Last week the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) hosted an event to celebrate the four years since the Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA) issued its report with recommendations to improve the experience of American voters. (You can view videos of the event’s sessions here.) The two major issues addressed in panels were long lines at the polls and the modernization of voter registration rolls—two of the primary concerns outlined in the PCEA’s report.
On the issue of long lines, the event provided the opportunity to release a report on Improving the Voter Experience, which provided results about a major project the BPC and the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project (VTP) collaborated on to monitor polling place wait times in 2016. That report is based largely on data provided by 88 counties from 11 states that participated in the line-length program. These counties represented 15.6 million registered voters, 11.1 votes cast (8% of nationwide turnout), and 4,006 precincts. This is the largest study ever conducted of how long voters wait to cast their ballots.
The report is full of facts that came from an analysis of all the data that was gathered by the 88 jurisdictions, and I encourage you to read the full document. Here are some of the most important findings in brief:
- Most voters wait very little, if at all, to vote. Consistent with past survey research that’s been done on the subject, the modal (most-common) line length recorded in the project was zero. Just over 2/3 of precincts had average wait times of less than 10 minutes.
- The longest lines, and wait times, are first thing in the morning. Almost every precinct in the study had people lined up waiting to vote when the polls opened on Election Day. (As an aside, the fact that virtually every polling place has a line when the polls open suggests how easy it is for a news photographer to get a picture of a long line early on Election Day, and how meaningless these pictures are as evidence of problems.) The average precinct had between 30 and 45 minutes’ worth of voters at the door when polls opened. This is the most significant source of wait times, both when things go well and when things go poorly. While we saw evidence of surges in turnout at other times of the day, such as around noon and after work, those surges were minor ripples compared to the tsunami of voters at the start of the day.
- If long lines are resolved after two hours, a precinct is highly unlikely to experience long waits the rest of the day. If the morning rush isn’t cleared up in three hours, count on lines throughout the day. The findings of the study revealed the critical nature of managing wait times at the opening of the polls. The line at the start of the day isn’t an issue so much as the line at the end of the first hour. If a polling station’s line hasn’t been cut (at least) in half after the first hour, it will be difficult to make progress on wait times for the rest of the day. I have talked to election officials who, after seeing the data from the project, have said they will use new resources they get for staffing to increase the number of staff who work in the morning. (These are officials who live in states where poll workers are allowed to work in shifts.)
The report also brings to mind several points about process.
- We can improve election administration performance if we put our minds to it. President Obama was inspired to create the PCEA because of press reports of long waits to vote — some up to six hours long — in 2012. In the PCEA’s report, the commission set a benchmark that no voter should have to wait more than 30 minutes to cast a ballot. The survey research reveals that great progress was made toward hitting that benchmark in 2016. According to responses to the Survey of the Performance of American Elections, in 2012, 13% of in-person voters waited more than 30 minutes to vote. In 2016, that was reduced to 9%. The most dramatic improvements occurred in the states that had the longest wait times in 2012. The percentage of voters who waited more than 30 minutes fell from 39% to 4% in Florida, from 39% to 17% in D.C., and from 28% to 10% in Virginia. We still have more work to do to make the commission’s benchmark a reality: more than 5% of voters waited over 30 minutes in 25 states in 2016. Still, the improvement in 2016 in the most troubling states reveals that election officials can make great strides in improving polling place management if they put their minds to it. (As an aside, I think the wait-time success story bodes well for handling the current cybersecurity concerns, but only if officials put the same effort into addressing the issue.)
- If you don’t measure it, you can’t manage it. A barrier to managing polling place wait times before 2012 was the lack of detailed knowledge about how long voters waited to cast a ballot. Survey research was valuable to help give the public and policymakers an idea about where the longest wait times were happening, but it didn’t provide “news you can use” to improve wait times. After all, if we learn that wait times are much shorter in Vermont than in Florida, it doesn’t help if I tell you to move to Vermont if you want to vote more quickly in the future. To help election officials pinpoint precisely where and when long wait times emerge, they need to measure wait times directly. This means counting the number of voters waiting in line on a regular basis, gathering data about how many people arrived to vote during a given time, and then using Little’s Law to calculate what the wait times were.
- You can measure it, and you can manage it. The wait time project highlighted in the Improving Voter Experience report offers a simple, high-impact way for election officials to gather the data they need to find out when and where they long wait times are happening. Election officials can go to this webpage and answer the call to participate in the program for 2018.
Finally, this report, which highlights data-gathering, reminds us that there are tools available to help local officials plan ahead of time to make sure they have enough staff, poll books, voting booths, etc. to handle the number of voters who walk through the doors. The VTP continues to host, at the PCEA’s invitation, a set of online tools to aid in that management. The Center for Technology and Civic Life’s Election Toolkit also contains helpful tools. For those interested in a deeper dive into the science behind line management as applied to elections, I wrote the report Managing Polling Place Resources a couple of years ago to help translate queuing theory to the polling place.