The Wait At Polls: IT Drives Real-Time Updates

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Voters in Cobb County, Georgia got more accurate and timely updates on wait times at polling locations open for early voting during this year's US presidential election. Here's how IT made it happen.

As voters head out to the polls on Tuesday to vote for Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, or someone else as the next US president, they may be wondering how long they'll have to wait in line. High interest in this year's election could produce big voter turnout. Is it possible to plan your trip for off-peak times?

In Cobb County, Georgia and other areas that offer early voting, poll workers have always tried to provide voters with wait time information to help them plan their trips to the polls. And that kind of information will become even more crucial as we hit Election Day itself.

But this year the system of reporting polling location wait times has vastly improved in terms of accuracy of reporting and speed of reporting. So what changed?

Here's how early voting works in Cobb County, which is just north of Atlanta. Georgia started offering early voting in 2003, and every year since then it has seen increases in the number of people who take advantage of it.

The county opened two poll locations on Oct. 17 this year.

"Anyone in the county can vote at any of the open poll locations," said Jennifer Lana, county GIS manager in the Cobb County IT department in an interview with InformationWeek. Beginning on Oct. 31, Cobb County opened more polling locations for a total of 11. Voters can go to any of the locations to vote. So, if you know that the wait time is long at one location, you can choose to go to a different location. Cobb County published wait time information on its website to help voters plan their trips to the polls.

[A look back: What did Nate Silver say in November 2015 about who would be president? Read Nate Silver Predicts 2016 Presidential Race At Salesforce World Tour.]

But the information wasn't always as accurate as it could have been because it relied on manual processes. Poll workers would type the wait time for their polling locations into an email and send it to the headquarters office. Once the headquarters staff received the email they would read it and then manually type in the wait time to a web page. That wait time would then be published to the webpage. This process could take an hour or more, and by the time it was done, the wait time might have changed. And with multiple systems and manual typing, there was more opportunity to introduce errors.

This year, the process got much better. Lana told InformationWeek the Elections Office approached IT this August with a request for a real-time system in place by the time early voting began. The result was a system that leveraged an existing technology investment that Cobb County IT already had in place from GIS software supplier Esri. (Lana says that Cobb County has worked with Esri since 1999 for its mapping and geographic information needs.)

"It's not a new software for us," she said. "We already had access to these components. We didn't have to buy anything extra. We just had to figure out how to get it to work."

Setting it up took about a day and a half, Lana told InformationWeek. Lana conducted training with poll workers on the app and web interface they would use.

During early voting this year, Cobb County equipped two poll workers at each location with the technology, one on a laptop, and one using the Collector app from Esri on a mobile device such as a phone or tablet. The poll workers log in with their official credentials, select their location, select the wait time, and then hit the update button. The wait time map displayed on the Cobb County website is instantly updated.

"There is no lag time. It's really cool," Lana said. The new process eliminates the need for someone at the headquarters to watch email for wait-time updates and then manually enter them in a separate system.

In the first few days after the polls opened on Oct. 17, the wait-time map got 700 page views. Between Oct. 17 and Nov. 4 the wait-time map has gotten more than 110,000 page views. Poll workers have told Lana that they see people in line at the polling locations accessing the consumer app and map on their phones to see wait times at various locations.

On Friday, Nov. 4, Lana told InformationWeek that there were two polling locations with wait times of more than 3 hours. With the new system in place, voters in line at crowded locations can look for alternative locations to vote.

Between when the polls opened on Oct. 17 and Nov. 1, there were 81,303 early votes were cast and 16,476 absentee ballots were turned in for a total of 97,779 early votes in Cobb County. The county has a population of 688,078 at last count in 2015, and 423,402 registered voters this election cycle, according to Lana.

To compare, 51,152 voters cast early ballots and 11,848 sent in absentee ballots for a total of 63,000 early votes during the same time frame in 2012.

When those remaining voters in the 2016 election head to the polls on Tuesday, they'll have a new tool to help them plan their trip.

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