Voter wait time measurement tool

A free app to measure the amount of time voters are waiting in line at a polling place

Long lines at the polling place are a chronic problem for many election administrators — especially during presidential elections.

After long lines to vote made headlines in the November 2012 election, the Presidential Commission on Election Administration undertook research on the problem, offering suggestions and advising that no voter should have to wait in line for more than 30 minutes to vote.

Trying to avoid long lines in the first place is a capacity problem, but in addition to dealing with capacity challenges, there are other ways to cope with long waits on election day, including measuring wait times and using that information to inform the public and improve service at polling places.

What you'll need

  • Computer with internet access
  • 2 mobile devices with internet access at each polling place
  • Printer and card stock paper (for printing the cards)
  • TimeStation app
  • Microsoft Excel (for creating wait time spreadsheets)
  • 2 staff members who can manage the wait time system in addition to or instead of their other tasks

Table of contents

  1. Creating your account and printing your cards
  2. Setting up the mobile app
  3. Changing settings to adapt TimeStation for polling place times

Creating your account and printing your cards

This tool is built on an app called TimeStation. TimeStation is a program built primarily to work as a timeclock for employees at a business, but it can easily be used to measure voting wait times, too.

You’ll begin by creating a TimeStation account. It makes sense to begin this step on a desktop or laptop computer, so start there. Don’t worry about downloading the mobile app just yet.

  • To create an account, go to the TimeStation website. On the left side of the page, click on the green Signup for FREE button. Create an account for your election office by filling in the required information. For our purposes, company name should be the name of your election office, so enter something like “ Your County Elections” where it asks for company name.

After you’ve created an account, the website prompts you to get started with a 3-step process.

The TimeStation website presents a user with the three-step process to start using the app

Getting started with TimeStation is easy

  • Create employees. For our purposes, employees = voters. The number of employees you create will be the number of cards you have to distribute to voters. We have a pretty small polling place, so we’re just going to create 10 here. You may prefer to create more or fewer. The maximum is 20. For our purposes, we can just call these people Voter 1, Voter 2, and so on.
  • While you’re adding voters, you also have to create a department. For our purposes, department = the kind of wait that you’re measuring (e.g., wait to check in, wait to get ballot, wait to mark ballot, etc.) At this time we’re creating just one department called “Check-in Time.” You can create additional departments later. Nothing else needs to be entered in on this page: email notifications are unnecessary, and voters should not be able to login to the TimeStation app or site, so you may leave everything blank apart from voter name and department.
  • Repeat this process until you have an employee/voter for the number of cards that you want.
The "Employees" page shows a list of voters being created

Creating “employees” allows you to track voters

Once you have your voter accounts created, you’re ready to print cards. Check the boxes beside the voters’ names to select them and click the Print Cards button. Follow the normal printing procedure that you use in your office and cut the cards out from the sheet that’s printed.

You’ll want your cards to be as durable as possible, since you’ll be distributing them to multiple voters over the course of several hours. If the cards are flimsy, idle voters standing in line might damage the cards while waiting. Consider printing the cards on card stock, printing on regular paper and then gluing them to a cardboard backing, or laminating the cards.
Sample card with voter number and a QR code

These simple TimeStation cards are the heart of the tool

Once you’ve printed your cards, go back to the TimeStation home page by clicking the blue Home button at the top left. At this point, however, you will leave the website behind for a few minutes. This is the time to get your mobile device set up.

Setting up the mobile app

You’re now ready to set up TimeStation on your mobile devices.

  • Apple users: open the App store and search for TimeStation. Once you’ve found it, click the Get button, which will become an Install button. Once the app is downloaded, open it and log in using the account information you created earlier.
  • Android users: open the Google Play store and search for TimeStation. Once you’ve found it, click the Install button to download the app. Once the app is downloaded, open it and log in using the account information you created earlier.

Repeat this process for a second device. The first device will be used to scan cards that will be given to voters as they arrive, and the second device will scan the cards when voters surrender them once they’ve reached the check-in station. Both should be logged in using the same account. This will allow the devices to communicate with each other.

Your two mobile devices do not need to be the same type or the same platform: for instance, an Android phone and an iPad will work together just fine.

Once your mobile devices are set up, you can put them aside until you are ready to actually measure wait times at the polling place.

Using these mobile devices for several hours will drain their batteries. Make sure you have chargers for the devices, backup devices, or extra batteries to prepare.

Changing settings to adapt TimeStation for polling place times

Once your mobile devices are set up, put them aside and go back to the desktop website. To make your wait time information more useful, you need to change some program settings.

Go back to the TimeStation website and, at the top of the page, click on the blue Settings button. Changing these settings now means you won’t have to do it on Election Day when you’re in a hurry to create wait time reports.

  • First, change the Time Rounding setting. TimeStation is set up to measure in terms of hours, which means that by default it rounds short time periods up or down. Change the Time Rounding setting to None. This means that even short wait times will still show up as precise time periods and won’t be rounded.
  • Next, change the Hours display format. Like with the Time Rounding feature, this change will make it easier to report precise wait times. Change the setting from Decimal Hours to Hours and Minutes (00:00).
  • Finally, change the Default Report date Range. Since you’ll only measure wait times on one day — Election Day — you should change this setting to Today.
Change setting screen shot showing location of preferences to change

Adapting TimeStation for voters means changing a few settings

Table of contents

  1. Measuring wait times on Election Day
  2. Creating wait time reports
  3. Next steps

Measuring wait times on Election Day

By this stage, you have your mobile devices set up and your TimeStation cards ready to distribute. Presumably this is a part of your larger polling place setup process. Once the polling place has been open for 15 minutes, begin the process of scanning and distributing cards.

  • Once you’re ready, check in a voter by scanning a card and giving it to the voter. Rehearse a brief explanation that you can recite quickly and easily — something like “I’m giving you this card to help us measure how long the wait to vote is. Please hold on to this card but make sure you give it to your poll worker when you reach the check-in table.”
TimeStation app screen shows it's ready to scan cards

TimeStation app in action

  • Ensure that cards are being checked out when voters reach their destination. Consider keeping a basket or other container where poll workers can place cards once they’ve been checked in.
  • Continue to distribute cards at a regular interval. You won’t be giving cards to all new voters as they arrive; instead we recommend issuing a card every 15 minutes. This will help ensure that the wait times you measure reflect the fluctuations in voter wait times as they grow and diminish.
  • Eventually, you will come close to running out of cards. Once a card has been checked out, it can be used again, so you can get those cards and redistribute them.
  • Continue this process until the polls close.

Creating wait time reports

Once 2-3 cards have been checked in and checked out, you’ll be ready to generate wait time reports. Go back to your computer and to the TimeStation website.

  • Create a report. Once you’re on the TimeStation website on the computer, go to the top of the page and click the blue Reports button. You’re asked to select a report, and there are multiple options. Choose Employee Details. This selection will display wait times for all of the cards that have been checked out. Then choose your date range. You should not need to make any additional selections. Click Run Report.
TimeStation report shows the wait times recorded for each card

Tracking voter wait times with TimeStation

The website now displays a list of the cards with a wait time for each. Assuming you reused your cards, it will show wait times for each time the card was used.

In this report, wait times are not listed chronologically but instead by card. To sort your data by time of day or duration of wait, you’ll need to export and sort your data (see “Export Your Data” below).

  • Study current wait times. Keep in mind that if you want to report estimates of current wait times, you should pay attention only to the 1-2 most recent wait times that were measured.
  • Study wait times in the aggregate. As more and more times are collected, you’ll soon be able to notice trends: times during the day when waits are particularly short or long.
  • Export your data. You can make the most of your wait time information by exporting it to a Microsoft Excel file. To export the data, click on the Excel button to download a spreadsheet. Once you’ve opened it up in Excel, you can sort the information by wait time and other measures. Below is an example of a simple spreadsheet sorted by wait time. 
Excel spreadsheet shows wait times that vary from 11 to 25 minutes

It’s easy to export your wait data to an Excel spreadsheet

Would you like to experiment with the kind of spreadsheets you can create from TimeStation? You can download this sample wait time spreadsheet (CSV).
  • Consider the implications of the wait times. During and after Election Day, you can use this information to make decisions about staffing, inform voters about best times to vote, and appeal for funding and other resources during budget discussions.

Next steps

This guide introduces you to the basics of using TimeStation to measure voter wait times, but as you continue to use the tool, you may become interested in doing more with your wait time information

  • With more experience and skill, you can measure several different waiting experiences at the polling place: time to check in, time to register, and so on. To get started, you’ll need to go back to the TimeStation website and create new employees in new departments. To do the measuring, you’ll check in and check out cards as before, but you’ll do it in more than one stage of the voting process.
  • You may develop questions about the TimeStation app and its capabilities. To find answers, you can consult this helpful list of TimeStation support FAQs.