A back-of-the-envelope calculation of Florida’s capacity to handle Election Day turnout without lines

Did Florida have enough capacity to deal with the crush of voters who showed up on Election Day?

In the following posting, I take on this question by performing a back-of-the-envelope calculation of the ratio of turnout on Election Day to the number of voting booths reportedly deployed in the various counties.  The short answer is that it looks like the number of voting booths was sufficient for keeping the lines short in Florida.  The cause of the lines must lie elsewhere.

One very interesting paper helps us to think about this.  Presented at the 2010 Electronic Voting Technology Workshop/Workshop on Trustworthy Elections (EVT/WOTE), a paper by Edelstein and Edelstein (http://static.usenix.org/events/evt/tech/full_papers/Edelstein.pdf) proposed a rule about the minimum number of voting booths (or electronic machines) that would keep long lines from forming.

Edelstein and Edelstein propose something called the “Queue Stop Rule.”  Stated simply, the Queue Stop Rule calculates the number of voters who can be expected to use one voting station in one day without causing lines to form of people waiting for a voting station to open up.  The formula is ½ x TD/TV, where TD equals the number of minutes on Election Day allocated to voting and TV is the average number of minutes it takes a voter to cast a ballot.  In the case of Florida, with a twelve-hour voting time on Election Day, TD is equal to 720.  If it takes an average of 5 minutes to cast a ballot, then no voting booth should handle more than ½ x 720/5 = 72 voters per day.  If it takes 3 minutes to cast a ballot, then a voting booth should be expected to handle 120 voters per day; if 7 minutes, then the voting booth could handle 51 voters.

How many voting booths are in Florida’s counties?  We can find this answer in the Election Administration and Voting Survey, administered by the EAC after each federal election since 2004.  Among the 400+ items in the survey, counties are asked to report how many voting booths — which is the relevant statistic here — they possess.  Counties by-and-large failed to report this in 2008, but there was much less missing data in 2010.

But, we do have to deal with missing data.  In 2010, one county (Duval) did not report how many voting booths it possessed, and 11 others reported they had precisely zero booths.  This takes us down to 55 Florida counties with plausible, non-missing values.  In addition, seven counties reported a number of booths that was so much below that of the remaining counties that we have to rule them out as possibly erroneous.  (These seven counties reported, on net, one voting booth per 1,434 registered voters, compared to 163 voters per voting booth in the remaining counties with usable answers.)

Thus, I focus on 48 Florida counties that seem to have usable data about voting booths.  In these 48 counties, there were 40,783 voting booths serving over 6.6 million registered voters, or one voting booth for every 163 registered voters.  Total turnout in these counties was 4.8 million, which works out to 117 voters per booth.  One-quarter of these voters voted absentee, so if we assume only 3.6 million voters did so in-person, then each voting booth had to accommodate 88 voters.  Finally, approximately half of Florida voters actually voted on Election Day.  Thus, there were only 58 Election Day voters for each voting booth in the state.

How does this compare with the rest of the nation?  Unfortunately, we can’t run an apples-to-apples comparison, because we don’t have comparable turnout data for other states in 2012.  The best we can do is to compare the number of voting booths in counties nationwide with turnout in the 2010 election.  When we do that, we see that the ratio of Election Day voters-to-voting booths for optically scanned ballots is 88:1, significantly above the comparable Florida ratio in 2012 of 58:1.

One last point about south Florida, where the reports of the longest lines originated on Election Day.  Miami-Dade, the largest county in the state, is one of the counties that was excluded in the analysis above because of an implausibly small number of reported voting booths.  In 2010, Miami-Dade reported it had only 416 voting booths in 799 precincts to accommodate an Election Day turnout of over 443,000 voters, for a voter-to-booth ratio of 1,066:1.  In all likelihood, Miami-Dade had nearly 5,600 booths, which would be consistent with 799 precincts.  Thus, Miami-Data most likely had something like an 80:1 radio of voters-to-voting booths.  Broward County did not report how many voting booths it had; Palm Beach County reported having 5,850 booths, which works out to 48 Election Day voters per voting booth.

Assuming the numbers reported in the EAVS are mostly accurate — with the exceptions noted above and accounted for — then the number of voting booths is consistent with most of the state having no lines at the polls on Election Day, so long as the average time to vote is five minutes or less.  If it takes longer on average, then the number of voting booths is insufficient.  There were complaints about the length of the Florida ballot in 2012, but from my own examination of sample ballots posted on various web sites, it is easy to imagine that the average voting time was around five minutes.

This entire exercise could simply be a matter of performing a “garbage-in/garbage-out analysis,” especially if the reports of the number of voting booths are inaccurate.  However, the numbers reported in Florida are consistent with those reported in other states.  Thus, until better data definitely comes along, I will stand by this analysis.  And, if the analysis performed here is accurate, then it is hard to argue that the long lines on Florida on Election Day were caused by an under-supply of voting places, or even the ballots being long.