Tracking the ‘Time Tax’: Dartmouth, Florida Researchers Study How Long It Takes to Vote

Published: 8/9/2016 8:25:59 AM
Modified: 11/5/2014 12:00:00 AM
Hanover — While political observers across the country were keeping their eyes on New Hampshire on Tuesday with control of the U.S. Senate in the balance, Dartmouth College researchers were observing the sometimes-fraught process of voting and analyzing the pace at the Hanover polls.

Michael Herron, a government professor at Dartmouth College, and Daniel Smith of the University of Florida hired teams of assistants to measure the time it took voters to cast ballots in Hanover and in 10 precincts in Miami-Dade County on Tuesday.

“We are interested in basic precinct processes and the time voters take to vote,” including how long they wait in line and how long it takes to move between each step of the process, Herron said, speaking from Florida. It’s “a very big issue” in the electoral process.

“Wait times are important because when you wait, you are paying a tax, a time tax,” he said. And the research could shine a light on where bottlenecks emerge, a subject “not much is known about,” and whether certain resources, such as staff, voting booths and ballot machines, are allocated evenly.

Identifiable by the bright orange shirts worn by all the research assistants, Dartmouth students Charlotte Blatt and Jon Diakanwa were on duty Tuesday afternoon in Hanover High School.

Blatt sat in the hallway, tapping the screen of her smartphone as voters entered the gym. Inside, Diakanwa recorded how long each step took — from check-in to the moment voters slid their ballots into the scanners in the back of the room.

The “applet” they used, which runs on the web, was designed by Dartmouth College’s Neukom Institute for Computational Science. It involves a problem-solving approach related to an area of applied math called operations research, and can furnish information similar to that used by fast-food restaurants to ensure customers are served efficiently, said Dan Rockmore, the institute’s director.

Just as McDonald’s might surmise it needs seven restaurants with eight cash registers each in a certain geographic area, voting districts can predict their polling needs based on population and projected turnout, he said.

“While there is quite a lot known about how to staff a fast-food joint,” less is known about polling needs based on populations and voter dynamics, Rockmore said.

He pointed to the 2012 election, when some people waited hours to vote.

Faced with the prospect of waiting in line at the polls for two hours, “I’m just going to go home,” he said. “So that’s why it’s important to understand the dynamics in different regions, to make sure you actually have enough facilities in place so people can exercise their civic rights in a reasonable amount of time.”

Tuesday evening’s fire alarm notwithstanding (see related story, above) wait time isn’t considered a problem in Hanover, and that’s one reason it is a good place to test the technology, which could potentially be used during the 2016 presidential election, Herron said.

And for the two researchers, Florida was a natural choice.

Having worked on a number of academic papers in Florida, they have “a pretty good sense of how elections are run” in the state, which made working there easier, Herron said. The state is often electorally important, “and it happens to be that the electoral process is complicated.”

According to a report by the Government Accountability Office, Florida voters had the longest wait times in the country during the 2012 election — 34 minutes.

Florida’s election laws prohibit researchers from entering voting precincts, Herron said, so he and Smith hired county workers to do research inside polling places, and student assistants posted outside kept track of when voters arrived. Unlike in Hanover, they noted the information on clipboards.

At Hanover High on Tuesday, Betsy McClain, the town’s director of administrative services, said turnout had been “really steady,” better than she’d expected.

In 2012, 6,522 voters, or just over 72 percent , turned out, according to the Hanover website. Tuesday’s turnout was 4,722 , and polling officials had processed 823 same-day registrations.

Caitlin Anderson, a Dartmouth student who was there simply to vote, said the registration process took about three minutes.

“It’s a really important election,” said Anderson, who is from New London and had been keeping her eye on the close race between Scott Brown and Jeanne Shaheen. She voted for Shaheen, the incumbent Democrat.

And, as expected, casting a ballot in Hanover was smooth sailing.

While some people spent up to about eight minutes voting, Diakanwa said, others moved through the entire process in “an instant.”

Aimee Caruso can be reached at acaruso@vnews.com or 603-727-3210.




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