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Staff Pick: Foundation Funded Research Explores How to Improve the Voter Experience
August 9, 2018

Becca Leviss is a Knowledge Services Fellow at Foundation Center.

This post is part of the GlassPockets’ Democracy Funding series, designed to spotlight knowledge about ways in which philanthropy is working to strengthen American democracy.

Becca 2Voting is central to our democracy, providing citizens from all communities direct way to influence the future by conveying beliefs through civic participation. Though foundations by law must be non-partisan, they can and do support democracy in a variety of ways, and we are tracking these activities in our publicly available Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy web portal.  
 
From this data we can see that encouraging broad civic participation is one of the most popular ways in which institutional philanthropy supports our democracy. Specific strategies under civic participation include issue-based participation, civic education and leadership, naturalization and immigrant civic integration, and public participation. So, what have foundations learned from these efforts about how to strengthen our democracy? Today we will zoom in to learn from a foundation-funded report that is openly available, containing findings from data collection on elections and voting patterns, including how well the process is workingand who is included or excluded. 
 
Our latest “Staff Pick” from IssueLab’s Democracy Special Collection, which is comprised of foundation-funded research on the topic, explores an aspect of the voter experience in America that could be improvedWith less than 90 days to go before the midterm elections, we’re pleased to offer this deep dive into an important piece of voting-related research. 
 
Research in the social sector can sometimes feel inaccessible or artificial—based on complex theories and mathematical models and highly-controlled situations. This report, however, presents its research methodology and results in a clear, understandable manner that invites the reader to continue its work to understanding how polling sites can use their resources to both investigate and improve the voter experience.  

STAFF PICK

Improving the Voter Experience: Reducing Polling Place Wait Times by Measuring Lines and Managing Polling Place Resources, by Charles Stewart III; John C. Fortier; Matthew Weil; Tim Harper; Stephen Pettigrew 

Download the Report

Publisher

Bipartisan Policy Center

Funders

Ford Foundation; The Democracy Fund

Quick Summary

Voting is the cornerstone of civic engagement in American democracy, but long wait times and inefficient organization at polling places can undermine the voting process and even discourage citizens from voting altogether. In 2013, President Barack Obama launched the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA) to initiate studies and collaborative research on polling place wait times. The PCEA’s work revealed that while wait times and poll lines are a serious issue in the United States, they are also reflective of deeper, more complex problems within the election administration system. This report by the Bipartisan Policy Center summarizes the PCEA’s efforts and highlights how the knowledge gained can produce action and improvement at polling sites. Ultimately, the report emphasizes the need for continued research and innovation in approaching common issues in the voter experience.

Field of Practice

Government Reform

What makes it stand out?

Ne report“Long lines may be a canary in the coal mine,” begins the report,“indicating problems beyond a simple mismatch between the number of voting machines and voters, such as voter rules that are inaccurate or onerous.” Quantitative and qualitative data has shown that long lines at the polls have wide-reaching economic costs of over half a billion dollars in a presidential election, as well as the immeasurable cost of voter discouragement due to polling place problems. These issues are exacerbated at polling sites that are urban, dense, and with large minority populations, where lack of resources and access can disenfranchise the voting population.

While the dilemma of election administration is complex, the report describes a rather straight-forward series of projects by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Bipartisan Policy Center. MIT and BPC collaborated to create a system of data collection on polling lines and polling place efficiency that would be simple and easily implemented by poll workers. The program utilized basic queuing theory: calculating the average wait time of a voter by dividing the average line length by the average arrival time. For fellow (and potential future) researchers, this report spends a meaningful portion of time explaining the significance of each variable, how it is calculated, and how its fluctuation impacts the overall results of the investigation. We are given examples of several successful iterations of the study and their evaluations, as well as insight into certain research choices.

MIT/BPC’s work has found that an overwhelming majority of Election Day polling sites—82 percent—experienced the longest line when the doors first opened. In all, a total of 90 percent of Election Day polling sites have their longest lines within the first two hourly samples (when observed on Hour 0 and Hour 1), with the lines declining at an average rate after that. Similarly, voters experience the longest wait times when the lines were at their longest. This pattern is vastly different from that of early voting sites, where wait time is relatively constant; however, these sites still most commonly experience their longest lines at the beginning of the day (25 percent of the studied population).

The research emphasizes the importance of how to adequately prepare for the length of the longest line. The report suggests that if polling sites adjust worker shifts to accommodate for strong early morning voter turnout on Election Day, they can easily clear the lines within the first few hours of voting, thus saving money and better serving their voters. The report also recognizes the range of its results: in other words, individual precincts have individual needs. Without meaningful research, however, we cannot know how to meet those needs and improve the voter experience. Therefore, as readers (and hopefully fellow voters), we are encouraged by MIT/BPC’s work to take clear and simple action to improve our own polling sites through continued research and investigation. This report exemplifies the importance of making the research and data process transparent and attainable so that we can not only understand its significance, but actively contribute to its efforts. There are many processes that could benefit from this kind of data analysis to improve the user experience. What if foundations analyzed their grant processes in this way? I can’t help but think that there is much that philanthropy can learn from the government from reports like this that show how institutions are opening up data collection to improve the user experience for actors and stakeholders.

Key Quote

“Precincts with large numbers of registered voters often have too few check-in stations or voting booths to handle the volume of voters assigned to the precinct, even under the best of circumstances. Precincts that are unable to clear the lines from the first three hours of voting are virtually guaranteed to have long lines throughout the day. Polling places in urban areas often face design challenges—small, inconvenient spaces—that undermine many election officials’ best efforts to provide adequate resources to these locations.”

--Becca Leviss

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  • Transparency Talk, the Glasspockets blog, is a platform for candid and constructive conversation about foundation transparency and accountability. In this space, Foundation Center highlights strategies, findings, and best practices on the web and in foundations–illuminating the importance of having "glass pockets."

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