Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Democratic Steel in the Hour of Chaos

I got a letter from the government the other day.
I opened and read it, it said they were...

The Franklin County Board of Elections.

They wanted me for presiding judge or whatever,
Picture me giving...

The info to y'all. See, because Strickland won almost every single precinct in Franklin County, almost every single precinct in Franklin County now needs a registered Democrat as presiding judge. Because of the spectacular nature of Blackwell's defeat, even within traditionally Republican areas, there is a shortage of trained Democratic precinct officials. If you are a registered Dem in Franklin County, and you've ever complained about the way instructions were done, or ID was checked, or provisional ballots were assigned... well you've got a chance to do something about it now. The pay is $160, which sounds like a decent amount for one day's work, but that's a 14-hour day (minimum - see below), with a mandatory 4 hour training session, so you're looking at about $9/hr. You won't get rich, but if you can't otherwise afford to take Election Day off and volunteer, it'll at least subsidize your pro-democracy activities.

Getting this letter was the second thing that impressed me about the BOE this week. The first was Matt Damschroder's heads up concerning November 2008. In 2004, the election in Columbus was a disaster, and lots of fingers were pointed in lots of faces. The Dispatch did what might be the worst piece of data analysis I've ever seen in a mass-media publication (and I pay attention) in an attempt to show that the suburbs were just as busy as the city (if not busier), and that the voting machines were distributed fairly.

They were not. What the Dispatch showed was that machines were at capacity all day, everywhere. The problem was that some machines had a two-minute wait, and some had a four hour wait. A four hour wait disenfranchises voters, and many Columbus voters were disenfranchised.

The reason for the disparity between the distribution formula for the machines, the Dispatch's analysis of machine usage, and the experience of suburban vs. city voters was primarily the ballot itself. Columbus had several very lengthy propositions on the ballot. The rest of Franklin County had a much shorter ballot. Many voters in Columbus found it impossible to cast their votes within the five minutes alloted, and frankly it would have been impossible to read all of the text, process it, and vote within five minutes. Merely scanning the text and confirming that you were voting the correct way on an issue about which you had already educated yourself prior to entering the booth probably added 1-2 minutes to the voting time for each voter.

Mayor Coleman and the City of Columbus want to do this again. It's a really bad idea. I know that the 2012 plan is hugely important for the city and the administration, and that it will be easier to assure passage in a high turnout election, but it is not ridiculous to speculate that this dsecision could cost Democrats the presidency.

Let's run some numbers:
Machine A is one of three machines in a City precinct that is projected to have a turnout of 630. Machine B is in the suburbs, one of two in a precinct that has a projected turnout of 420. Each of these machines is expected to serve 210 voters. Because the polls are open for 14 hours, we expect the machines to handle 15 voters/hour, or one every four minutes. Because of the additional ballot measures on the City ballot, we project that the typical voter will take 5 minutes to cast a ballot, as opposed to 3.5 minutes in the suburbs.

Now pretend that Machine B actually has one voter walk up every four minutes, like clockwork. Typically, they will be able to walk right up and vote, because the person in front of them finished 30 seconds prior to their arrival.

Machine A is a different situation. When the second voter of the day walks up, they will have to wait 30 seconds for the first person to finish. When eight minutes have gone by, the third voter will show up, but the second voter will still be in the booth for another full minute. Each voter adds 30 seconds to the wait of the next voter. After 3 hours, 40 people will have voted, and 5 people will be in line (looks like 10 because there are two machines), with the last person in line expecting to wait almost twenty minutes to vote. After twelve hours, 160 people will have voted at that machine, there will be twenty people in line for that machine (60 total in the precinct), and the folks at the end of the line can expect to wait more than an hour and a half to vote. When the polls close at 7:30, there will be about 24 people in line for each machine, and they'll finish voting around 9:18.

If all 72 stick around.

What's worse, let's say that 30-40% of the electorate waits unti after 5pm to vote, but they space themselves out evenly from 5pm to 7:30 pm. With 75 voters and 150 minutes, we have one voter showing up every two minutes.

At 6pm in the suburbs, we have had 30 people show up (per machine), 17 of them have voted, 13 are in line, and the last person in line can expect to wait less than 45 minutes to vote. At 6pm in the city, 30 people have showed up to vote, 13 have voted, 17 are waiting, and the person at the end of the line has about an hour and 13 minutes to wait.

At 7:30 pm in the suburbs, 43 evening voters have entered the booth, 22 are in line, and the last person will have to wait an hour and 14 minutes to enter the booth.

At 7:30pm in the city, 34 evening voters will have entered the booth, 41 are in line, and the last person in line can expect to wait just over three hours to get into the booth (10:31pm).

An hour and 14 minutes is reasonable for a person ducking in at the wire. Three hours is never reasonable. This disparity does not require racism or classism or even banal incompetence. It just requires 4.5 minutes vs. 3.5 minutes to get through the voting booth.

So, to take this to the important point, lets say that 21 of the 210 people on Machine B decide that they simply can't wait that long in line. Assuming 300,000 voters in Columbus (the 289,000 recorded voters, plus a conservative bump for growth and those who were victims of this situation that year), we're talking 30,000 votes lost. Given the 61-39 Kerry advantage, there would be more than 7,000 net Democratic votes lost.

Is it possible that Ohio will be decided by fewer than 7000 votes?

There are a number of ways to fix this. The Board of Elections has done a pretty good job of fixing things that they can fix since 2004 (although we won't know how fair the distribution of machines really is until November of 2008), and they have sounded the alarm on this issue in plenty of time. I'd encourage the mayor and the city to take this seriously.

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