how to suppress the vote through bad resource allocation

Suppressing the vote is in the news a lot this election. Several media organizations have reported that the Trump campaign is trying to suppress the vote in an attempt to win the election. Voter suppression can occur through discouraging people to vote by running a negative campaign or disenfranchising voters by claiming that the system is rigged and votes don’t really. Votes can also be suppressed by managing resources in a sinister way.

There were very long voting lines in Ohio (a battleground state) in 2004, 2008, and 2012 that led some to question state officials motives. A 2008 NY Times article by Adam Cohen outlines some of the allocation issues in Ohio on Election Day in 2004. One way to suppress the vote is to under-allocate voting machines to precincts, which leads to voting queues exploding. As a result, many voters will balk or renege before voting, thus suppressing the vote. Under-allocating voting machines in a targeted set of precincts can suppress the vote of one political party.

Bad resource allocation can suppress the vote, whether it is intentional or not. And that’s a problem. Good planning doesn’t just to efficiency and effectiveness; it also leads to equity — everyone having equal opportunity to vote and equal access to a relatively short voting queue in their precinct.

Queue basics: the voters are customers who enter the system, where the system is a precinct’s voting location with several voting machines or booths. The voters wait in a queue to cast their votes in voting booths (the servers). The queue can get long due to one or more of these three factors:

  1. The arrival rate can be too high
  2. Voters take too long to cast their vote
  3. There are too few voting booths

We generally assume that the arrival rate and the voting time are exogenously given input parameters and that the only thing we can control is #3, the number of voting booths at each precinct. This is mostly true. Technically, we don’t have much control over factors #1 and #2. Voters show up to vote when they want and take the time they need to cast a vote.  However, a precinct with a very long line can encourage voters to balk (not enter the queue) or renege (leave the queue after waiting for a bit), which means that we have some control over the effective voting rate. We can lower the effective voting rate by allocating too few voting booths to a precinct. This is how you can suppress the vote.

You can also suppress the vote by not anticipating a longer ballot, since the time it takes to vote is largely determined by the length of the ballot. A long ballot or a ballot with referendums that are worded in confusing legalese can slow down the voting process and lead to very long queues. It’s important to study the ballot length and request more voting booths if the ballot is long.

A 2013 paper by Muer Yang, Michael Fry, David Kelton, and Ted Allen called “Improving Voting Systems through Service‐Operations Management” studies how to allocate voting machines to precincts using queueing models and simulation models. All authors were at Ohio universities at the time, and they develop a method for allocating booths to precincts that are robust to assumptions regarding the potential arrival patterns of the voters and the possibility of voting machine failure.

One way to avoid waiting in line on Election Day is to vote early or with an absentee ballot. I hate waiting in line so I already did this. NPR has full coverage of how to vote early. Many–but not all–states allow for early in-person or by mail voting with no excuse necessary. Voting early helps to reduce the arrival rate on Election Day, which reduces waiting times while not suppressing the vote.

Yang M, Fry MJ, Kelton WD, Allen TT. Improving Voting Systems through Service‐Operations Management. Production and Operations Management. 2014 Jul 1;23(7):1083-97.


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