Long Lines to Vote: Progressive, Conservative, Net-head, Bell-head

I hate to see news outlets casting in a partisan political view the issues of voter registration and ready access to the voting booth. But don’t give up on the NYT article Waiting Times at Ballot Boxes Draw Scrutiny despite its partisan lead sentence. I rarely do political commentary, but I’ll to a little today, specifically in the context of this article, which is very revealing about a traditional — and I think healthy — polarity of the American political tradition.

One side of the polarity sees issues like this not a problem per se, but a defect in the implementation of current rules. You might call this a “conservative” side of American political problem solving — don’t change the rules, but do act to improve the way that they’re put into practice. In this case, for this view, the issue of long lines at polling places is an issue of capacity that’s “very easily handled” as NYT quoted Sen. Grassley. The implied solution is more and smaller precincts, more polling places, more voting stations in the polling places, and faster procedures for voter check-in. (I should add that in the latter case, there are tech solutions, like our DIY voter check-in via the Voter Portal we did in 2012, or the Digital Pollbook project of this year.)

That really comes down to pumping more money into existing election operations.

The other side of the polarity, which you might call “progressive“, sees issues like this as a problem that needs a solution by changing the current rules, which currently define a system that’s not working. Further, the progressive sees such rule changes as an inherent part of a process of evolution of rules (a progression). In this case, for this view, traditional polling place operations are inherently flawed in practice; empirically, we have seen that it leads to hot spots where people wait a long time to check in to vote. The implied solution approach is to create or promote more changes in the voting processes — early voting, voting centers, more absentee voting, approaches to absentee voting that don’t depend on the USPS, separation of Federal elections form those messy local elections with mile-long ballots, … lots of ideas. (And some of them are partly technologically enabled!)

That really comes down to coming up with potentially a lot of money to run new programs to use these new voting methods.

I’m a conservative by temperament: don’t fix it unless you’re sure it’s broken, try some incremental tweaks before replacing it, keep it simple, every change brings in a host of unintended side effects, better the devil you know, and so on. But I like both of these approaches, because they both have a common factor — increased Federal spending on Federal elections. Believe me the local election officials need it!

Lastly, there’s also a tech analogy in the nethead vs. bellhead polarity. Netheads see problems not as structural but in terms of capacity and scale; if your network isn’t working right, throw in some more network capacity and compute capacity, but conserve the simplicity of the current structure. Bellheads want to implement  progressively more careful control systems. It’s a long story about how we now have both in a sort of wave/particle duality, but for this political issue, the geek approach of “both!”, is really easy to say: Throw lots more resources at the long lines problem in the current system (line up to vote in person in one specific place on election day), while at the same time doing more with alternative methods; see what happens, and use the results to drive better application of more resources where that has a positive effect, and also use the results to drive more progress in tuning the new approaches (alternate voting methods) in parallel to the existing system with its preserved simplicity. I rarely expect the political process to be informed by the geek view, but there it is.

So, in regard to this supposed political tussle coming, I say: “I hope you both win!”


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