Asymmetrical Information - Megan McArdle

11.06.12

Shouldn't We Be Able to Vote Without Long Lines?

Businesses worry about this stuff constantly. The problem is harder than it seems.

I've seen a lot of complaints about long lines at polling places.  Some of them, like the claims that Republicans are making it too hard to vote early, may be justified.  Others, though, seem overblown.  Kevin Drum reports his experience, which is, he says, "how voting should go for everyone."

The weather was nice. I have a job that allows me to vote anytime I want, so I headed out at 10:58 am, which is conveniently during the midmorning lull. My polling place is about 200 yards from my house and I got there at 11:01 am. There was no line. It took two minutes to check in. Nobody asked for ID because California doesn't require it. The machine worked fine. It printed an audit trail that correctly captured my vote. I returned home at 11:09 am.

Kevin recognizes that not everyone can live 200 yards from their polling place.  But as for the rest, why can't we all enjoy such an idyllic experience?  

Because of cost.  This is a problem that merchants worry about all the time.  Store traffic tends to be "lumpy": you get a lot of people on Saturday morning, very few at 4 pm on a Wednesday.  For grocers, who operate on razor thin margins, this raises big questions about how much capacity to build: enough to handle peak traffic, or enough to manage average traffic?  In areas where real estate and labor is cheap, they tend to build more capacity.  In urban areas where land and labor are expensive, they don't.  In a rural town, a three-deep line at the Wegman's cash register will send a manager into emergency overdrive, getting another lane open.  In the supermarkets in New York and Washington, which tend to have enough registers to handle moderate but not peak customer flow, you may wait in line for 10-15 minutes.  30-45 on the days before Christmas and Thanksgiving.  

Voting presents this problem on steroids: huge numbers of people who show up only one day a year (one or two weeks a year, if you live in a state with early voting--but even then, the traffic will mostly be crammed into a few morning, evening and weekend hours).  In fact it's worse than that: since few people vote in off-year elections, and there's only moderate flow during most mid-term elections, traffic really peaks for one day every four years.

What Kevin is suggesting is that we ought to have enough capacity to accomodate that peak flow.  

But voting machines and poll workers are not free. And as Popular Mechanics notes:

[L]ike all things digital, they quickly grow outdated. You can't go replacing them every three years, not when county citizens are demanding new streetlights and bridge repairs. "For every machine that's purchased," one expert says, "there's a picture of a schoolteacher who wasn't hired."  

The problem is likely to be worst in urban areas because that's where land is relatively scarce, population is relatively dense, and public buildings are relatively small.  So comparing those lines to the experience in a rich suburb with low population density seems more than a tad unfair.  I've spent many a happy hour in New York election lines long before the storm fouled everything up, simply because hey, it's hard to move 8 million people through the system in a single day.  

There are other things that you can do to alleviate this, such as allowing more voting by mail.  But absentee balloting is more vulnerable to fraud, not to mention the vaguaries of the post office.  Would a system that's more convenient but less reliable actually be an improvement?  As someone who cares a lot about the integrity of the vote, I'd argue not.