by Emily Lippolis, Special Contributor
The biggest problem facing Virginia registrars is a lack of resources. They are understaffed, overworked, and last-minute legislative acts (like mandating ballots in Spanish) mean that they are often burdened with unforeseen changes right before Election Day. Poll workers are well-trained but most experience their first real day of work on Election Day. There is usually not enough money to create data for election statistics at individual precincts. Furthermore, each precinct is different and has their own set of needs.
All of this led our working group on Election Day “party planning” to conclude that what registrars need most are business management-like resources, and not broad solutions to haphazardly apply to every precinct. Most large businesses track their resources so that they can determine how different processes and investments lead to different outcomes. Many large companies, like Walt Disney World and UPS, have already done the research necessary to mitigate many of the issues that create delays at the polls. Some states have already solved the problems facing other states, and just need a medium to communicate their solutions with the rest of the country. If election officials had the same resources used by big businesses to create maximum efficiency and customer satisfaction, then elections would run a lot more smoothly in Virginia.
The most important part of a “business management” approach to elections is the data. Currently, registrars know that they need more money and what they need to spend it on, it’s just that there is a lack of data to support what they know. Right now a election official may go to a legislature and say, “We need $7-12 million to reduce delays in the next election.” If officials were able to collect the data to diagnose how each resource affects the length of delays, then they would be able to approach a legislature and say, for example, “With an additional $7 million to spend on more poll workers in rural areas and more DRE machines in urban areas, we can reduce delay time from 20 minutes on average to 10 minutes. But, with $5 million more to spend on electronic poll books, we can get it down to 5 minutes.” More data means that officials can assign a cost to a reduction in delay time, and leave it to the legislature to make the value judgment.
The second part of a “business management” approach to elections means that local officials are armed with management training to ensure the best election day outcome for their precinct. Nobody knows the needs of a state better than state officials, and nobody knows the needs of a precinct better than its registrar. Broad generalized solutions, like “every precinct needs a DRE machine per 200 voters,” are useless. However, providing registrars with a management toolkit could help them arrive at the best procedure for their precinct. This could include checklists that help registrars pinpoint problem areas, visits by outside consultants. or access to reports created by precincts and businesses who have solved similar problems. Whatever the “toolkit” includes, it should be geared more towards the diagnosis of the “illness” rather than assuming what the treatment should be.
If Virginia equips its registrars with these “business management” resources, then they will be able to efficiently troubleshoot the problems that lead to delays on their own.
Emily Lippolis was a workshop scribe at the Seventh Annual Election Law Symposium.