Casting your vote shouldn’t take all day. But as anyone who has ever raced to the polls after work knows, the lines quickly grow from annoying to unmanageable. You’ve got places to be, kids and pets to feed, calls of nature to answer. It doesn’t have to be this way, especially when it comes to early voting, when you can cast your ballot at just about any polling place in your county. If only you could know whether the voting line in the next precinct over was nine times shorter (or nine times longer). Well, thanks to software company Esri’s mapping technology, you finally can.
This year, hundreds of counties across the country—from crowded Loudoun County in Virginia, to sparsely populated Wadena in Minnesota—are leveraging geographic information systems (GIS) for voting purposes. Many are using mapping software big fish Esri’s platform to inform their constituents where they can vote. More than fifty counties are taking GIS even further to provide real-time voting wait estimates on their websites. It’s a step towards modernizing the voting experience, and it might even help systematically disenfranchised voters make it to the polls.
Back in the olden days of, oh, 2012, polling station workers would estimate how long their lines were and email that information to county officials. Those officials would upload that data to the county’s aging website. The process was inefficient and basically ensured the information was not current by the time voters saw it. Now the local officials working the polls can observe the lines and update their constituents directly from the field. With three taps of a touchscreen, they can input the wait time on their smartphone and automatically push the information out to the county’s website.
If this seems like a simple—even obvious—addition to the voting system, well, that’s because it is. “Here’s the irony: in the world at large, an application like this is not a big deal. But in the world of elections it would be,” says Charles Stewart III, a political scientist at MIT and a leader of the CalTech/MIT Voting Technology Project. “I think it’s the sort of thing that’s needed.”
As we’ve covered repeatedly, US voting tech is woefully out of date (and easily hackable). Most of the criticism has been directed at voting machines, but those technological inadequacies extend to relatively smaller issues like how websites represent wait times. “Counties’ websites look like they’re running HTML hacked out in 1942: they show red for long, green for short,” Stewart says. Not very helpful when you’re trying to figure out how to squeeze voting into your busy workday.
But more connected voter tech may offer more than a better user experience. It could help chip away at some deeper, systemic voting problems. Long lines disproportionally afflict low-income areas where fewer resources (like voting machines) are available. More than anything else, economics determines how long you’ll have to wait to vote. With platforms like Esri’s in place, precincts suffering from longer lines can gather more data to show local officials that they need more money, more polling stations, and more voting machines to shrink the wait next election season.
“The first step in getting local election officials to start managing their lines is to get them gathering and understanding the data,” says Stewart. “Tools like this can make them more savvy when they go to their county commission.”
As for Esri itself, the company is seeing a massive uptick in local government users this year, says Christian Carlson, Esri’s director of state, local, and provincial governments, . In Cobb County, Georgia, for example, election officials mapped their polling locations and wait-time data to make its website more user-friendly. Between October 14 and November 4—the county’s early voting period—the site received more than 110 thousand views. In all, county voters cast 81,303 early ballots this year—about 30,000 more than in 2012. Hard to say if that increase has anything to do with voters having more information—it’s a crazy, energized election anyway—but it’s definitely not hurting.
Yes, in the short term, these wait-time visualizers still have their limits, however up-to-date and pretty. “From the voters’ perspective, its impact on election day is probably limited,” says Paul Herrnson, a political scientist at the University of Connecticut who studies voting technology. “Most voters go to the polls when they can—before or after work.” And for some, seeing exactly how long they’ll have to wait to vote might be discouraging. If you see the line is hours long, do you drive to polls? Maybe not.
Still, in implementing such systems, local governments are showing a willingness to modernize and get in synch with the needs of their constituents. “We’re a connected generation,” Carlson says. “It’s really important for government to provide systems that align with the ways that people live the rest of their lives.” It’s been a stressful election cycle. It’s about time election day became less of a hassle.