An Election System in Need of Redesign

The results are in!

Since November 6, we’ve been hard at work digesting the data we received from Pollwatch. We kicked off the Pollwatch project at the PDF:Applied hackathon last year in collaboration with Websava and Common Cause NY to uncover and alleviate the challenges that voters face on election day.

With inauguration day two weeks away, we thought it was a good time to share what we learned.

The verdict? Voting is much harder than it should be.

We received hundreds of reports on Pollwatch, revealing many areas for improvement in the voting process. But one problem in particular took the cake with one third of all reports: wait times (2 hours on average among those that reported the issue and up to 5 hours in one instance).



Importantly, wait times are symptomatic of other issues, and the Pollwatch reports provided some insight into what those issues might be. For example, many reports for long wait times also indicated that the ballot scanning machines were not working. Other reports spoke of a lengthy voter check-in process (when poll workers find voters in the registration book and give them their ballots).

The timing of these reports alluded to a more serious issue: poll sites are incapable of handling peak periods, especially during the morning rush.

The New York City Board of Elections’ Poll Workers Manual (page 8) demonstrates the theoretical voter experience flow. This layout is sensible when demand is low and lines are short.


But, the reports indicated that the system strains and ultimately breaks down when lines are long, which they inevitably are during peak voting periods. Apparently, the Board is not properly accounting for the variance in demand (see endnote) for voting, and this is causing cascading failures.

Long lines and wait times also contributed to another widely reported problem: confusion. Confusion manifested itself in several ways, but was widespread in over 40% of reports that had comments about poll site crowding and layout challenges.


The Board of Elections is most likely aware of overcrowding and the other challenges that voters faced on election day. But the Board faced challenges too, and we should give credit where credit is due.

The Board had the monumental task of:

  1. Building and training a workforce of some 33,800 poll workers;
  2. Calculating a sufficient supply of ballots, booths, and other election materials for over 1,200 poll sites;
  3. Distributing materials to each of those sites; and
  4. Collecting the results for the portion of the 4.2 million registered voters who cast ballots this past November.

Additionally, Governor Cuomo’s order in the wake of Superstorm Sandy to allow affidavit voting in the affected election districts was received literally hours before polls opened, leaving election staff with little time to print and distribute the additional ballots.

The Board’s work must be recognized as both diligent and earnest. In an era of widespread government funding cuts, the Board is doing more with less. But there is clearly still room for improvement.

The good news?

Inexpensive and impactful interventions exist that can make voting a markedly smoother process in the short run. For example, simply improving signage or changing the queueing layout could make wayfinding easier and cut down wait times significantly.

Voting is the foundation of our democracy and part of the fabric of American society. But when our election system fails us, voters become disengaged. We do not need a new iPad at every poll site check-in or a complete revamp of internal HR technology to keep voters enfranchised. What we do need are common sense solutions that can go a long way toward improving the voter experience.

We’ll be hashing out those solutions in upcoming posts, so stay tuned for more to come from Pollwatch.

End note:
The average is demonstrated in the calculation of ballot machines, which is based on the average number of voters in the district. The poll worker allocation algorithm is not immediately evident. But the Board’s poll worker hiring practices indicates that each poll worker is hired for the full election day, which turns out to be in some cases upwards of 18 hours. Hiring all poll workers in this fashion leaves little ability in poll staff to ramp-up supply in periods of peak demand.

Futher reading.