“Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote.”
~President Barak Obama, Inauguration Speech, January 21, 2013
When President Obama repeated his election night remark that the nation needs to solve the problem of long lines at the polls in his inauguration speech today, I could hear the collective rolling of eyeballs by election officials across the country.
Every election administrator, at one time or another, has received complaints from voters about the length of time it takes to vote and the frustration engendered by waiting in a line to vote. Old news, right? Based upon the President’s comments and pundit commentary, lines at the polls have become new news and a likely subject of federal debate and legislation. I believe that this is unfortunate but not for the reasons one may expect.
I have come to conclude that there are really two issues here. The first issue is the perception that voting is slow and lines are long. The second issue is the reality that long lines routinely disenfranchise voters who can’t or don’t choose to wait in lines. Election officials tend to frame the issue as the former and voters, interest groups and parties frame it as the latter issue. Paradoxically, both perspectives are accurate; part of the problem is perception and part of the problem is reality. Lines at the polls are another textbook case of the introduction of ambiguity into the outcomes of an election.
The persistence of complaints about waiting in lines to vote, across time and jurisdictions, has it origin in three sources: 1) the paradoxical perspectives on the nature of the problem and official tone deafness to the issue, 2) the inability to measure and quantify what constitutes a line and what constitutes an unreasonable wait, and 3) the failure to recognize that the problem is adaptive and systemic and not a technical problem with a technical solution.
Perspectives. The reports of lines and delays on election day are usually unverifiable, anecdotal and tend to be reported second hand. These reports are also made through the media in the midst of voting on election day. These sensationalized reports predispose voters to show up at the polls with the expectation of having a problem or discourage them from showing up at all. When there are delays, they are usually isolated to a small number of locations but reports and allegations often generalize lines and delays to be jurisdiction wide. From the election official’s chair, one sees sporadic and isolated issues (including lines) arise and get resolved throughout election day. Voters, parties, candidates and interest groups hear only the media’s reporting or after the fact complaints. Is it then any surprise that election officials have a different perspective on the issue?
Definition and situations. What is a line? Our concepts must be reasonable and consistent. I heard a recent complaint by a voter (who contacted the media) that he had to wait more than an hour to vote. When asked for details, it turns out the he showed up at the poll enroute to work at 6:00 a.m. The poll opens at 7:00 a.m. He did wait an hour to vote but that wait does not indicate any kind of problem at the poll for him or other voters. In another situation, the first day of early voting – two weeks before election day, several hundred voters wanted to cast their ballot early. It took many of the voters an hour to vote that first day. When a voter chooses an alternative mode of voting and there are other locations, days and times to vote; does an hour constitute an unreasonable burden on the voter?
In a general election, a jurisdiction with a bond proposal on the ballot failed to inform voters or provide them with information with which to make a decision. Most of the voters saw the lengthy bond language for the first time in the voting booth and spent 20-30 minutes, in some cases, to read and consider the bond. This resulted in a line of voters, who had already been checked in and who had a voting card, waiting for a voting machine for 45 – 60 minutes. In another election, I observed a line at an early voting location that wrapped around the building but only one or two of the 15 voting machines was ever used at the same time. The wait was at the check in table, getting voters signed in, not at the voting machine. On another occasion, I heard a complaint that some voters were being processed immediately while others had to wait a half hour or more to vote. Instead of some voters being favored over others, that location had a cumbersome method for processing provisional voters. The delay was limited to voters whose eligibility could not be immediately determined. Rather than hold up everyone, these voters were diverted to a separate table for processing. To be fair, many cases in which I have observed or heard of delays in voting were not as nuanced; there was, in fact, a resource or process issue that created delays.
All of these situations represented voter delays but all the situations are not equal in their cause, their solution or, most importantly, in their impact on an individual voter. At times, when faced with such reports, the issue of lines is willingly acknowledged and investigated by officials intent upon finding a solution. Sometimes officials deny there was a problem and/or that complaints could not be verified. Sometimes officials acknowledge a problem but claim they are resource constrained and can’t do anything about it.
Adaptive and systemic problem-solving. So I pose the question once more, what is a line? The absence of definitions, criteria, standards and without data or reliable observations, the question cannot accurately be answered. Similarly, without this information, even the best-intentioned and conscientious election officials can’t do much more than apply band aids and short term fixes.
This leads to the third source of the persistence of the issue of voting lines and delays and the reason I think it would be unfortunate if the federal government were to mandate an ultimate, silver-bullet solution. The problem is not a technical problem. Mandating additional machines will not solve the problem when it is caused by check-in processes. More workers won’t solve the problem when there is a shortage of functioning equipment. Neither will solve delays that are caused by legislative requirements (voter ID), language barriers, election schedules, ballot crowding, lack of voter information, voter mis-information, unsatisfactory polling facilities and so on.
The problem of lines and voting delays is an adaptive and systemic problem that can only be resolved by solutions which acknowledge a willingness for change, which address system-wide variables and which are based upon facts, data and measurable outcomes. The solution for each jurisdiction is inherently different as the causes and the magnitude of lines differs from large to small jurisdictions, from urban to suburban counties and from jurisdictions with permissive absentee and early voting regimes to those who rely mainly on election day for voting. A one-size solution, whether imposed by the federal or state government, will fail and further contribute to the on-going problem of election day lines and the potential disenfranchisement of voters. In allowing others to solve local issues, we will continue to suffer from the ambiguous (mis)perceived impact of lines on the outcome of elections.
Most of the recurring challenges and problems faced by election officials (and public administrators generally) are adaptive and systemic problems which can only be resolved by long-term solutions. These types of problems are highly resistant to technical fixes like those described above. There are a range of approaches, collective and individual, for addressing issues systemically to achieve specific outcomes and foster continuous processes: Lean, Six Sigma, TQM, TOC, Adaptive Leadership, etc. Each approach has its strengths and I have found are used best in combination to develop quality management and learning environments.
It would behoove all jurisdictions to develop competencies and practices of solving problems systemically, using data and performance metrics, and by developing a willingness to do things differently to get different (and better) outcomes. In fact, adaptive leadership and continuous improvement approaches in election administration are the only way to eradicate ambiguity and improve the “goodness” of elections.
January 23, 2013 Update: Doug Chapin in today’s Election Academy blog post discusses a report issued by the Orlando Sentinal on the potential impact of line in Florida during the 2012 election. I agree with Doug’s analysis when he says: “These numbers are pretty spectacular (and not in a good way), and yet it would be helpful to have a little more detail on the conclusions than a very short – and very general – methodological link so we can dig into the analysis.”
Professor Allen’s estimate of the number of voters that failed to vote as a result should be looked at with skepticism until other scholars have the opportunity to review the data and methodology. Hopefully Professor Allen will make the data available.
While this study describes the problem with delays in voting and suggests the potential magnitude of the issue, it offers little in terms of solutions. Because such lines were not uniformly experienced across precincts in the state, the next step would appear to be a study of the cause(s) of lines in some places and not in others. Such a study would provide election administrators the empirical data they need to craft adaptive solutions to the problem.