Friday, February 7, 2014

Half Hour Waits OK says Obama Commission on Election Reform – No Internet Voting

On Tuesday night, November 6, 2012, President Obama addressed the nation briefly to thank the voters who re-elected him for his second term. He was especially appreciative of those voters who stood in long lines and waited to have their say. Then, after a pause, he commented “we have to fix that.”

A few months later he issued an Executive Order establishing the Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA). Its mission was, in part, to find ways “to promote the efficient administration of elections” so that people can vote “without undue delay.” After six months of hearings, both public and private, and receiving written comments from the public, the PCEA issued its final report in January 2014.*

The Problem
The PCEA Report explained that the “image of voters waiting for six or more hours to vote on Election Day 2012, as in the two previous Presidential contests, spurred the call for reform that led to [the] creation of this Commission.”(p13)  Indeed, “over five million voters in 2012 experienced wait times exceeding one hour and an additional five million waited between a half hour and an hour. In some jurisdictions, the problem has recurred for several presidential elec­tions.”(p13) For instance, at least a third of Virginia voters had to wait more than a half hour in both the 2008 and 2012 Presidential elections. (See note 22)

Proposed solutions
Of course, the most obvious 21st Century “fix” for the problem of time wasting long lines at the polls is to supplement the use of polling places with Internet voting. Then voters could vote from home, or any where else, and at any time of the day or night. They could use their PC, smart phone, iPad, or other connected device. No one would have to take time from work, wait for the bus, or if driving, fight traffic, find parking, then stand in the November rain and cold, or miss the opportunity to vote because they had to travel, or were away at school, or were housebound due to illness, infirmity, or the need to care for someone, such as small children, the sick, elderly, had to work over-time, were in the military and stationed far away from home, etc.

Unhappily, the Commission dismissed this option with little more than a parenthetic quip – “the internet is not yet secure enough for vot­ing.”(p60) That was it. No research was cited showing that the integrity of any actual online election had ever been marred by a security breach. No mention was made that Internet voting has been used in over 100 elections to public office around the world, all without the results altered by hackers.^

The Report instead declared its aim to preserve the time honored tradition of voting at remote polling places, and finding ways to reduce waiting times by making the process more efficient, especially through “the management of lines.” (p14) The pair of Washington lawyers President Obama selected to chair the PCAE found lines to be an intriguing subject.  Thus, the Report paid special attention to the research coming out of “Queuing Theory;” that is, the academic field of examining the causes and cures of long lines.

Perhaps having an epiphany after weeks of studying Queuing Theory, our lawyers solemnly proclaimed, “The Com­mission has concluded that, as a general rule, no voter should have to wait more than half an hour in order to have an opportunity to vote.”(p14) By the efficient management of lines, then, our nation’s 8000 election districts will be able to comply with the Report’s edict.

One of the Laws of Queuing Theory, developed after years of research, is that long lines can be caused by a lot of people showing up at the same time. Wizened by its studies, the Report recognized that “there will be circumstances that strain this goal [of half hour waits], such as when a busload of people shows up unexpectedly at a polling location, or a hundred-person line of en­thusiastic voters is waiting to greet the poll worker who opens the polling place in the morning.”(p14)

“Nonetheless,” to comply with this decree, “local officials should be able to plan the allocation of their re­sources such that during the normal course of the day, nearly all voters can be processed within the 30-minute standard. Any wait time that exceeds this half-hour standard is an indication that something is amiss and that corrective measures should be deployed.”(p14)

Addressing themselves to state and local election officials, the Chairmen explain that Queuing Theory requires “a more efficient allocation of resources;” such as putting more machines and more poll workers at the most heavily trafficked polling places. Also, those officials should have better trained poll workers, and use more student volunteers. The officials themselves need better education; hence, the Report calls upon colleges to offer a Master’s Degree in Public Administration that focuses on polling place management, because “election administration is public administration.”(p18)

Election officials should also provide shorter ballots, more polling places, use more school buildings, and set up vote centers in which any eligible person can vote, even if outside of his or her district. Voters could make an appointment to come in and vote; or “take a number,” like at the local bakery. Then they wouldn’t have to wait in a line until their number is called. (p37f)  Indeed, using the number system folks could stand around the table serving coffee and doughnuts and engage in civic discourse! Time would fly!

The Report approves of vote-by-mail systems, because there is no waiting in line at polling places. But this practice relies on the Postal Service, and has huge costs for paper, printing, mailing, and clerk hours spent shuffling the paper ballots as they come in the mail.  The PCEA strongly endorses “early voting;” that is, having polls open a few days before Election Day to satisfy the urges of eager voters. Queuing Theory has found that these early voters wait in line “in a more ‘celebratory’ frame of mind.”(p56) Indeed, one of the aims of Queuing Theory is to have happy waiters.

To that very end, the Report unabashedly extols the virtues of OVR – online voter registration. Paper-based registration systems cause over half the delays at polling places. Poll workers have to search long lists of voters. The lists often have errors made by clerks, or because the voter moved and neglected to re-register. Then complicated provisional ballots have to be issued.  But computer-based registration is easy to do, accurate, and allows poll workers to check registration in no time on e-poll books. In fact, the Report recommends that states exchange voter information online to reduce errors, catch up on who has died, who has moved without re-registering, and to prevent duplicate registrations, and “to detect election fraud or irregularities.”(p22)

County and local election officials spend roughly one-third of their budgets on paper based registration.  But states already using OVR are saving tons of money because they have eliminated the costs of paper and printing, and they need fewer clerks and filing cabinets.(p26)

Perhaps forgetting what it said about online voting, the Report expresses full confidence in the security of online voter registration, and “strongly recommends” its use.(p27) The Commission is not naïve, and understands that as with “any web-based system, questions about security will require close attention to ensure that unauthorized changes to voter registration cannot be made.”(p25)  But OVR is so reliable that it “reduces the chances of fraud and other irregularities of a paper-based system, in which outside groups may destroy registration forms or submit fraudulent registrations.”(p27) Privacy need not be a concern because these systems “have shown the ability to safeguard any voter information they receive.”(p29)

Best of all for our democracy, voters who register online turn out to vote in greater percents than voters who have registered by paper. “In Arizona in 2008, 94 percent of online registrants voted compared to 85 percent of those who registered by paper.” (p26) Young voters also register and vote more where OVR is offered. (See p26 and note 64, p79)

Small wonder that, “as demonstrated by the wide and growing popularity of online registration, voters seem to have confidence in such systems. This is not surprising when an increasing number of voters are using the internet to manage many core functions of their everyday lives.”(p25)

Of course, the “core function” of voting cannot be done on the Internet, but must still be centered on the trek to the remote polling place, where half hour waits are fine. By taking that position, the Report implicates questions that it fails to either ask or answer. For example, is a half hour wait always OK? What if you had to wait a half hour to buy a book on Amazon? Or, wait a half hour for each bill you paid online? What about at a traffic light? Or, at the grocery store check out counter?

Things to do while Waiting in Line to Vote
You can use your smart phone, iPad, or other connected device, to buy a book on Amazon, or pay bills, sell stocks, etc.  You can tweet your location and complain about how long the line is. (Use the hash tag #wastingtimeinline.) Check on your Face Book friends. You can text a sympathizing message to friends who have longer waits at other polling places, or enjoy discovering that folks you are less friendly towards have to wait longer than you do. You and your fellow waiters can order a pizza online and have it delivered to your place in line.

As mentioned, some county’s have a voting center to which any county resident, who is registered, can go to vote. Some counties also post waiting times on their website on Election Day. So, if you get tired of waiting at your assigned polling place, and you are one of the lucky ones, then you can go online to check if the wait is shorter at the voting center. Of course, standing in line searching with electronic devices to find a shorter line seems absurd when lines themselves are no longer necessary due to that very technology.

The Report notes that the voting machines purchased by many states over 10 years ago “are reach­ing the end of their operational life.”(p11)  It prudently advises that it is time to think about replacing them.  But it acknowledges a dilemma.  Local officials often report dissatisfaction with those machines; especially since they are very expensive, only used for occasional elections, and must be stored and maintained for the rest of the time.(p12)  Many of the machines also print out paper copies of the vote, which only perpetuates all the problems of dealing with piles of paper.

Of course, administering elections online would be much more efficient and cheaper. States and counties would not have to buy dozens, often hundreds of machines for voters to vote on, but which sit in rented storage most of the time. Instead, officials could use existing computers, and the voters would vote on their own electronic devices. This would eliminate the current costs of paper, printing, and mailing, as well as slash the amount of equipment needed and the costs of storage and maintenance. The Report observes that one of the main obstacles to making this cost saving move is the opposition of some in “the computer science community” over their security concerns.(p12) But the Report fails to mention that those opponents of Internet voting have never built a successful online voting system, while those members of “the computer science community” who have done so favor the idea.

The Report also fails to mention that online voting is better for the environment than is voting by mail, or trekking to polling places whether to vote on paper or on a machine that prints out a page of paper for every vote. Paperless voting would not only save trees, but there would be no trash to dispose of after the election. Air pollution would be reduced when voters can vote from home or anywhere else, without having to make that trek in their cars.

Our two Washington lawyers, one Dem, one Repub, are very proud of the “unanimity” of their decision.(p22)  But one look at their Report shows that by neglecting the most obvious fix for the convenience of the American voter, their unanimous decision comes down to “let them eat cake.”  We of the 21st Century deserve more regard than that!

*See the PCEA website at,

^See the 2011 US Election Assistance Commission Survey of Internet Voting at

William J. Kelleher, Ph.D.
Political Scientist, author, speaker,
CEO for The Internet Voting Research and Education Fund
Twitter: wjkno1

Author of Internet Voting Now! 
On Kindle and in Paper 

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