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Every Second Counts: UPS' Lesson for Polling Places

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[Image courtesy of businessweek]

Recently, NBC News had a segment focusing on the intensive training United Parcel Service requires of new drivers. It's a fascinating look - especially the video of trainees (and then the reporter) struggling on the "icy sidewalk" used to teach balance - but it also included a discussion about efficiency that got me thinking about election administration and polling places in particular.

What struck me was the degree to which the training focuses on shaving time - literally seconds - off of every delivery. For drivers, that means keeping keys to the truck on their fingers (so they don't set them down or have to fumble for them) and learning how to fasten a seat belt with one hand while turning the keys to the ignition with the other. This focus on efficiency may strike you as extreme, but when you consider that the average driver is delivering 200-300 packages a day those seconds begin to add up.

The same thing applies at the polling place on Election Day. 30-60 seconds for a poll worker to look up a voter and hand her a ballot seems quick - but applied to a line of just 250 voters the check-in process itself adds up to 2-4 hours of interaction between poll workers and voters. Depending on the number of pollworkers - and the length of the line at any given time - those small delays suddenly become large in a hurry.

Policymakers in Washington and elsewhere are already considering how to prevent and shorten the long lines we saw in many communities on Election Day 2012 - and there are already big proposals for big dollars and big programs to attack the problem. But UPS' experience suggests that at least some of the solution may lie in thinking hard about little things - namely, the interaction between pollworkers and voters at the front of the line on Election Day.

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