San Francisco Department of Elections Explores the Voting Timer App

Featured image: wristwatch, pen, and note pad

Although it’s often invisible to voters, an incredible amount of planning and coordination goes into the voting experience.

At the San Francisco Department of Elections, working to ensure a trouble-free experience at the polls is top of mind for people like Jonathan Aaberg. He’s discovered how the Voting Timer App — one of the newest tools in the Election Toolkit — can be used to guide important decisions about resources and polling places.

The single biggest factor that determines whether a voting experience will be pleasant or unpleasant is actually pretty simple: if voters will have to wait or not.

“When voters have to wait for any stage of the voting process,” Jonathan explains, “the result is congested polling places and irritated or discouraged voters and stressed out poll workers. By identifying potential bottlenecks in the voting process and the thresholds at which those bottlenecks occur, we can assign our staff and equipment in an efficient way that alleviates all three of those problems.”

Two smiling poll workers provide a ballot to a voter

Working to provide a positive voting experience. Photo courtesy of San Francisco Department of Elections.

In other words, providing a positive voting experience means connecting the dots between congestion, resources, and data. To avoid congestion, you need to carefully allocate resources, and to do that, you need data on what happens at the polling place.

This is where voting times become so important.

“Our research has shown us that the number of voting booths can be a crucial bottleneck,” says Jonathan. “We’ve found that the degree to which it is a bottleneck is quite sensitive to the average amount of time a voter spends in the voting booth, and this average is largely determined by the length and composition of the contests on the ballot.”

To collect data on voting times, Jonathan and his colleagues in the Precinct Services division have timed voters in two previous elections, but the tools they used were pretty basic. “Our data collection process consisted of parking data collectors in a small number of polling places and providing them with essentially a stopwatch and a chart to fill in,” he recalls.

This low-tech approach produced useful data but came with some limitations. For one thing, it was difficult, if not impossible, for the data collectors to track more than one voter at the same time. And then, the collectors had to do data entry after the observation was over.

Jonathan believes the Voting Timer App will significantly streamline data collection in future elections.

“It’s ingenious the way you designed it to make it simple to track four booths simultaneously,” he says. “I would expect we will be able to collect a much larger number of observations with the same staff. And (this is a huge help to us) since the data is uploaded digitally to our account, you will be saving us a ton of data entry and the potential errors accompanying it.”

Polling place in a residential garage in San Francisco

One of San Francisco’s famous “garage” polling places. Photo courtesy of San Francisco Department of Elections.

Already Jonathan and his team are finding good use for their data. “We have collected enough data points,” he reports, “to derive a simple linear regression model with which to predict voting booth time from total number of contests on the ballot.”

If you’re an election administrator who wants to make informed decisions about resources and provide a positive experience for voters, Jonathan encourages you to roll up your sleeves and get started early.

“The Voting Timer App,” he explains, “makes it really easy to collect and manage the data. Even if you don’t have a plan in place for analyzing the data, when you finally produce your plan you’ll be glad you already have some data to look at.”

Ready to time voters? Check out the Voting Timer App. In addition, if you have other questions about resource allocation, the Polling Place Resource Planner may be a big help.