Why Are Lines at Polling Places So Long? Math

Mark Pelczarski was ready to retire. This was 2011; he was teaching computer science in Chicago by then, but that was really just the capstone on a legendary career in software. In 1979, Pelczarski wrote Magic Paintbrush, an artmaking program for the Apple II, the first personal computer capable of color. He started Penguin Software two years later to publish classics like Graphics Magician, and in the late 1980s went on to develop music software, create a CD-ROM precursor to Google Maps, and play steel drums with Jimmy Buffett. It’s safe to say that computers look and sound the way they do, at least a little bit, because of Mark Pelczarski’s code.

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But just when he was about to call it quits, the head of tech for Barack Obama’s re-election campaign called him, asking if any of Pelczarski’s students might have internship potential for their tech team. Pelczarski asked what kind of skills the Obamaites were looking for. “It was a little bit beyond what my students could do, but I was in my last semester at that point,” Pelczarski says. “I said, ‘I might be able to help you a little bit.’”

He ended up working at campaign headquarters for the next year as a kind of deployable asset, running a team that solved the hard tech problems for departments as varied as finance, oppo, and data. That’s when the folks on the campaign responsible for getting voters to the polls—and making sure they didn’t have to wait in long lines—came by. The electoral meltdown of 2000 led to all kinds of changes in the law and the introduction of lots of new voting technologies; long lines in 2004 had again brought chaos. In the name of “voter protection,” this team was working with a balky spreadsheet that was supposed to estimate the capacity of a given polling place based on data like how many check-in stations and voting machines it had, and how many people were likely to vote there—the numbers county election workers use to plan for what each station needs so everyone can vote fast.

Keeping people from voting is suppression—whether it comes from literacy tests, men with guns, or just making things damn inconvenient. This is the raw logistics of democracy, the stuff that happens at the county and precinct level that determines the outcomes of American elections. So of course it goes awry. Like, all the time.The Obama voter protection team showed Pelczarski their spreadsheet and asked him if he could update it. Pelczarski had written his first computer simulation as a high school student in the 1970s, to predict possible outcomes for the World Series. He wrote it in Fortran. On punch cards. So, yeah, he could update the spreadsheet.
“I basically decided to write a simulation program to step little simulated voters through a polling place, based on check-in stations, voting booths, ballot scanners, and all that stuff,” Pelczarski says. “So I spent a lot of time researching what kind of data was available from previous elections. It took a lot of digging.”

Unlike this year, when lines are long again.

But why? Well, that’s both depressingly simple and blindingly complex. Pelczarski’s digging brought him to a specific intersection on the map of research into how democracy functions—a place where political science and sociology cross over with mathematics and operations research. One way to understand why people sometimes wait a long time to vote is by using a field of math called queueing theory. But to understand what causes the queues … ah, well, that fault lies along other lines.