Journalism in the Public Interest


Obama Says We Need to Fix Voting Lines. But How?

Researchers say simply expanding voting hours and shortening ballots isn’t enough. The U.S. needs to overhaul how they decide to allocate resources on Election Day.

People cast their ballots at Los Angeles polling place last November. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

At tonight’s State of the Union address, Michelle Obama will be joined by 102-year-old Desiline Victor, who, like many in Florida and elsewhere, waited hours to vote on Election Day.

“By the way,” Obama said in his election speech. “We have to fix that.”

But how to fix it remains unclear.

Though new research on states’ performance in the November election reveals long lines kept thousands from voting, there’s still much we don’t know about what would best speed up the process.

Victor’s home state of Florida had the longest average wait time of any state at 45 minutes. Victor waited for three hours. Other Floridians reported standing in line for up to 7 hours.

Not every voter had Victor’s stamina: Professor Theodore Allen at Ohio State University estimated that long lines in Florida deterred at least 201,000 people, using a formula based on voter turnout data and poll closing time. The number only includes people discouraged by the wait at their specific polling site, and not those who stayed home due to “the general inconvenience of election day.” The real number, Allen says, is likely much higher. One study also showed that black and Hispanic voters nationwide waited longer on average than white voters.

Some legislators are already proposing changes. Last week, Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner released a set of recommended election reforms that included allowing counties to expand early voting to 14 days. The proposal would reverse Governor Rick Scott’s decision to reduce early voting in the last election.

Another reason behind Florida’s long lines was the state’s incredibly long ballot, which listed the full text of eleven, wordy constitutional amendments. Detzner has proposed limiting constitutional amendments to 75 words, which could also save counties money. The 2012 election in Florida’s St. Lucie County was roughly twice as expensive as 2008, a hike the county election supervisor blamed on printing, mailing and processing longer ballots.

Researchers say simply expanding voting hours and shortening ballots isn’t enough. The U.S. needs to overhaul how they decide to allocate resources on Election Day. Many counties determine how many voting machines and poll workers to have in a district based solely on the number of expected voters. Others don’t even do that, says Lawrence Norden, Deputy Director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.

But the amount of time it can take to fill out a ballot can vary enormously by county or locale, because both ballots and machines can be different. 

Yet the actual time it takes to cast a ballot is almost never considered. “How long the job takes should be taken into account when you provision the resources to do that job,” Allen says. “If you just do it on head count alone, you’re kind of being dumb.”

Allen calls that “dumb” approach “naive allocation.” According to his team’s research, counties could cut hours off of waiting time by shifting more machines to places with longer ballots. “By simply acting smarter, we could cut the waiting time to 1/4 of what it would have been,” Allen says.

Changes in voting technology can also result in voters spending more behind the curtain. After 2000’s “hanging chad” disaster, many states turned to electronic voting machines. The touch-screen machines are easier for many to use, and encourage voters to weigh in on every item up for vote. But they can also take twice as long to vote on, Allen says. And strapped city budgets are reluctant to shell out thousands of dollars per machine to make up for longer voting times.

Overall, average line waits have held fairly steady for the past ten years, says Professor Charles Stewart III of MIT. The problem is not necessarily getting worse, but it’s not getting any better, either.

“Studies show it’s the same places that keep having the same problems,” says Norden of the Brennan Center, referencing Stewart’s findings. “We tend to forget quickly after the election the problems that we had.”

And as Norden points out, “a lot of private companies have figured these things out in other contexts. There’s a reason…McDonalds never seems to have nine-hour lines.”

The most important thing, Stewart says, is conducting more research on what keeps lines long year after year. “This is a persistent problem and it’s one that we need to address,” he says, “but it’s not one [where] there is a magic bullet.”

McDonalds also doesn’t have every active adult in the country trying to cram in for one and only one Big Mac in the span of at most twelve hours.  And McDonald’s doesn’t open their stores for one day a year and close “forever” at the end.  They also have no obligation to keep each customer’s order a secret while still making each order countable and auditable.

McDonalds has a far easier problem to solve, so looking to them is outright stupid.

That said, here are a few things that would help:

First, for states where referenda are permitted on the ballot, no referendum should be more than, say, a hundred or two words, with no reference to outside material.  If a voter can’t read and understand the law at a glance, it shouldn’t be dealt with on such a busy day.

(All laws should work that way.  “Pork” comes from overwriting a few words in other bills, and obscured by page after page of verbiage and compounding of ideas and intents.  And many bills pass because it’s the only opportunity to get some minor clause enacted, leaving us with the whole kit and kaboodle.)

Second, we need direct auditing.  Every vote should come with a random set of characters as a “receipt.”  You can then instantly and over several days verify that your vote was counted exactly as you cast it by publicly posting a list of all the votes by district.

Third, as long as we’re moving to electronic voting machines, we should use the computers as computers and have each candidate submit a brief platform statement.  Then, if you don’t know any of the candidates, you can spend two minutes learning about their promises instead of wringing your hands in indecision.

Beyond that…duh, we need more polling stations and machines, and backup systems for when sites inevitably fail.  For a sense of scale, if we bought one netbook (to be installed with some miraculous “voting software” we can assume to be written cheaply) per voter, we could manage that for about thirty billion dollars, which sounds like a decent working maximum.  Assuming about seventy voters per day per machine (twelve hour day, five minutes to vote, just for the sake of argument), that’s actually just half a billion, and the rest can go to a secure network (maybe using VHF spectrum like the FCC is considering) and a PC to aggregate the votes.

If we take the receipt-based approach, we could also (though as a programmer, I’m against it for a variety of security and abuse reasons) shift to computer-based approaches that wouldn’t require anybody to leave the house/office.

That would obviously scale, since it’s hard for someone to not have any way of getting on the Internet for half an hour without waiting, but then you’d need a way to identify each vote without allowing the government to trace it to the voter, which is…let’s call it a non-trivial problem.  You wouldn’t want a kid to steal everybody’s vote in the house, for example, but you also don’t want it recorded anywhere that a vote for the Socialist or KKK candidate came from dad’s account.

(You could generate a random number for each voter, but beware of schemes like this, because the implementation always somehow “accidentally” logs who got each number.  You would also need to solve the problem of distributing the numbers.  It might also be possible to use some kind of public-key encryption, but I don’t know of any situation where it’s been successfully used anonymously.)

Mostly, I’m just thinking out loud.  Points are, though, invoking McDonalds isn’t going to help and there are big problems to be solved other than speed, like actually ensuring each voter that his vote has been counted.

In a locale with early voting, I waited over 2 hours to vote about 3 weeks before election day.  The site had only a couple of people sorting out the crowd by voting district before giving the voter the appropriately-programmed card for the voting machine.  The actual voting machines were only 30-40% in use due to the upstream bottleneck.  However bad this was in terms of planning, the worst part was the election worker who tried to look over my shoulder and see how I was voting as I used the touch-screen voting machine to cast my ballot.  Sure wish we had a right to have a curtain for every voting booth.

Use dockable tablets to vote. Secure (that is the docking part) and only the voter knows who got the vote they cast. Voter takes tablet with voting program/info, makes choices, docks the tablet, vote is printed out (for verification purposes—unique number for every vote cast = traceable), vote recorded, then tablet wiped and re-used.

For states that use paper ballots, the solution to lines is not difficult.  Voting booths for filling out the ballot are cheap, so having plenty of them is not a problem.  It takes very little time to cast the ballot on a voting machine that optically scans the ballot (or to deposit the ballot in a ballot box for later counting).  The usual bottleneck is in signing in voters and checking their registration, and that should be estimated based on experience in previous elections.

So the usual cause for delay is not having adequate resources, or allocating resources improperly, sometimes by design.

Michael Grimaldi

Feb. 13, 2013, 4:26 p.m.

Just like banking (assuming voting is as important as money), have every election authority issue voting cards, rather like bank debit cards or government EBT cards. With each election, the election authority can “load” the ballot onto the registered voter’s “account.” The registered voter can then “spend” those votes by logging in online (just like a bank), or by taking the card to a polling place (aka, a “branch”) or a kiosk (ATM) and cast a ballot (“make a withdrawal”). The voter’s “account” is only active during the legally allowed voting period, opening when the polls open or during each state’s advanced voting period, and closing at the appointed hour on election day. For fear mongers who see opportunities for voter fraud, the same security used by every bank in the nation should be applied.

Imagine an electoral process where pamphlets explaining the ballot measures are mailed to you a month or two before the elections——-now, further imagine the ballot itself arriving in the mail ten days prior to the election. You can take your time, and do all the research you want, vote for your candidates, then mail the ballot in to the state.  All of this without even leaving your house.  This is the voting process in Oregon, folks.  No fuss, no muss.

Stephanie Palmer

Feb. 13, 2013, 6:34 p.m.

Since voting is a right granted to all adult citizens in the US, there should be national standards… more of this idiotic states rights crap.  I wont hold my breath until this happens.

Why isn’t ‘Vote by Mail’ listed as an option? john (from oregon) mentioned the voter’s pamphlet which allows the voter to study the candidates and issues. More and more states are adopting v by m. Maybe it’d help keep the p.o. above water.

There is supposedly a proposal to stop gerrymandering.  If I remember it would entail an independent committee to apportion voting more fairly.  It is now a political mess - making a mockery of our democratic processes.

Jerry, the big problem with what you propose is that there’s no such thing as privacy on someone else’s computer.  The tablet you describe would only be as secure as the programmer is trustworthy.  And since the existing computer voting machines can “flip” a vote with an easy-to-write virus, I would be surprised if nobody could recover your vote from a scenario like you describe.

Also, it’s worth pointing out that bank security is built entirely around the idea that you (the customer/voter) are probably a criminal and the corporation (the bank/government) can do no wrong.  It’s extremely easy to intercept someone’s transaction (you can buy the “skimmers” on eBay) and if the bank records say that you withdrew ten million dollars, you don’t have much recourse except the common sense of your local branch manager.

John, I agree in principle with Oregon’s approach, but as they say, the devil’s in the details.  An abused girlfriend hiding at a friend’s house or someone who has recently lost his home would have a strong motivation to vote carefully, and neither should have their voices silenced, but there’s no place to send the mail.

But I do really like the idea that you only go to the polling place to submit your ballot.  Although even then, I wonder if it’s worth worrying about a company owner or union leader demanding his staff fill out the ballot in front of him, not to mention outright stealing them out of mailboxes.

Stephanie, if we were more demanding citizens, the diversity would allow us to demand the best qualities of each state’s system, whereas a national system would get us stuck with the lowest crony bidder nation-wide.

All of these ideas to speed things up sound great to me, but it appears that one very important element is missing from this analysis. Much of the chaos at the last election was intentionally designed by the Republican Legislatures in various states. It seems to me that the better the idea for speeding things up, the more likely it will be voted down by the Republicans.

Rob, make it their idea.  Bad politicians always mewl about voter fraud in the context of zombified hordes and illegal immigrants flocking to the polls to seize a landslide victory from their hands.  So you pitch it from that angle, since every one of these proposals has some aspect that would limit such fraud if it weren’t negligible already.

Then, if the implementation happens to spoil vote-counting fraud and make it easier for the disenfranchised to cast their votes, well…we can just keep that between us.

However, don’t make the mistake of blaming the Republicans.  They happen to be the champions for these past couple of years, but just like revolutions tend to put an identical military dictatorship in place of the old one, attacking one party for its corrupt ways tends to give the opposition free reign to do what they please.

John from Oregon again…...I agree there will be a small percentage of citizens unable to vote in any scenario, but again, our system is really working for us—-here is a comment from our Secretary of State:

With an average voter turnout of 60.13 – 8.5 percentage points above the national average – the system is working for Oregonians.

“There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that we see high turnout because of vote-by-mail,” says Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown. “It’s extremely convenient and accessible; it’s secure and cost-effective.”

Oregonians passed a referendum in 1998 to institute the vote-by-mail system – with almost 70 percent approval.

Secretary Brown rejects the criticism that mail-in ballots diminish the sense of civic engagement people may feel standing in line with their fellow citizens on Election Day. She says Oregonians have block parties and talk to their neighbors; issues are discussed in churches and synagogues.

“Civic engagement is much more meaningful and expansive when you have a ballot in hand for 2-1/2 weeks,” Brown says. “Election Day is not just one day – it’s several.”

Another criticism of mail-in ballots is that there is more opportunity for voter fraud. Since 2000, 15 million ballots have been cast by mail in Oregon, but there have been only nine convictions of voter fraud, Brown says. The state takes extensive measures to ensure that ballots are secure: each envelope has a unique barcode, election officials verify every signature, and there are cameras in every election office to monitor the counting. People can also check online to make sure their ballot was counted.

Voter outreach is another factor at play in Oregon, says Michael Slater, executive director of the nonprofit Project Vote and a Portland resident. Campaigns can check to see if people have voted, and encourage them to cast their ballot.

“People knock on my door and ask if I need my ballot delivered,” Mr. Slater says. “It’s a very helpful way to keep people engaged.”

I wouldn’t use the US mail to get my vote counted. Two months ago I mailed my phone bill payment and my phone got shut off because they never got my check.

Apparently it’s not uncommon for our mail to get shredded by their sorting machines, so now every time I mail a check I call the place it’s going to and ask them if they ever got my check.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Buying Your Vote

Buying Your Vote: Dark Money and Big Data

ProPublica is following the money and exploring campaign issues in the 2012 election you won't read about elsewhere.

Get Updates

Stay on top of what we’re working on by subscribing to our email digest.