Thoughts on the GAO report on wait times

On Tuesday the Government Accountability Office issued its long-awaited report on wait times at polling places.  I recommend it to all who are interested in this topic.

It is no criticism of the report to say that much of what is contained within it has appeared elsewhere.  The report provides one-stop shopping for those interested in the established research on the topic. More importantly, the independent verification of existing research — in the way that only the meticulous, scrupulously nonpartisan GAO can do it — underscores that certain facts about long waiting times are actually facts.

Most importantly, long lines are not universal.  They are concentrated in particular places — certain states, cities, and areas with large minority populations.

While this is bad news for these particular places, it is good news for doing something about long wait times.  Assuming that the jurisdictions beset by wait times are dedicated to doing something about the problem, the policy response can be focused on a half-dozen states and a relatively limited number of large jurisdictions.  (The flip side of this conclusion is that a scatter-shot approach to long wait times would be a mistake.)

The report contains one new finding that deserves attention.  This finding is contained on the very first page of the report:

Estimates from our nationwide survey of local election jurisdictions indicate that most jurisdictions did not collect data that would allow them to calculate voter wait times at individual polling places on the November 2012 General Election Day.

The GAO research team conducted a survey of local election officials, and asked them about the data they did collect that might help with the management of wait times.  This is what they found:

  • 36% of jurisdictions recorded “observations by election officials of voter wait times at polling places”
  • 31% recorded “the number of votes cast at a precinct during a specific time period”
  • 18% recorded the “length of time polling places remained open after designated closing times”
  • 17% recorded the “time individuals checked into a polling place, recorded by an electronic poll book”
  • 16% recorded “voter complaints about wait times at polling places”

My only criticism of the report is that it credits too readily the utility of these data gathering efforts.  Data such as voter complaints and after-hours closings are better than nothing.  They are indicators that local election officials are taking the problem seriously.  But, they are still blunt instruments for helping to manage problems of polling place congestion.  (Imagine, for instance, if the only statistic a Walmart manager had to judge whether to add another cashier line was how long it took to check-out the last customer when the store closed at night.)

Both queuing theory and the application of line-management techniques in retail and manufacturing teach us that specific types of data are needed to manage lines effectively.  Mostly importantly, we need to know when people arrive (not when they get to the front of the line to check in) and how long it takes to complete all the tasks required of them.  The percentage of election jurisdictions gathering this data is effectively zero.

The report does mention an example of two jurisdictions that have taken it upon themselves to gather the type of data that is needed for the proper management of the polls using standard techniques that are common in the private sector:

In at least one election, 1 of these jurisdictions distributed time-stamped cards to every 15th voter upon arrival. Poll workers then recorded the time on each card at various stages of the voting process and collected the cards when voting was complete. In the other jurisdiction, officials stated that they began measuring wait times from arrival to check-in in the August 2014 election by distributing cards to voters upon arrival and then collecting those cards at the check-in station, where they recorded the time of check-in in an electronic poll book.

This is exactly what needs to be done.  It probably doesn’t need to be done in every election and at every precinct.  But, if managers of the nation’s largest jurisdictions began conducting these exercises in representative precincts on a regular basis, they would reap great dividends.

The final question — not covered in the GAO report — is what to do with this data?  I close with some shameless self-promotion.  Earlier this year, at the request of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, the VTP posted three election management tools that can take input that comes from data-gathering exercises and convert it into output to help guide decisions about the allocation of resources (poll books, privacy booths, etc.) in polling places.  With the support of the Democracy Fund, we are working hard to fine-tune these tools.  If you haven’t checked out the tools, please do.  I am looking forward to sharing the results of our R&D efforts in the coming months.