Aaron Strauss on PCEA Report: Thumbs Up on Measuring Lines, Thumbs Down on Election Officials Doing It

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[Image courtesy of olivetree]

One of the more election-geeky aspects of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA)’s final report is the endorsement of “resource calculators” that can:

enable administrators to plan for efficient Election Day operations by judging the resources needed to accommodate the projected traffic through the polling place …

Such calculators, however, are only as good as the data entered into them, and they can only be improved if their predictions are evaluated after each election. Addressing long lines requires systematic procedures to spot when and where long lines occur. Keeping track of wait times at individual polling places can be done using simple management techniques, such as recording line length at regular intervals during Election Day and giving time-stamped cards to voters during the day to monitor turnout flow.

After each election, moreover, jurisdictions must evaluate and account for any lines that were reported. In polling places with a history of long lines, local election officials should analyze the reasons for excessive wait times and develop plans based on that analysis for avoiding the problem in the future. The Commission further recommends that, in the interests of coordination and communication among all responsible election officials, the local officials should provide copies of these plans for remedying line problems to the relevant chief state election official. (pp. 42-43; emphasis in original)

Aaron Strauss, whose own resource calculator was featured here and is cited by the PCEA report, is obviously thrilled by the endorsement of resource calculators but registered a mildly dissenting view about who should be monitoring wait times on Election Day. Here’s the key parts of his post yesterday on his own blog Mindless Philosopher:

I think the recommendation of local officials to monitor wait times themselves is misguided

Election officials have a ton to worry about on Election Day; adding to their stress by suggesting they hand out time cards is an unrealistic and unnecessary burden. We shouldn’t expect expect local election officials to go through the trouble of exactly monitoring wait times when post-Election Day they would have results for only (say, for example) the 15 precincts in their county, many of which are likely homogenous. To produce great models, data analysts need many data points and heterogeneous input variables. Both criteria help the model understand exactly what happens under different conditions, and local election officials may not be able to satisfy either one.

A better approach would be to fund or promote national projects that inform us about our election system. For instance, Prof [Charles] Stewart’s survey provided information on wait times, and Foursquare’s “I Voted” badge lets us know when people vote (middle of infographic). We should expand these existing efforts, as well as fund new ideas, such as a web app that records wait times (ala TSA wait times). These data and models can then be integrated into the next generation of resource calculators, which are easy to disseminate to local election officials. These officials are incentivized to use the calculators to double check that they have the proper amount of equipment assigned to each precinct’s polling location, ensuring they don’t have egg on their face later.

In sum, let’s not give local election officials more work; instead let’s provide them with the tools they need to conduct successful elections.

I think Aaron has a good point about not overloading election officials – and I absolutely agree with his call for better and more varied data so we can learn more about lines and fine-tune management tools like resource calculators accordingly. However, I do think it makes sense for the field to find some way to be aware of line lengths during Election Day in order to provide an opportunity for (close to) real-time responses when problems occur. Such measurements may not be exact – or at least not as exact as larger national efforts would be – but they will help election officials (and poll workers) gauge when it’s time to go to a contingency plan if and when the line starts snaking out the door.

Still, any time we move past the question of whether or not to collect data to discussions of what data to collect and who will do it we’re getting somewhere. Thanks to Aaron for his insights and his work to modernize the field.

[UPDATE (5 minutes after original post): Charles Stewart has his own post at Election Updates about the full Election Toolkit linked to – and endorsed by – the PCEA. Check it out.]

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