RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Election officials around the country are nervous. Voters waited for hours at some Wisconsin polling sites earlier this week, and Arizona voters waited for up to five hours to cast their ballots last month. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Revote. Revote. Revote. Revote.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: No elections official wants to hear this - angry voters chanting revote and resign.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Shouting) Resign. Resign.
FESSLER: That happened during a raucous hearing last week at the Arizona statehouse. Many were furious they had to wait so long to vote, in part because Maricopa County cut back on the number of polling sites. This year's unusually large voter turnout has caught a lot of people by surprise.
TAMMY PATRICK: I think most election administrators worry about this and are staying awake at night thinking about it.
FESSLER: Tammy Patrick is a former Maricopa County official who served on a presidential commission appointed after the 2012 elections to, of all things, try to eliminate long lines at the polls. She's now working with election officials across the country to help them do that, and says one challenge is that voting can be unpredictable.
PATRICK: So you're never sure what you need to plan for. So what you need to plan for is to be able to turn on a dime and try and mitigate any issues that can arise.
FESSLER: As they did in Arizona, when thousands of voters showed up even though they weren't registered to a particular party and were ineligible to vote in the primary. Many election offices are taking the warning signs to heart, beefing up resources wherever they can.
Neal Kelley is registrar of elections in Orange County, Calif. He recalls a political rally held at a local university shortly before polls were set to close back in 2008.
NEAL KELLEY: And there were thousands of students that attended. And then they said, go vote (laughter). And this was 7 o' clock at night maybe? Suddenly, the polling places on campus were overrun.
FESSLER: So he sent in what he calls a rapid deployment team, which quickly set up additional machines. Kelley says these teams will definitely be on hand for his state's June 7 primary. He's also doing something else the presidential commission recommended - encouraging residents to vote early or by mail. And he's conducting mock elections with county employees to help identify potential bottlenecks in advance.
KELLEY: We'll do time studies on how long it takes them to get from the door to the official table, from the official table to the booth, and from casting the ballot out of the polling place.
FESSLER: And many election officials are looking at more sophisticated ways to manage crowds, similar to those used by businesses like Wal-Mart and Disney. Some offices will be monitoring lines throughout the day so they can post expected wait times. And MIT political scientist Charles Stewart has been helping officials use an online tool to manage lines by plugging in a few key variables.
CHARLES STEWART: How many people are going to show up during a period of time, how long it takes to take care of them on average, and how many places do you have to take care of them.
FESSLER: He says you can then figure out how much equipment and personnel you need and where. Of course, that's easier said than done given limited budgets. Alysoun McLaughlin is deputy director of the Montgomery County, Md. Board of Elections, which used the new online tool and found they could have problems at selected sites in the April 26 primary.
ALYSOUN MCLAUGHLIN: If we expect a turnout of 1,500 voters at that polling place, we need to make sure we have two scanners, or we're going to see lines in excess of a half an hour.
FESSLER: Right now, most sites have only one ballot scanner, so her office is looking for more funds to get some extra machines. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.