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University of Iowa News Release


April 10, 2008

Iowa researcher works to make voting easier, fairer, in wake of new law

On Election Day, when voters step to the polls and cast their ballots, not many are likely to wonder how the voting machines got there in the first place.

But someone had to deliver them, and that's not as easy as you might think, in part because the Help America Vote Act of 2002 changed the way elections are conducted. The law, passed in response to the Florida re-count controversy in 2000, requires the use of such technologies as optical scan voting machines that are capable of providing immediate verification and correction of votes.

In Iowa, Gov. Chet Culver recently signed into law legislation requiring statewide adoption of optical scan machines. But for election boards that previously used punch cards, the law means they need to replace collapsible ballot boxes that were easy to transport with the larger, heavier vote scanning machines.

University of Iowa researcher Jeffrey Ohlmann is helping to fix the resulting logistical problem.

"There are numerous factors that play into distributing optical scan voting machines to polling places," said Ohlmann, an assistant professor of management sciences in the Tippie College of Business and an expert in operations research. "The number of voting machines, the number of polling locations requiring machine deliveries, and the number of trucks available to distribute them in a cost-effective way are just the start of the analysis."

That was the situation facing Hamilton County in Ohio in 2006, the county's first election using the new, heavier machines. The county's Board of Elections contracted Ohlmann and Michael Fry, a colleague from the University of Cincinnati, to develop the most cost-efficient model to distribute thousands of optical scan voting machines to 531 polling places in and around Cincinnati in the days leading up to the May 2006 primary election.

Ohlmann and Fry had to overcome several unknowns in their work. For a given set of polling locations, they had to determine how to deliver the voting machines using the fewest number of trucks driving as few miles as possible to save money. One complicating factor was that each delivery had to be made at a time when the poll worker would be available to accept and secure the delivery at each location.

For the May election, poll workers for each precinct specified the day and time (typically a one- to four-hour time window) during which they would be available. To ensure delivery during these specified time windows, Ohlmann and Fry had to appropriately factor in traffic to accurately estimate travel times.

The poll workers' delivery day and time specifications greatly complicated the development of a voting machine distribution plan, though, so Ohlmann and Fry worked with election officials to solicit more flexible time windows from the poll workers for the midterm election in November 2006.

While dictating delivery times and days would result in the least costly distribution plan, Ohlmann said that this wasn't possible because some polling locations cannot easily accept delivery at certain times, and some poll workers' schedules are inflexible.

"In the end, we compromised with the poll workers," Ohlmann said, and a new protocol with more flexible delivery windows was developed. Ohlmann conservatively estimates that the new protocol resulted in one fewer truck and five percent fewer miles traveled for the general election.

In addition to the distribution of voting machines, Ohlmann is using his operations research expertise to try and improve other facets of election administration so that voters can more easily cast ballots. For instance, by using operations research to more accurately project voter turnout and to account for voter arrival patterns, election officials can better allocate the limited number of voting machines to precincts with greater anticipated need. This shortens lines and increases voter participation.

Ohlmann also said that operations research can potentially increase the equity and openness of elections by reducing the opportunity for election officials to distribute machines in a way that favors certain parties or candidates.

"If you use an analytical formula based on accepted facts to develop an allocation and distribution plan, and this objective plan varies significantly from one actually devised and implemented, it definitely raises questions about why," he said.

Ohlmann's work with the Hamilton County Board of Elections is summarized in his and Fry's paper, "Route Design for Delivery of Voting Machines in Hamilton County, Ohio." The article will be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal Interfaces.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Service, 300 Plaza Centre One, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500

MEDIA CONTACT: Jeffrey Ohlmann, Management Sciences, Tippie College of Business, 319-335-0837,; Tom Snee, University News Services, 319-384-0010 (office), 319-541-8434 (cell),