An interdisciplinary group of Georgia Tech faculty members and graduate and undergraduate students have combined forces as part of the Safe and Secure Elections (SSE) research group. The team has developed tools that will allow election officials in Fulton County – Georgia’s most populous county – to balance the competing demands of election management, help enhance security and safety during the Covid-19 pandemic at polling locations, reduce voting waiting times, and expand voter access.
The Georgia Tech team, which includes individuals from the College of Computing and the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISyE), is working with faculty and students from French university Institut Mines-Télécom (IMT), to test the tools in Fulton County. This will enable the team to address voting issues that might occur in other jurisdictions in the U.S., both for tomorrow and future elections.
The developed tools are scientifically based on queueing theory, analytics, simulation, and logistics methodologies. They can help decision-makers and poll managers objectively weigh the different tradeoffs involved in designing, allocating resources, and operating the election system. Ultimately, the tools will be available to the general public and election officials nationwide so that people can better understand how public elections are conducted, which increased confidence in the outcome.
Dima Nazzal and Benoit Montreuil, faculty members from ISyE and the Supply Chain and Logistics Institute, jointly described the essence of the approach, which is based on the idea that queues form when capacity and demand are mismatched.
“The project had multiple workstreams to estimate both demand (voter turnout) and capacity (length of time a voter spends at each station),” the researchers said. “We projected Election Day turnout by considering early and mail-in voting and estimating the processing times. Using this data, the team created discrete event simulations to optimize the equipment allocations for each polling place. The turnout prediction is based on a combination of past election turnouts (2020 primary, 2016 general, and 2008 general), and Georgia polls data such as those administered by New York Times/Sienna College and Emerson College.
“Polling location layouts have been designed to allocate space to the equipment while maintaining physical distancing for voters,” continued Nazzal and Montreuil. “And finally, an agent-based simulation precisely models the polling location under several scenarios, including machine failure. McCamish Pavilion was the perfect case study for this project because it’s in our backyard. The poll managers are Georgia Tech students, so we worked together to design the space for Tuesday, Nov. 3.”
When in-person voting begins tomorrow, the SSE group will measure and report live wait times to voters at the 250 polling locations in Fulton County. An easy-to-use website, wait.gatech.edu, will go live that day, and would-be voters can easily search for a particular precinct and view the estimated wait time. The site also displays wait times recorded throughout the day.
During early voting for the 2020 general election, a student-led team implemented a pilot test at four polling locations in Fulton County. Signs at the polling locations prompted voters to text their wait times after voting, while an optional survey asked them provide additional details about voting equipment quality, Covid-19 concerns, and more.
“By expanding the scope of safe and secure elections from narrow technological problems to addressing physical access, availability, and public health, this project brings a new dimension to the design of modern voting systems,” said Richard DeMillo, principal investigator for the SSE project and chair of Georgia Tech’s new School of Cybersecurity and Privacy. “This team has the entire election ecosystem in its sights,” DeMillo said. “Rigorous analysis and powerful tools for designing and conducting elections will help ensure that voting is transparent, secure, and safe, even in times of public health crises and social unrest. What we learn in Fulton County can be applied nationwide.”
The Election Day effort ties into a larger six-month project by the SSE group that is supported by the Public Interest Technology University Network. It focuses on understanding the quantitative tradeoffs that local election officials are forced to make and provides tools to help them better manage the voting process.
“Tradeoffs are involved in allocating constrained resources such as check-in poll pads, voting machines and scanners, and physical space when you’re trying to keep a safe and secure distance between voters,” explained Nazzal. “You want to have enough equipment to minimize waiting times, but you’re also limited by the constraints of physical space and equipment availability. Too many machines at one location might deprive another location that has higher turnout and create long lines there.”
Montreuil noted that “the set of technologies put in place through the SSE project now enables the team – in a matter of a few days – to identify a polling location, scan the site, model it in 3-D, develop demand and operating scenarios, assess capacity requirements, and generate 3-D layouts. We can run animated 3-D simulations of the proposed election facility and multi-criteria assessment of expected performance, which make feasible the tools’ deployment over large territories for future elections, and eventually dynamic adaptations as further information is available up to Election Day.”
Volunteers can help the SSE group provide live wait times at polling locations to Fulton County voters by observing voters on Nov. 3 and texting current wait times.
You can read about ISyE student involvement in the Safe Secure Elections project here.
College of Computing Students