For Montpelier voters trying to get through lines in the first couple of hours of voting Tuesday, Election Day was less a celebration of American democracy and more of a miserable half-hour slog. Even with an early morning rush the likes of which the longer-term employees in the clerk’s office had never seen, as city clerk, the failure to move people through without them having to wait in line for long periods is all on me.
With the backup voting machine pulled out and put in place within the first half hour of voting (which meant we were working without a backup machine at all for the day), and a couple of additional willing justices of the peace called in to help, there seemed to be little to do but work through the line.
After a couple of hours when things calmed down, we were able to squeeze in and try to shift some of the alphabetical traffic (check-in lines were based on last name), but that just made line two the long one, rather than line three (which reminded me of trying to move to the open lane in crowded city traffic, only to look up and see that the folks in the lane you just left are now passing you).
At the end of the day, the big lesson was clearly that once the logjam happens, there’s no easy way through it. The question, then, is how to prevent the logjams in the future. I’d like to invite citizens to share their ideas with me before the next presidential election puts its unprecedented pressures on our system. As you can imagine, I’ve thought about it quite a bit and I believe that the one thing that should be assumed is that each presidential election from here on out will produce unprecedented traffic, so rather than plan for the historical worst-case scenario based on four years prior, we’ll have to be projecting for record-setting paces every time.
Here are some starting points for future planning:
— Open at 7 a.m. no matter what. I’ll confess there was a moment when I realized the line for voting filled the entire first floor of City Hall — even before the scheduled 7 a.m. time for the polls to open — where I think I stopped breathing. Suddenly all those little things that weren’t quite ready (pens not all in place, troubles connecting to the statewide checklist, etc.) — things that in the August election were just sorted out over the first 15 minutes people were filing in — seemed like potential land mines that could blow up into major disruptions if tripped.
It would have been better to deal with them if/when they did cause problems, rather than pre-emptively setting off a land mine of my own by opening the doors a few minutes late.
— More vote-counting machines. In past years, we’ve had one machine running and one as backup. Almost immediately, we called for the backup — and the two machines were critical to slowly bringing down that morning line and preventing it from building back up over the day. Adding one or two machines would allow us to start at higher capacity, while keeping our disaster planning procedures intact.
The problem with this plan, of course, is the expense. Here in the office, we’ve worked hard to craft a budget for next year that comes in lower than previous ones. From that perspective, adding a machine could be a hard step to take but may nonetheless be necessary. If we’re fortunate, there may be leasing options available to us.
— More lines. Dividing the lines by last name, rather than by district, is something that has been done for non-city meeting elections, where the city districts are irrelevant. Doing it this way also means we can have four or more lines, rather than only three. This means hiring more temporary poll workers, of course, but would seem to be worth the relatively modest expense.
— Shorter ballots to prevent jams. The long ballots repeatedly caused the voting machines to jam. Although those ballots were generated through the secretary of state’s office, it should be possible to step into that process and specify “letter size” ballots, given all the extra room on the extra long ones.
— More ballot boxes. When those boxes fill up, jams become more frequent. Being able to switch boxes out more often would also help things flow more quickly.
— Weekend voting hours. Opening the office for Saturday and Sunday hours before Election Day could allow for more early voting and decrease traffic on the big day itself. Our early voting process this year went quite smoothly and could accommodate more traffic.
Here are some other ideas that could help around the edges:
— Tighter control of campaign advertising creeping into the voting room. We went through and scooped up advocacy materials left in the booths when we could, but we need to be clearer about the rules. Posting signs informing voters to put away such materials before entering would help with this and ease the overall mood.
— Clocks. Without a point of reference, an already awful 20- or 25-minute wait in line can seem like a 45-minute wait, which just makes it worse for everyone.
— More smiles. I did hear from several voters that there was a lot of grumpiness in that room, and I have no doubt that much of it was probably generated by me personally. The least I can guarantee the citizens of Montpelier is a lot more smiling from their city clerk.
John Odum is Montpelier’s city clerk.
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