I was among the hordes who cast their vote on Tuesday in Ohio. If there was ever a process in need of improvement, it's the voting process in my city. The polling station itself became its own battleground state as people on the way to work parked their cars wherever they could, in the driveways, in the grass, in the fire lanes.
When I walked into the elementary school, the line was backed up to the entryway. Ten minutes later it was snaking out the door into the rain. After checking addresses, election volunteers eventually started ushering people to the four lines inside the gymnasium. About the time one guy started grumbling about waiting in the wrong line for 20 minutes because there were no signs telling anyone where to go (Opportunity #1), my eye for process improvement kicked in.
The school gym had been set up the same way it always is, with five volunteers stationed at each of the four sign-in tables, one for each precinct. Each person had a set task.
"What's your name?" asked the woman with the printout of registered voters in my neighborhood. "Sign here." Another woman marked my name off of her list. A fellow handed me my punchcard ballot, and I stepped into the collapsible voting booth, slipped the card into the slot (upside down, then right-side up thanks to the error-proofing pins at the top) and started punching holes. When I was done, after self inspecting for any dangling chads, I gave the ballot to another guy whose job it was to rip off the top card, drop the ballot into the metal box and hand me my "I Voted Today" sticker. A third woman watched the whole procedure.
Just my luck, before I could actually vote, it was determined that the guy directly in front of me wasn't on the list of registered voters. As he filled out a special form and received his provisional ballot, everyone waited. In the meantime several people finished voting and several booths stood empty. Absent a separate method for processing exceptions (Opportunity #2), and multiskilled workers (Opportunity #3), none of the other volunteers could check my name and hand me my ballot until the bottleneck was cleared.
Contrary to what many might suggest, more voting booths wouldn't have shortened the line much. There was actually plenty of capacity. It just wasn't allocated to match demand. Sound familiar? The problem was that each of the four precincts had its own designated booths. During the time I was there, two of the four precincts had no lines at all, and 10 voting booths stood mostly empty, like highly specialized, idle machines in a factory (Opportunity #4). Throughput could have been doubled immediately if a little flexibility had been built into the process, if the people from any precinct could have used any of the voting booths for example.
Based on news accounts, my experience was fairly typical among those who turned out to vote on Nov. 2. I applaud the volunteers for giving their time on Election Day. It's the voting process, not the people involved, that was broken. Like anyone stuck inside such a process, I expect that the volunteers themselves felt worn out by the end of the day.
I believe that voting is essential for a democracy to work and that it is everyone's duty as a U.S. citizen to vote on election day. But I shouldn't be counting myself lucky for only having to wait in line for 30 minutes to cast my ballot.
As a realist I understand that if it isn't easy, a certain percentage of the population will find an excuse for not going to the polls. The technologically inclined envision a day when we can all vote online, when voting is as easy as buying a DVD on Amazon.com. Until that day I propose that those of us who can see the simple solutions step forward and do what we can to improve the voting process in our local precincts. It's the least we can do to keep our democracy, and our country, strong.