came for safety — removing polling stations from nursing homes, for instance — while others were made for budget reasons, or seemingly aimed at suppressing turnout.
The pattern of polling-place closures is widespread: More than half of the 50 states have eliminated at least 10% of their voting sites from 2016 to 2020.
Five states’ cuts make up three-quarters of the total number of polling places eliminated in the U.S. from 2016 to 2020. California alone accounts for almost half of national polling location cuts. Kentucky, Maryland, New Jersey, and Ohio combine to account for about a quarter of the cuts in terms of raw numbers of polling locations.
Six states have eliminated at least half of their polling places for the 2020 election: California, Kentucky, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, and North Dakota.
While the number and location of Election Day voting sites is just one of many measures of voter accessibility, it’s an often-overlooked factor compared to high-profile partisan fights like mail voting rules, whether and how long states will allow early in-person voting, and voter identification laws.
But closing poll locations can have major real-world impacts on voters.
Shuttering polling sites can lead to voter confusion, as people head to the wrong place to vote out of habit or because they haven’t heard their old polling place has been closed or moved. It can also create undue logistical challenges, especially for people who don’t have their own cars, hourly workers who can’t afford to take time off to vote, and parents and others who can’t afford to wait in long lines at polling locations.
In the time of COVID, it’s not as safe to ride a bus across town to a new voting site as it would be to walk to the local school where voting used to occur. The people most likely to be impacted by this are disproportionately Black and Hispanic people, who statistically are less likely to have access to a car.
“Having polling locations farther away or that are more crowded creates a hardship for many workers, particularly blue-collar and hourly workers,” NAACP President Derrick Johnson told VICE News.
Johnson said even states that have expanded mail voting access while cutting Election Day polling sites are taking a gamble that could hurt some voters.
“This level of doubt this late in the process is concerning. There are so many new variables on top of old problems. We’re talking about how voting will be carried out in the midst of a pandemic. We just don’t know [how it will work out].”
This data set was gathered by reaching out — often multiple times — to every state’s board of elections or secretary of state’s office in the country. In cases where they wouldn’t or couldn’t provide the data, VICE News collected it county-by-county. These numbers were collected in late September through mid-October and may shift a bit by Election Day — some states hadn’t finalized their polling locations when contacted by VICE News, and Pennsylvania’s numbers are an initial estimate; the state didn’t plan on getting a final count until a week before the election.
Most of the states that have made the deepest cuts in physical sites have also moved to dramatically expand mail voting, with many of them also shifting to vote centers, where anyone from a county can go and vote at any of the sites open in the area. But it’s unclear whether these improvements will make up for the cuts they’ve made to in-person voting.
Some states that made these pivots in past years saw huge Election Day lines as a result, as local officials underestimated in-person Election Day turnout. Nevada, for instance, had hours-long lines after switching to vote centers in 2018. And this year’s chaotic, COVID-impacted primary season showed that just pivoting to mail and shuttering most poll locations doesn’t work, with massive lines in states like Georgia that expanded mail voting access during their primaries while cutting polling places. Simply put, even the best-intentioned states that are cutting voting locations are trying something new and different, and it’s unclear how well it will work on Election Day.
“Putting all your eggs in one basket seems like a very bad idea—and it’s avoidable. We’ve seen what happened in the primaries,” said Sylvia Albert, the national director of voting and elections at the good-government organization Common Cause.
Why Election Day polling places matter
Black and Hispanic voters have long faced steeper obstacles to vote than white voters — and not just in states with an obvious history of voter suppression. A recent study from the Brennan Center for Justice found that in the 2018 midterms, Latinos voting in person on Election Day waited in line almost 46% longer on average than white voters, and Black voters waited 45 percent longer. Fully 7% of all Black voters and 6.6% of Hispanics waited at least a half hour to vote, compared to just 4.1% of white voters. Year after year, some communities see voter lines stretch for multiple hours. This happened with regularity in the 2020 primaries and has already begun to happen during early voting this fall.
There are plenty of reasons it’s often harder for Black and Hispanic people to vote in person. Intentional voter suppression by white leaders is one driver. Another big factor: Black and Hispanic people are more likely to live in poor communities that underinvest in election resources, staff, and technology. Regardless of race, more densely populated communities tend to have longer voting lines — and Black and Hispanic people are more likely to live in urban areas.
Mail voting can help alleviate some of this. But another big factor is simply how difficult it is to vote in person if you don’t own a car — a major reason why shuttering voting sites is a big problem, even in states that are rapidly expanding mail voting.
A recent in-depth study from professors at Harvard University and Boston University of Michigan voters found that while 66% of voters with access to a car voted in the 2018 general election, just 36% of voters without access to a car voted. The study also found that the further away the poll location was from a citizen’s home, the less likely they were to vote.
That had a disproportionate impact on Black voters. While only 8% percent of white registered voters didn’t have access to transportation, more than a quarter of Black registered voters didn’t have a car in their household.
Harvard professor Justin de Benedictis-Kessner, one of that paper’s coauthors, told VICE News that the voting site cuts found in our study would make it even harder for this group to vote. And he warned that those cuts in the middle of a global pandemic are even more problematic. People who normally might be willing to spend an hour on the bus to get to their voting site may not feel safe doing so this election.
“If there are fewer polling place locations, the average distance for the average voter is going to be longer,” he said. “And [COVID] could exacerbate some of the effects we’re seeing—not only could it take a long time but they might feel unsafe getting there.”
And while expanding mail voting is a very positive development, polls show that Black and Hispanic voters have a lot less trust in mail voting than others—especially when Black and Hispanic Democrats are compared to white Democrats.
A recent Pew Research survey found that 33% of people planned to vote on Election Day — the group that these poll closures could impact — while 39% of Americans planned to vote by mail in November, and 21% planned to vote early in person. Fully 56% of white voters who planned to back Joe Biden said they planned to vote by mail, or already had. But only 35% of all Black voters and 40% of all Hispanic voters planned to vote by mail.
That’s not surprising given the long history of voter suppression against voters of color in the U.S. And to this day, Black voters’ mail ballots are rejected at higher rates than white voters’ because of errors on the ballots.
While Trump voters have been dissuaded from mail voting by his false attacks on the integrity of mail voting, some Democrats have been dissuaded because of worries that their mail ballots won’t be counted—especially in light of U.S. Post Office slowdowns caused by the Trump-appointed postmaster general.
“There has been a concerted effort to discredit vote by mail, a concerted effort to undermine and politicize the Post Office, and when you take historic usage rates, where people of color were less likely in most states to use vote by mail, and combine that with extra worry that the mail service was going to be unreliable, of course you’re going to have fewer people voting by mail,” said Myrna Pérez, the director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s voting rights and elections program.
Even in states that have dramatically expanded mail voting, cuts to in-person Election Day voting sites could lead to disenfranchised voters — and could disproportionately impact poor and nonwhite voters as well as younger voters who are less likely to live at the same address they did in the last election.
“You cannot fault voters for being hesitant about vote-by-mail. Obviously I think it’s a great option, but that’s what it is — an option. Voters should be able to choose whichever way they want to vote,” said Albert, Common Cause’s national director of voting and elections.
States making it harder to voting harder in a pandemic
Some states have made deep cuts to Election Day voting sites but did little to nothing to making mail voting easier to access.
The most glaring example — and the one that alarms voting rights experts the most — is Maryland.
The state has moved to eliminate 80% of its polling places, the highest proportion in the country. That includes a 90% cut in heavily Black Baltimore — the city has gone from 296 polling places in 2016 to just 24 this election. There will be almost 19,000 potential voters for every polling place in the state — almost five times more people per polling place than the national average of 4,200.
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan blocked a proposal to send every registered voter a ballot, reversing himself after allowing ballots to be sent out to everyone during the primary. He did approve a plan to send an absentee ballot application to every voter, which could take off a bit of pressure from Election Day. The state has added some mail voting drop boxes as well, retained eight days of early voting, and many areas have switched to vote centers. The state is opening some big voting centers at Camden Yards, where the Baltimore Orioles play, and FedEx Field in Prince George’s County, where the Washington Football Team plays.
But experts fear this won’t be nearly enough to avoid catastrophe. Parts of Maryland have historically had hours-long voting lines on Election Day. Some voters were forced to wait in line until after midnight during this summer’s primary. This plan could well make things significantly worse.
“We’re preparing for chaos, unfortunately,” said Joanne Antoine, executive director of Common Cause Maryland.
North Dakota is another state that’s made deep cuts without making it much easier to vote: It has eliminated almost 60% of its Election Day in-person voting locations. The state has long allowed mail voting. But voters still have to request a mail vote application, fill it out and send it back, then complete and return their actual ballot — a multi-step process that is onerous especially for new voters. Only about one-third of North Dakotans voted by mail in 2018. The state’s substantial Native American population has often faced obstacles to voting, and those who live on reservations often face slower mail and can sometimes lack traditional addresses, complicating how they can receive ballots.
“Considering the access problems that Native groups have already, closing polling locations in North Dakota is another way to limit access,” said Albert.
Kentucky is another state that’s made deep cuts: The state eliminated two-thirds of its Election Day polling locations.
That move came as part of a bipartisan deal in response to the coronavirus. Kentucky never allowed early voting for most people before this year. But for this election, Kentuckians have 18 days to vote early in person — every day except Sunday from Oct. 13 through Election Day. The state is also allowing people to vote by mail without an excuse this year.
Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams (R) made clear when the new plan was announced that early in-person and mail voting would need to take the pressure off Election Day polling locations.
“If you put too much pressure on any one leg of that stool, then the stool snaps,” Adams said in August.
Some states have made some major voting expansion moves while cutting polling places, and the net impact on voters won’t be clear until after the election. But others have simply cut polling places while doing little to expand voters’ access to the ballot box.
Those include a number of states with a history of voter suppression. When the Supreme Court blew a hole in the Voting Rights Act in 2013, many of the states who previously had to abide by its more restrictive rules quickly moved to cut polling places. And the cuts had a disproportionate impact on Black and Hispanic voters.
That includes Georgia, which already had early in-person voting and voting by mail. The state made voting easier by sending ballot applications to every registered voter in the primary, but Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger reversed himself and refused to send out those applications for the general election .
The state hasn’t cut as many polling places as some others, but it’s down 7% since 2016 and 12% since 2012. There have already been some huge lines in some places for in-person early voting.
Texas cut 11% of its polling places on balance since 2012. The state is also one of just five not allowing all voters the option of voting by mail in the middle of the pandemic.
Texas added an extra week of early voting, but the cuts to Election Day polling places in some key counties have voting rights experts worried. And the cuts are much deeper in some counties than others, though part of that dip is because many counties have switched to vote centers. Counties that have switched to the vote-center model and cut polling places include Tarrant County, home to diverse Fort Worth, which is down 19%, and heavily Hispanic El Paso County, which is down by about 30%.
The other states that aren’t allowing everyone to vote by mail this election are Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Indiana, which has largely switched to the vote center model, has cut 18% of Election Day voting sites from 2016 to 2020; Louisiana is down 4% from 2016 and 9% from 2012; Mississippi is down 10% from 2016 and 13% since 2012; and Tennessee is down 17% since 2016.
Other states are making less dramatic but still substantial changes to their Election Day plans, and only time will tell whether they work out for voters.
Ohio has eliminated 860 polling places, the fifth highest number in the country, though that represents 20% of all its voting sites — a cut that’s similar to the national average.
Ohio still has enough locations that there are only 3,365 voting-age citizens per polling place, below the national average of 4,390 potential voters per polling place. The state has almost a month of early in-person voting, and for the first time it sent out mail ballot request forms to all registered voters.
Iowa, another swing state, has cut a quarter of its polling places. And while many counties have sent voters absentee ballot request forms, they still need to fill them out and return them to vote by mail. The state offers a month of early in-person voting.
It’s unclear what will happen on Election Day in states like these that have made mail voting a bit easier but have also cut polling places. Polls indicate that many more people plan to vote by mail this election than in the past, and preliminary early-voting numbers show that’s definitely occurring in many states. But while that could benefit overall turnout, the Election Day polling site cuts could make it harder for people who prefer to vote in person.
States betting hard on mail voting
Many of the states with the deepest cuts to Election Day voting places have made major efforts to expand other types of voting.
Five states opted to send mail ballots to all registered voters this election for the first time: California, Nevada, Montana (in most counties), New Jersey, and Vermont, as well as Washington, D.C. Altogether, they’ve cut more than 12,000 polling sites.
California’s cuts are absolutely massive: The state has eliminated more than 10,000 voting sites from its 2016 elections. But the state has also taken every effort to make it easier for people to vote. The Golden State has long had a robust mail voting program, and the coronavirus pandemic convinced state officials that they needed to do everything they could to encourage more people to vote by mail. They decided to send every registered voter a ballot in the mail — essentially making it a vote-by-mail state with additional options.
While California has cut almost three-quarters of its voting sites, leaving around 10,000 voting-age citizens per polling location on average, that’s because most of its large counties have opted to switch to vote centers, where anyone who lives in the county can vote at any of their polling locations, rather than have to go to their specific precinct. People can also register to vote as late as Election Day when they go to vote.
The state also has more than 1,200 drop boxes for voters who don’t trust the mail to return their ballots, offers a full month of early in-person voting for those who want to vote in person, and will count all ballots postmarked by Election Day even if they come in days later in the mail. The result has been a surge in early ballot returns much higher than in previous years — 1.5 million were returned within two weeks of being sent out, ten times the number at the same date in 2016 — which will likely take pressure off Election Day voting.
The new model was crafted with heavy input from voting rights and civil rights groups, local community leaders, and local officials, and could well boost voter access and turnout overall. But it does have some risks.
Common Cause California Executive Director Jonathan Mehta Stein, who helped negotiate the plan, told VICE News that he hoped the combination of expanded voting options would help tamp down voting lines on Election Day and before, “But we can’t be certain of that” until the election happens.
The state also has one of the highest rates in the country of people moving, given its sky-high real estate prices and a large proportion of renters to homeowners, a large homeless population, and wildfires that have displaced more than 200,000. Many people will have an easier time voting this election. But for those who’ve moved and haven’t updated their address, or those who don’t have a home address, the new plan could make it harder to vote — especially if they don’t have transportation to the polls.
“We’re concerned about voters who are displaced by the COVID pandemic and voters who are displaced because of the wildfires. There are a lots of people who’ve been pushed out of their homes in 2020,” said Stein.
Nevada and New Jersey, two other states that made deep cuts to Election Day polling sites, also sent ballots to all registered voters for the first time this year, as did most Montana counties. Nevada will also have vote centers and three weeks of extended early voting, as it has in the past, while Montana and New Jersey have essentially become mail-only states this election.
Arizona, a crucial swing state, has made a similar shift, and will have barely half the number of Election Day voting sites it had in 2012.
But the state has long allowed mail voting. Roughly 80% of Arizonans voted by mail the last two general elections, and 88% of Arizonans cast their ballots by mail during the state’s August primary.
Many Arizona counties have also switched to vote centers rather than precincts, so anyone in the county can vote at the most convenient sites. While the state doesn’t send every registered voter a ballot, it does send everyone an application, and many people have opted to become permanent early voters, where they get a ballot automatically sent to them. That could make it less consequential that they’re cutting almost 40% of their Election Day voting sites. But the state has a rapidly growing population, so new voters might not find it so convenient to use the system. And the state’s large Native American population faces unique challenges in voting by mail.
Video produced by Dan Ming and Kathleen Caulderwood, and edited by Danny Card. Data illustrations by Corin Trachtman.