My fellow VTP Co-directory, Charles Stewart III and some of his research team, released an important study last week: “The 2018 Voting Experience: Polling Place Lines.” Charles and his team continue to find that long lines can be an issue in many states and election jurisdictions. They estimated that in 2018, 5.7% of those who tried to vote on Election Day waited more than 30 minutes to vote, and that this was significantly longer than what they had found in the previous federal midterm election in 2014. Importantly, they also show that wait times are not distributed uniformly across the electorate, with nonwhite and voters in densely populated areas waiting longer to vote than whites and voters in less densely populated areas. Finally, as they note that wait times are strongly correlated with a voter’s overall experience at the polls, long wait times are an issue that needs continued attention in the United States. This is especially true as we are heading into what may be a very closely contested array of state and federal primary and general elections in 2020, where many states and jurisdictions may see much higher turnout than in 2016 and 2018.
In the minds of some, the Presidential Commission on Election Administration was President Obama’s “long lines commission.” While that is an overly narrow description of the commission’s mandate, it identifies the most salient of the motivations behind appointing the commission — reports of voters waiting to vote in the 2012 election. In the words of President Obama, “we have to fix that.”
The commission — rightfully, in my view — didn’t weigh in with diagnosis about what causes all lines, nor did it prescribe a magic bullet to fix them. It did pronounce that a maximum of 30 minutes should be the upper bound of acceptable waiting which, again, is defensible and achievable.
One reason for long lines is that resources are sometimes misallocated to polling places (either on Election Day or in Early Voting). The commission encourages the development of computerized tools to help local jurisdictions figure out how many resources — people, voting machines, poll books, etc. — need to be allocated to each voting location. The encouragement is so strong that a link to a collection of such tools appears on the Commission’s web site, right next to the link one clicks on to download its final report. (In addition, a little down the page, the Commission’s web site has a link to the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology-maintained site that will host these tools in perpetuity, hopefully adding more as time goes by.)
I encourage people to give the tools a look. They include resource calculators developed by MIT Sloan School Professor Steve Graves, election geek Aaron Strauss, and software developer Mark Pelczarski, and various online voter registration tools developed by Rock the Vote. The tools range from efforts that have already proven themselves in past elections (the Pelczarski and RtV tools) to more notional examples that I trust will continue to develop in the coming months.
Here is the most important part of the online tool kit, in my view: Most local election officials are flying blind, when it comes to knowing how many voting machines (and similar devices) they should have in order to serve their communities well, and how to spread those devices among their precincts. They will tell you, as they have told me, that they have rules they follow, based on state law and past elections. But, as far as I can tell, the reigning rules of thumb about resource allocation are unrelated to machine performance.
Most election directors in large jurisdictions, where lines were the biggest problem, could not tell you (within a reasonable degree of certainty) how many voting machines and poll books they would need to meet the commission’s 30-minute standard, because they generally don’t have access to engineering-based tools to compute the right answer.
To some degree, these tools do exist, and the online tool kit web site is an effort to begin collecting them. Still, even the existing tools need to be refined, in light of the needs of local election officials. It is my hope that the online tool kit site, hosted by the VTP, will be the focus of tool development in the coming years. I encourage people to give them a look, to try and improve them, and to contribute to the collection.