(Inside Science) -- Some of you reading this on the day before Election Day 2014 have voted already. In many parts of the U.S., a considerable portion of voting now takes place days and even weeks before the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. This is the advantage of easy access to early voting, voting convenience centers, voting-by-mail and other programs instituted around the country.
For many people this is a huge benefit. People can vote when it's most convenient for them. But Election Day is a hard deadline. In many places, election officials could once predict voter turnout for one day, and arrange to have enough people and voting machines to accommodate the voters. But now, in areas that allow early voting, that may be more difficult. If officials plan for a big turnout in early voting, but those same voters instead show up to vote on Election Day, this could cause unexpectedly long lines. Depending on the wait, it could even discourage some people from voting.
In 2008 I wrote a story for Inside Science News Service about election logistics featuring Theodore Allen, an industrial and systems engineer at The Ohio State University in Columbus. That story covered many issues important to planning an election, from strategies to shorten wait times to how to deliver voting machines to the right place at the right time.
This October, I contacted Allen to discuss the state of election logistics. The takeaway: uncertainty about how many people will vote on Election Day is now larger than it used to be. Wait times could be minimal, or long, depending on a large number of variables. Allowing early voting increases this number of variables, and can make planning more complicated.
"What's interesting to me is because of this huge population of early voters, it actually makes the turnout on Election Day much harder to predict," said Allen.
Allen's been working with colleagues to develop models that show the optimal plan for a variety of situations, such as different numbers of days of early voting or different breakdowns of resources such as voting machines used on Election Day.
This is where it gets complicated, because simple division isn't enough to solve the problem. If a group of election officials is spreading out resources over a group of precincts, the best approach is often not to base the amount of resources on only the number of registered voters, or even the expected number of voters.
It's conceivable that the best overall solution could lead to long waits in a small number of voting precincts, and negligible lines elsewhere. But that approach could in some way cause lines in one area, and that area could have certain demographic characteristics, meaning that certain groups of people might face longer lines, which would likely be unfair. Allen said it's fairer to assign voting resources with the goal of improving the situation at the locations with the longest anticipated lines, to reduce the impact on any single area.
Allen said many authorities overlook a very important factor in election planning: the length of the ballot. In some states, no matter where you vote, ballots are roughly the same length and have roughly the same number of contests. But, in some states, there can be a widely different number of races and referenda from one community to the next. So, if officials don't recognize that longer ballots take longer to complete, lines could quickly multiply.
"These ballots are very long and very variable, and so therefore we're giving our voters a job to do, and it's a long job and it's a variable job. So if there's one place that has twice the ballot length, then they should have twice the resources roughly," said Allen. "If you want to make things fair, you got to take into account the amount of work you're giving the people in certain locations."
Overlooking a ballot's length is one way to generate long wait times, even with the lower voter turnout typical of a midterm election. Allen will chair a session entitled "Optimization and Modeling For Election Systems" at the annual meeting of the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences later this month, in San Francisco.
There's reason to believe that some officials have caught on to this issue. In October, the Washington Post reported that Prince William County, in Northern Virginia, is making changes to account for several factors, including ballot length, this election. The same Washington Post article proclaimed that the Government Accountability Office listed Florida, Maryland and Virginia as the worst states for delays in 2012.
Happy Election Day!