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PROVIDENCE -- Imagine if an app could tell you when you could avoid long lines at your local polling place.
Imagine if you could use the app while voting in the city where you work rather than rushing home to vote in the town where you live.
Those are a couple of the ideas that University of Rhode Island students and state officials are exploring as part of a project spurred by the hours-long lines that ticked off voters during the 2016 elections.
URI Professor Gretchen A. Macht and three URI students appeared before the Rhode Island Board of Elections last week, presenting a report on voter data that could be used in such an app.
“The technology we have now is changing the way we understand and make decisions in elections,” Macht said afterward. “Using that technology and data, we can facilitate elections in a way we have never seen. It’s really powerful and exciting.”
Macht, director of the “URI VOTES” project, said Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea came to URI earlier this year to talk with URI President David M. Dooley, Dean of Engineering Raymond M. Wright, her and others “about how we could support elections both in Rhode Island and nationally.”
One of the ideas they discussed is an app that would use past and current data to let voters know when polling places are packed or empty, she said.
Macht said the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the California Institute of Technology and other entities have done key work gathering data on when voters arrive at the polls, but she does not know of any app that would be exactly what Rhode Island officials are considering.
“I hope it can go national,” she said. “It will be difficult to roll it out before 2020, but we can begin looking at 2024.”
Gorbea said there are no definitive plans for a voter app. But the data collected by the URI students “allows you to think about new opportunities,” she said. “Technology enables us to rethink how we can improve the voter experience.”
If Rhode Island voters had a way to see how busy their polling locations were in real time, that will help them decide if they should take time out of their job to vote, Gorbea said. The idea would be to use hard data derived from polling sites, as opposed to apps that rely on “crowd sourcing,” she said.
In 2016, Rhode Island saw significant delays at polling places in Pawtucket, Warwick, North Kingstown, and Providence. In some cases, it took people more than two hours to vote.
So in 2017, Gorbea convened a task force and reached out to URI’s College of Engineering, looking for experts in “queueing theory.” The URI VOTES (Voter OperaTions & Election Systems) project ended up with a $226,000 budget funded by URI College of Engineering, the Secretary of State’s Office, the Board of Elections, and The Democracy Fund, a private foundation.
In 2018, the state used the project’s voter data to help determine how many voting machines or voting booths to deploy at polling sites around the state, Macht said. A couple of months ago, The Democracy Fund provided another $198,000 to take the project’s voting data sets and tools “to a national scale,” she said.
One idea being discussed would let people vote wherever they work, as long as it’s in Rhode Island. Gorbea said that would require a change in state law. Macht said new technology could help make it possible.
“Let’s say, for example, you live in Lincoln but work in Providence, and based on your schedule, you can’t get to your polling location in Lincoln, so you are not going to vote,” Macht said. If, however, you were allowed to vote where you work, the app would direct you to the nearest polling location in Providence and let you know how long it would take to vote there, she said.
During Thursday’s meeting, the URI students told the Board of Elections that electronic poll book data showed that in 2018 the polls were busiest from 7 to 10 a.m. and from 4 to 6 p.m., and slowest from noon to 2 p.m. and from 6 to 8 p.m.
Zeroing in on the busy morning hours, the students found that while the polls were busy from 7 to 8 a.m. and 9 to 10 a.m., they were pretty slow from 8 to 9 a.m. Also, they found that 7 to 8 a.m. was prime time in many rural towns, while 9 to 10 a.m. was the peak hour in more urban communities.
With an app, voters could have access to data about past elections plus current Election Day data about how many people have voted or checked in at polling places, Macht said.
After Thursday’s presentation, Board of Elections Vice Chairman Stephen P. Erickson said, “This is providing a level of technological insight that we have never had access to.”
Macht said, “This has been an opportunity for all of us to not only participate in democracy but to exercise our engineering tools for the betterment of democracy.”