Can Polls Be Staffed Like Walmart?

One of the things that is scary about the clique of us who study election administration is that we all often have the same thoughts reading things not directly related to elections. An example of this occurred last week, when the Wall Street Journal ran a story about its new fexible shift scheduling. The day the story came out, my former colleague Tova Wang emailed me to ask if I had seen the article and to question why we don’t do this in elections. I would have blogged it when the article came out, but the WJS is subscription-only. However, the story re-ran today in the Salt Lake Tribune, so I am blogging it now.

So what is WalMart doing that could possibly be of interest to election adminstrators? Well,

Early this year, Wal-Mart Stores, using a new computerized scheduling system, will start moving many of its 1.3 million workers from predictable shifts to a system based on the number of customers in stores at any given time. The move promises greater productivity and customer satisfaction for the huge retailer, but could be a major headache for employees.

Instead of having 100 people work from 7 am to 8:40 pm (or something similar), they might have 60 people work from 7-10 but ramp up to having 120 workers from 11 to 2 — the lunch time rush — ramp back down for mid-afternoon, then ramp up for after-school or post-work rushes. So a worker might still work 8 hours, but the shift might be 2 “rush” shifts (10-2 and 4-8).

If you have ever done election observation, many polling places have the same dynamic. Some polls are busy all day, but there are true rush periods, especially the morning of a major election. So the question Tova raised (and I too thought reading the WSJ story) was why don’t election officials do rush staffing of polls as well? You could have a core of, say, three poll workers, but have 3 or 4 additional workers who would work only during high volume periods. This would be cost-effective and provide enhanced staffing when it is needed.

Now, not that WalMart has A LOT of data they are crunching to compute their worker needs. However, all the election official needs is data on how many voters cast ballots by hour, by precinct, for several election cycles to do the same thing. And in precincts with electronic voting or electronic precinct tabulation — such as in precinct based optical scan locations — such data could be garnered from the scanner or card encoders, if these devices have a cloc. (Note, the clock does not have to be set correctly either. You just need to know what hour was the zero hour and you can compute everything from that point.) With such data, basic operations management comes into play and the staffing solution is easy to calculate.