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Nov 3, 2016

Casting your ballot in short(er) order
After watching some Ohio voters wait hour upon hour to cast ballots on Election Day 2004, Ohio State College of Engineering faculty Ted Allen decided to do something about it.

The result has been a new hobby for Allen applying his integrated systems engineering prowess to the age-old questions of how to predict where voting lines will be longest and how best to deploy voting machines to limit those delays.

Allen said that his research shows that the length of the ballot — not turnout in a given voting location — is the prime factor in creating long lines at voting booths. “People weren’t taking into account that if you have a longer ballot, you need more machines,” he said.

This year, Allen is working with Franklin County Board of Elections officials to help them decide how best to utilize voting machines across the county to ensure lines don’t get too long anywhere. He was involved in similar efforts in 2006 and 2008, but this year the engineering professor is armed with a software program he’s been fine-tuning that predicts problem voting areas.

The goal, he said, is to use operations research and engineering to help set up a “principled, defensible, practical” way to limit in-person waiting lines.

“A smarter (voting booth) allocation can make a big difference, and we are trying to create a smarter allocation,” he said.

Elections law attorneys and other voting experts are taking notice of Allen’s work and he has appeared as an expert statistical witness in voting rights cases in North Carolina, Michigan and New Mexico, as well as Ohio. Meanwhile, local election officials said Allen’s expertise has provided a helping hand.

“Ted has done a good job for us and helped us in past elections with basically a timing study of how long it would take the average voter to vote their ballot,” said Aaron Sellers, spokesman for the Franklin County Board of Elections. “We’re mandated to have a voting machine for every 175 voters, but with Ted’s help we’ve got ours down below the allocation to one machine for every 153 voters.”

A Department of Integrated Systems Engineering faculty member with expertise in big data analytics and cyber security along with voting systems, Allen said reducing line waits at polling places isn’t too different from engineering that goes into structuring waits in other places.

“It’s almost the same problem as how many lines should be running in homeland security at the airport,” he said. “Or a decision on how fast to form the line at an auto plant with an inventory overhead system.”

Eventually, Allen wants county Boards of Elections across Ohio to use his software to make the best decisions possible about how to use their voting machine resources. He said he’s close to having a method that could withstand peer review in academic circles.

“We are optimistic that we are soon going to have a very defensible method that gives you a guarantee that you aren’t wasting machines in a given location,” he said.