Voting Amid a Global Pandemic: Why Lines May Still be Long at the Polls and How to Counteract it

The long-anticipated 2020 General Election, which was already going to be a show of the ages, is coupled with a global outbreak of the COVID-19 virus. When voter turnout is as high as it is expected to be this year, the lines, or queues in the data science world, can become long — sometimes very long. The spring Presidential primary election in my home state of Wisconsin occurred during the statewide “stay-at-home” order associated with the pandemic, and many polling locations experienced long queues. Election officials are bracing for these queues to be even longer on November 3 when voter turnout will be much higher than it was for the primaries.

As a professor of industrial engineering and an analytics expert, I understand queueing and its implication on voting systems. Additionally, I have studied how election officials can prepare for the General Election next month to ensure that voting is effective, efficient, accessible and safe.

Practically speaking, voter queues can be reduced one of three ways. First, fewer voters can choose to vote on Election Day by voting early or abstaining from voting. Second, more voting resources such as check-in booths can be added to process voters more quickly. And third, service times at check-in booths can be made faster.

This election amid a pandemic comes with good news and bad news. The bad news is that election officials are struggling to find enough poll workers to staff the polls. As a result of these shortages, many polling locations may have fewer check-in booths. Additionally, social distancing and personal protective measures will increase the time it takes for voters to check-in and cast their ballots. Due to these two factors, some polling locations may experience unprecedented waiting times on Election Day despite higher-than-normal early and absentee voting rates.

The good news is that election officials can make preparations for Election Day that prevent these long voter queues. Election officials should plan to recruit more poll workers for the 2020 General Election than for previous presidential elections. If needed, state governors should call on the National Guard to fill remaining poll worker shortages. Having enough poll workers to staff one additional check-in booth at each polling location should be enough to keep voter queues short. Second, election officials should use regular polling locations instead of consolidated polling locations, while also safely locating socially distant voting booths within the voting area and placing booths outside if necessary. Finally, early voting should be increased by expanding in-person early voting in terms of both the timeframe and location, adding new drop box locations for voters to deposit absentee ballots and educating voters on properly completing and submitting their absentee ballots.

Voters play a critical role in determining the performance of voting systems, and there are three concrete ways voters can keep voting queues short on Election Day. First, voting early or voting absentee by submitting an absentee ballot shortens the queues on Election Day and potentially enables someone else to vote on Election Day who otherwise would not be able to. Second, voters can help other voters to vote early by driving to in-person early voting sites, helping them request an absentee ballot and understand how to properly fill it out and serving as witnesses for voters casting absentee ballots. Third, voters can volunteer as a poll worker if their city or county is anticipating a poll worker shortage on Election Day.

It is possible to have a safe election with short voter waiting times during a global health crisis if voters and election officials alike make the proper preparations to reduce risk and keep voting queues short, all while keeping voters healthy. How? It starts now. Election officials and voters must prepare now.

Dr. Laura A. Albert is a professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the College of Engineering. Her research applies optimization and analytical methods to public sector applications. She is a member and former Board member of INFORMS, the largest trade association of Operations Research and Analytics professionals.

Dr. Laura A. Albert is a professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the College of Engineering.

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