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Voting standards are the key to avoiding long lines on Election Day

by Alexander S. Belenky and Richard C. Larson
Friday May 08, 2009, 5:00 AM


Alexander S. Belenky is a Ph.D. in systems analysis and applied mathematics and a visiting scholar at MIT's Center for Engineering Systems Fundamentals. He is the author of several books on U.S. presidential elections, including "How America Chooses Its President." Richard C. Larson is director of the Center and MIT's Mitsui professor of engineering systems. He has written a number of scientific articles on queuing theory.

Voter queues in U.S. presidential elections drew national attention when the 2000 and 2004 nail-biter elections warned American society that voter queues might have affected the outcomes of both elections. Yet, long lines reported in the 2008 election don't seem to have stirred much interest, though, according to the Cooperative Congressional Election Survey conducted in October-November of 2008, they contributed to discouraging from voting up to 2 percent of all eligible voters.

Does society really care about the integrity of the voting process, or is this issue no more than a seasonal topic entertained by a part of the media unhappy with the election result? If society does care, what can be done to keep long voter queues from affecting the election outcome?

At least currently, it's hard to answer the first question definitively. Bills addressing certain national voting standards have bogged down in both chambers of Congress. Federal and state election administrations are reluctant to admit that properly administering elections is a systems problem. The limited attention that the media pay to administering elections focuses on particular (though important) isolated ingredients of the whole voting system, such as security of voting machines, voter registration techniques and voter identification. Does the country need one more close election with questionable integrity of its outcome to recognize that effectively administering elections is a systems problem and should be approached accordingly?

Service science suggests that establishing and enforcing voting standards, such as the maximum wait time to cast a vote, is the key to answering the second question.

The absence of reasonable voting standards is a double-edge sword. Partisan election administrators can artificially design voter queues in particular precincts to discourage would-be voters favoring their political opponents, turning voter queues into a potent weapon of stealth disenfranchisement of these voters. Election administrators interested in fairly conducting elections don't have grounds to substantiate their requests for state or federal funds to meet even minimum expectations of voting voters, assuming that the administrators know how to meet them.

Voter queues differ from queues in other service systems. While customers in queue are usually interested in being serviced as soon as possible, this is not necessarily the case in voting service systems. Swing voters, who usually decide the outcome in close presidential elections, often come to a precinct as to a place where they can communicate with their peers, and this communication may affect their vote. For such voters, queuing on Election Day is similar to blogging on the Internet. This may contribute to forming voter queues, despite any efforts to avoid them, since swing voters account for at least 10 percent of voting voters, and at least 70 percent of the voting-voters' vote on Election Day.

This social phenomenon -- if confirmed by studies to be real for a sizable number of swing voters -- could influence the outcome of the election in swing states, as somewhat ambivalent voters become stealth disenfranchised.

In general, long lines of customers form when service system designers are unable or unwilling to properly evaluate uncertainties affecting customers' behavior. In voter queues, such uncertainties depend on how complete the lists of eligible voters who may come to vote on Election Day are, and what voting technologies are deployed in the precincts.

Currently, precincts don't have lists of all eligible voters, keeping high the level of uncertainty in voter arrivals in a precinct on Election Day and undermining efforts to avoid long lines. With same-day registration, recently adopted by several states, nobody knows what may happen if all eligible voters, rather than only those registered in advance, come to vote on Election Day, and what emergency measures may and may not work to defuse the situation.

While a quest for effective voting technologies, including voting machines, should continue at least until these technologies are recognized as reliable by both the experts and the electorate, some old voting schemes shouldn't be ruled out, since they still may give voters more confidence in the integrity of the voting process than any intermediate ones.

Adopting national voting standards in presidential elections is the best way to encourage the states to list all eligible state voters, rather than to pass on to voters the burden of registering to vote, and to choose voting technologies giving voters the maximum possible confidence in the integrity of the election. Enforcing such standards would reduce uncertainties and help effectively operate every precinct, avoiding long lines on Election Day.


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