Early voting has become an increasingly popular option across the electorate. Between absentee ballots, mail-in and early voting at the polls, more than 46 million voters — almost 36 percent of the total — cast nontraditional ballots in 2012, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. This year is on target for the same or greater.
This puts the pressure on election officials to do all they can to ensure early voting goes smoothly and easily. In some jurisdictions, authorities are looking to geographic information systems (GIS) to help grease the skids.
Because so much election information already has a geographic component, maps and voting make a natural pairing. Voting districts, precincts and polling places — all can be tied to maps. In places like Cobb County, Ga., and Forsyth County, N.C., officials are leveraging this geographic angle. Specifically they have implemented GIS applications to give the public easy access to polling-station wait time information, along with other relevant election data.
In the days before Nov. 8, both counties were seeing high volumes of activity on their early-voting information websites. As of Oct. 31, more than 37,000 users had been to the Forsyth County site, over 10 percent of the county population. In Cobb County, where 49 percent voters cast their ballots early in 2012, almost 24,000 people had been to the website as of Oct. 28, with 3,000 new hits coming each day.
It’s all about encouraging citizen engagement. “If you drive by the library and you look on the site and see there is only a 30-minute wait right now, maybe you’ll decide not to put off voting anymore, and you will just go in there are get it done," said Forsyth County Geographic Information Officer Joseph Sloop. "Ultimately that is the hope."
In 2012, Cobb County officials had a hard time even keeping track of wait times in early voting, much less informing the public.
“We had workers at each location who would measure the wait times by handing out cards to people in line and then collecting those cards. Then they would either email or call the main office and report the wait time,” said county GIS Manager Jennifer Lana. “Then that person in the office would have to log into the website and post that time, and they would be doing that for 11 different locations constantly throughout the day."
This year, the county turned to its GIS vendor Esri to build something a little more streamlined. In the new system, poll workers enter wait times directly onto a map, which updates automatically. The county promises to update wait times four times a day, but in practice, poll workers were posting hourly updates the week before Election Day.
The map is built on an Esri template, a generic layout that county officials have populated with important voting information. In addition to wait times at 11 early-voting stations, the map gives directions, information on voter registration and requirements, and tips on polling-place etiquette (no cellphones, please).
County officials have picked up some tips in their efforts to apply GIS to early voting. For instance: Don’t share too much too soon. Early voting started at just two locations in mid-October, but the county’s first map showed where all 11 early-voting stations would be opening by Halloween. Although the stations were clearly noted as not yet open, 50 people showed up at one of the later-opening stations weeks ahead of time.
In the days before Halloween, GIS managers had hidden the not-yet-open polls on the map. “We have all that data ready to go, but we are keeping it turned off, just to keep it very simple,” Lana said.
Find a polling place
In Forsyth County, citizens can vote early at any polling place in their home county. With wait times ranging from five minutes to over an hour in October, GIS managers wanted a site that would serve as a guide in helping individuals to decide where to cast their ballots.
“You can put in your address and it will search the closest polling locations to that address, along with routing directions,” said Jason Clodfelter, a county GIS analyst. “Then the polling locations are symbolized with graduated circles and color coding based on the wait times, and you can click on any individual location to get the exact wait times.”
At each polling place, workers are equipped with iPads through which they can log wait times. That information goes directly to the GIS system, which is set to refresh an Esri-based online map every 30 seconds.
“The poll workers refresh the wait times from the moment they open up until they close, so for all practical purposes, it is live information,” Sloop said. “The training was slim to none. There is literally nothing but a green button that says 'start' and when you press it, it turns to a red button that says 'stop.' We wanted to keep it as simple as possible.”
Looking ahead, all that wait-time data could serve a future purpose, as the GIS system has been set to log and archive all this information. “The board of elections will be able to look at this historical data when the election is over and perhaps use it to help with the planning for the next election,” Sloop said.
These efforts to use GIS to streamline early voting are part of a larger trend, said Christian Carlson, director for state, local and provincial government for Esri.
“Governments are modernizing their business processes to provide better services to citizens,” he said. “GIS is riding right in that technological slipstream to provide a new level of service in all sorts of things, including elections.”
Maps can help facilitate elections in a number of ways. Citizens can look up their polling places or identify their representatives by geography. Candidates likewise use maps to fine-tune the demographics of their campaigns.
With the trend toward early voting, GIS could take on even greater electoral significance.
“When there appears to be significant early-voter turnout, people want to know: When do I need to leave the office to go vote? How do I plan my day to make that happen?” Carlson said. “This is a product that makes voters’ lives a lot easier on a universal scale.”