Friday, January 3, 2014

Two Lines Are Better Than One

With some degree of irony, at least to election geeks, some academics in late 2012 published a paper analyzing the effect of lines on customer purchases.

It was published November 6, 2012, in fact--the same day as the 2012 presidential election and just hours before Barack Obama's acceptance speech addressed the long lines of people in Florida waiting to vote.

"We have to fix that," he said of the lines.

Very soon, this month, a report will be issued by the Presidential Commission on Election Administration to detail findings and recommendations related to lines at polling places on November 6, 2012.

I'm not sure if the Commission had access to this study.  I just became aware of it when it was referenced in the latest issue of the Harvard Business Review.

The study noted buying behavior related to lines, not voting behavior.  Still, one fair expectation of the Commission report will be a nod to other industries that are impacted with the queueing of people in lines.  One Commission member is, after all, an executive at Disney, and Disney manages lines at its theme parks with precision.

The paper acknowledges the primary issue that longer lines occur when there is higher volume of visitors, such as the deli customers the study measured.  It's also clear when reading the study--as if it weren't already--that there is no magical best practice to eliminate lines.

Well, almost--we can take steps to ensure we are not our own worst enemy.  In Johnson County, on November 6, we had two polling places that had excessive lines during the rush of the morning.

The phrase "excessive lines," or even the term "line" has received considerable scrutiny since the Commission was formed.  As an election administrator, I've sidestepped--copped out, maybe--from defining what I consider "an acceptable line."  I think our goal should be no lines, even if that isn't possible.

Here, though, are photos from the site with the worst line that morning, at about 7:30 a.m.

Could this line have been prevented?  Absolutely.

The root cause?  Our supervising judge was looking for some key opening materials, in her suitcase, but she couldn't find them.

As instructed, she immediately called our office at the first sign of trouble.

The call went unanswered.  All calls, in fact, to our office until 20 minutes after the polls opened, 6:20, that morning went unanswered.

That's because all of the calls to our office had been routed to the Appraiser's Office.

As my 9th-grade English teacher Bill Nickels often said, report card day is the wrong day to worry about your grade.  To that end, after  problems with the county's cutover to a new phone system in previous elections, we thought we had beat this issue to death and had the necessary leaders on notice.

While we started noticing our phones were silent, many of our supervising judges were panicking unnecessarily because they couldn't get through.

These were simple questions usually.  Often, they just wanted to express that they thought we needed more "I Voted" stickers or make sure they had the proper envelopes for provisional ballots.  Had we talked with the supervising judge at this location photographed, we could have quickly prevented the freefall.  Instead, she wasn't ready at 6 a.m. and it wasn't her fault.

In general, if you are making $125 for a 14-hour day, it's just overwhelming when calling in what seems like the middle of the night, over and over and over, not getting a response, and knowing that in about an hour you will begin seeing hundreds of voters.

(How middle of the night?  This other picture shows what I encountered driving to the office on November 6).

As this unfolded, we blitzed text messages to the cellphones we sent to the polls (hoping they were unpacked) to let workers know we weren't able to receive phone calls.  The text instructed workers to call a specific cell phone number that I had set up for phone emergencies.

(And, interesting sidebar, that number is now used for voters to take a picture of their citizenship documentation with their phones if it's easier for them to text that to us).

We also were scrambling to get someone on the case, to fix the phones.  The Appraiser's office employees are dedicated individuals, but they weren't there to answer calls at 5 a.m., and they would have been as baffled as we were why the calls were going there.

Frustrated that we didn't have anyone on call on such an important day (to us, anyway), I emailed the county manager at 5:45 a.m., knowing he had mobile email access, hoping that would result in action.  I'm not sure what was more important in the county that day than the presidential election, but something must have been because I never got an acknowledgment of that note or a reply.  (The manager of our phone system later apologized in such a sincere way that I nearly cried; he was passionately concerned about our voters).

By the time phones were working, well after the polls opened, it didn't take long to get several complaints from voters at this location.  The image, from the photos I took when I arrived, is so unnerving because it could have been staved off.

It doesn't take a presidential commission to determine how this could have been avoided.  In fact, this image was still with me when I met with members of the Commission just before July 4.  At that time I posted here that the recommendations should be directed at those that provided funding rather than the election administrators.

We can have our best practices, our plans B and C (like cell phones sent out and separate phone and data services for just this type of thing), and the best election workers (which we do have), but those whose job it is to support us don't always carry the same urgency.  It makes sense, I guess, but it hurts when it happens.  And, it hurts our voters.

My mistake here?  Being too tolerant of the letdown.  In later discussions with the county manager, it's as though this never happened.  That's my fault, and without pressing on the issue (and many others like this), we're destined to have similar issues again.  I can't be quiet in The Year Of The Voter.

This post is as much as something for reference and discussion as we near heavy election days in The Year Of The Voter as it is about the academic study.

But that study also has a key takeaway for us.  Persons in line look at the length of the line, not how fast it moves.  If the line is too long, in their view, they leave.

Two shorter lines might have more stickiness (fewer people walking away because of the line) than one long line.  If there ever is a point to consider about breaking down the check-in table in half or thirds (with more workers, obviously), this is it.  We've talked about it with our workers often, and this fall, we'll be splitting the books as a matter of course.

It's a pretty nerdy study, but it's timely and an interesting read as we wait for the report from the Commission.  Like this post and the study, the report is certain to generate candid and necessary discussion on behalf of voters.  Voters deserve that.