Can Popsicle sticks improve your next trip to the polls?

November 12, 2014

Can Popsicle sticks improve your next trip to the polls?

If you were frustrated by how long it took to vote in recent elections, you’re not alone. University of Florida political science professor Daniel Smith wants to help, and one of his most powerful tools is a humble Popsicle stick.

In an Election Day study Smith conducted with Dartmouth College colleague Michael Herron, 14 UF students and 28 Miami-Dade area college students handed out Popsicle sticks to voters as they entered their polling places, writing their arrival time on one end of the stick. The voters wrote down the time when they filled out their ballot, then returned the stick on the way out, where the student recorded the time the voter left.

They also recorded voters’ arrival times to help determine the ebb and flow of voting on Election Day and conducted exit polls about how they got to the polls, how long they waited in line and if they had problems checking in or understanding the ballot. By analyzing the results, Smith and Herron plan to determine how long the process takes and how much of that time was spent waiting.

Smith described his Election Day experience in Miami-Dade, and how it could improve your next trip to the polls.

How did people react when you handed them a Popsicle stick at their polling place?

People were very interested in participating. We had very low refusal rates. One polling station ran out of “I Voted” stickers, and people wanted to keep the Popsicle sticks to show people they voted.

Where are wait times the worst?

In national studies, Florida has some of the most egregious wait times: in the 2012 general election, it was estimated to be about 45 minutes on average. Our study is the first to actually use observed data rather than what someone recalls in a survey after the fact, which might not be accurate. We hope that our research will help us understand what’s actually happening on the ground and what may be causing delays.

Why is Florida among the worst?

There are a couple of factors. We have competitive elections – gubernatorial and presidential races – every two years, and competitive elections drive turnout. Being a battleground state increases interest and turnout. That can lead to wait times. There also might be a misallocation of resources in staffing across polling stations, breakdown in equipment, or even factors such as a poor layout of a precinct or limited parking spaces. Finally, there is the human element. Some poll workers may be misinformed about election rules or they may apply the rules differently depending on the situation. And some voters themselves may contribute to wait times, especially those who may be less familiar with the voting process in general or who face language barriers.

On Election Day, you monitored wait times in Miami-Dade County. Why there?

Miami-Dade County had precincts with extremely long wait times in 2012, up to six hours. The Supervisor of Elections, Penelope Townsley, was interested in our research from 2012 and has devoted resources to improving wait times. We looked at 10 very diverse polling places. We wanted to get a sense of when voters actually arrive at the polls. Do they come individually or in bunches? By car, bus or walking? We documented all 12 hours of voting.  

What did the Popsicle sticks reveal?

Some voters got through the entire voting process in three to four minutes, while others took 40 minutes – even at the same polling station. We want to know if it was processing time or time spent in the booth. We’re trying to get a better sense of the overall queuing process of voting lines and what causes the wait.

What other industries can we learn from to streamline voting wait times?

One of our students talked to a voter who worked for the Marlins. He was frustrated with his voting experience because all three poll workers who were checking in voters were dealing with voter registration issues, and the line had completely stopped moving. In his industry, they would pull those people off to the side and process everyone else, so the line could keep moving. Unfortunately, not all precincts are able to do that. There’s a lot we could learn from sports, entertainment, even the fast food industry on how to keep consumers — or in our case, voters — happy and moving.

Do you vote early, or on Election Day?

I almost always vote early. I’m usually engaged in things for my research on Election Day. I often try to test the system, making sure voters have access to the polls, often to the frustration of the poll workers.

How so?

Well, I typically use my bank card when I sign in to vote, which I consider the lowest form of photo identification permitted because it has a small, grainy photo and no home address. I know the rules, and I want to see if the poll worker is going to give me difficulty. Nearly every time I use it, I’m asked, “Do you not have a driver’s license?” I say, “Yes, I have one, but I am showing this, because I’m allowed to.” My concern is, what happens to those voters who don’t have a driver’s license but don’t know the rules? Will they be allowed to vote? I try to test the system, making sure that every registered voter can cast a regular ballot.

How might your work improve the next election?

When it comes to long lines, we need to understand where the backups occur. Is it physical layout of polling place? Parking? Insufficient staff to handle the flow? The voting machinery? By collecting data across precincts, we can begin to analyze patterns that can we can then apply to other jurisdictions. When we understand these patterns, there are a lot of practical applications from which supervisors can draw.

What do you find most frustrating about the way we vote today?

It’s rather archaic that we don’t have the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November as a national holiday. It’s frustrating that we don’t have a more affirmative role by state or federal government to provide photo identification for voters. In the United States, unlike in other countries, the burden is on citizens to prove they are eligible to vote and to be able to cast a ballot. That’s not necessarily an ideal of how a democracy that encourages full participation should function.

What gives you hope for a better election next time?

I have the utmost respect and sympathy for the effort that supervisors of elections go through to run clean and transparent elections. It’s really difficult work, and they do it on a shoestring budget with often a part-time staff to carry out one of the most paramount duties of citizenship. Election administrators are continually learning. They want the feedback. They want people to participate and not make it excessively burdensome to cast a ballot.

It’s also wonderful working with students who are passionate about politics. Many of them personally experienced long lines in 2012. Our research is completely nonpartisan, and I think it’s great that students can be involved politically without being adversarial or partisan, but rather, try to improve the voting experience for everyone.