About this series: NCSL hosted legislators and legislative staff in December 2023 to answer common questions surrounding election processes and options, with an eye toward bill drafting in 2024 and beyond. Experts delved into topics ranging from absentee and mail voting and the role of poll watchers to technology and maintaining clean voter rolls. State Legislatures News broke down the questions and answers to help inform lawmakers on the intricacies of elections. Check Elections Q&As for Lawmakers often for more information.
The Expert: Gretchen Macht, associate professor of mechanical, industrial and systems engineering, University of Rhode Island, and director of URI VOTES and the Sustainable Innovative Solutions Lab
In-person voting technology has come a long way since the infamous punch cards and hanging chads of the 2000 presidential election. And while voting wait times have declined over the years, Macht says there’s room for improvement through strategic resource allocation and making data-informed decisions with engineering tools and statistical analysis.
“When we look at in-person elections, we can look at the balance of the entire system and optimize that system,” she says. “By analyzing voter arrival patterns and optimizing the setup of polling locations, we can help create an experience that allows voters to move through the space effectively and efficiently, so no one has to wait in a long line to vote.”
Top Two Takeaways
- Sophisticated data analysis and simulation tools can predict challenges in the voting process before they happen.
- State-specific rules and regulations should guide the arrangement of voting equipment, lines and space layouts to ensure an efficient experience for voters.
Macht encourages state election officials to collaborate with expert consultants such as those at URI VOTES (the University of Rhode Island Voter OperaTions and Election Systems), which employs data, layout modeling and simulation tools to develop efficient voting processes. Partnering with similar engineering labs across the country allows for tailored solutions that respect the unique rules and layouts of each state’s polling places.
“Differences in state laws impact how we design the flow of a polling place,” she says. “For example, some laws dictate the direction voters must enter and exit, while others focus on the positioning of voters within the space.”
Macht’s team uses simulations to explore scenarios such as equipment failures, poll worker shortages and technological updates, all of which help anticipate and plan for issues that may arise on Election Day.
“By considering factors like the timing of early voting and the configuration of the voting lines, we can predict and mitigate potential disruptions,” she says.
Macht suggests election officials consider questions including:
- How can we preemptively address potential Election Day administration issues?
- Should polling places be consolidated to improve efficiency?
- What strategies can reduce voter wait times and integrate equipment effectively?
What it boils down to is that all these questions and choices influence the entire voting experience, she says. So, by building simulation models based on observations and data, election officials can help head off situations before they happen—thinking like an engineer can ensure a positive in-person voting experience.
Lesley Kennedy is NCSL’s director of publishing and digital content.