Is it possible to have safe and equitable elections?

Is it possible to have safe and equitable elections?

The general election this past year was unlike any other, with an intensely contested election between two candidates, a series of legal challenges and a former president who cast doubt upon the validity of absentee ballots and the election outcome itself. 

Amid the political tension, the ongoing viral pandemic created tremendous challenges for election officials, who worked overtime to ensure that voting in this year’s presidential election is safe, equitable and accessible. To put it mildly, the stakes were high.

Although the precise circumstances of the 2020 election may never be repeated, questions remain about how to prepare for future elections as the pandemic gradually recedes over months and possibly, years.

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Science is here to help. Fortunately, analytical techniques such as “queueing theory” can help with election planning. By providing insights into how the various pieces of the system interact to either enhance or risk both voters’ rights and public health by affecting the time that voters spend in line waiting to vote, queueing theory can point the way toward election best practices that work for both early and in-person voting.

Critical challenges facing election officials in November’s general election include poll worker shortages, the need to adapt voting procedures to allow for protective measures against SARS-CoV-2 transmission, cramped polling locations that create challenges for social distancing and a massive increase in absentee voting. After the election, we learned that the U.S. Postal Service did not deliver more than 150,000 mail-in ballots by Election Day and voting inequities persisted with voting queues in poor neighborhoods longer than those in affluent neighborhoods.

It is possible to have safe and equitable future elections. But election officials must prepare now. Knowledge about how systems operate can help. 

As professors of political science and industrial and systems engineering, we have used queueing theory to analyze how various “inputs” to the election system affect the safety of poll workers and the rights of voters. Our model pinpoints exactly what factors are likely to affect the degree to which voters are exposed to the virus while waiting in line and sheds light on how to allocate resources to reduce inequities.

If polling locations experience unacceptable voter waiting times, those lines are likely to be caused by at least one of three main factors: high turnout for in-person voting on Election Day; too few poll workers to staff an adequate number of check-in stations; or an increased time spent checking in, marking a ballot and submitting a ballot due to personal protective equipment (PPE) usage and other protective measures taken to reduce SARS-CoV-2 transmission. Any one of these factors is enough to result in long wait times and, as a result, election officials must implement strategies to mitigate all three of these factors in future elections. 

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There are two main strategies for alleviating long voter queues.

The first is to ensure high levels of early voting. Election officials should aspire to have a majority of all votes in their jurisdictions cast early. This can be achieved by expanding times and locations for in-person early voting, adding new drop box locations for voters to deposit absentee ballots on or before Election Day and educating voters on properly completing and submitting a mail-in absentee ballot to make sure they are counted.

Second, election officials should plan to have greater numbers of poll workers on hand than normal, even with high levels of early voting. Having adequate poll workers to staff one additional check-in booth per polling location can mitigate slower check-in times caused by PPE and social distancing. And additional poll workers will be needed to sanitize voting areas and to manage voters waiting to vote in socially distant queues outside of polling locations.

Some jurisdictions have moved to consolidate polling locations as a strategy for maintaining social distancing and dealing with poll worker shortages. This strategy will likely backfire. Consolidated polling locations require careful planning to ensure that voting resources are equitably allocated. Consolidates polling locations would also require higher staffing levels to support the large number of check-in booths required to maintain low voter wait times while potentially interfering with the socially distant placement of check-in and voting booths and creating confusion for voters, which may ultimately worsen voter wait times. Adding arenas and other spacious venues for voting can be helpful, but maintaining many local polling places with plenty of poll workers is still necessary to maintain equitable voter waiting times.

Finally, voters themselves can help make the election safe, effective and equitable. Voting early or by mail shortens the queues on Election Day and reduces the risk of SARS-CoV-2 to other voters and poll workers. Voters can assist others who are voting early by driving voters who need help to in-person early voting sites and serving as witnesses for voters casting absentee ballots. And voters can reduce poll worker shortages by volunteering to serve themselves. 

While a large-scale immunization effort is underway, it may be years before elections return to the way they were prior to the pandemic. PPE and social distancing are here to stay, and many voters may continue to have developed a preference for early voting.

Holding elections in the coming years will not be simple but it is within our grasp to have a safe and uneventful elections. Using proven scientific methods is the path to improvement.

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

Dr. Barry C. Burden is a professor of Political Science and director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.