Kingston, RI – November 21, 2022 – Leading up to the results on this year’s Election Day, University of Rhode Island engineering professor Gretchen Macht and her team were thinking about how the votes would tally up – but the reasons why Not for what you would think.
Macht’s URI VOTES lab (Voter Operations and Election Systems) recently received notification of two contracts for services from the US Election Assistance Commission, totaling $434,000, and an extension on funding from the Democracy Fund for $100,000. Their work takes the team across the country, most recently including Utah and Georgia; He himself voted by mail ballot this past Election Day.
In Utah, the team observed vote-by-mail tabulation centers in four different counties, studying the time at each step of the tabulation process and improving their understanding of how mail ballots are tabulated. In Georgia, he personally visited polling places to observe the voting process and collect time studies with a focus on the impact of recently passed legislation, including working with the Carter Center to look at elections and politics Including working with science professor Bridget King, Ph.D. , at Auburn University.
Mach Uri, an assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering, is the founding director of Votes. He Nicolas Bernardo (URI ’18’19’22), Amber Fern, Ph.D. student James Houghton (URI ’17’19), and Leonie Otte, a Fulbright Master’s student from Germany. The group takes an engineer’s approach to election science, using data analysis, simulation and modeling to address bottlenecks in voting and election processes. Their work is supported by Rhode Island Secretary of State Nellie Gorbia, the Rhode Island Board of Elections, the Democracy Fund, the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project, and the National Science Foundation.
Work with the US Election Assistance Commission is highly selective; Applicants should be invited to present these products before they are released to the public and election districts. The funding will be used to help elected officials apply extended simulated modeling, mathematical analysis, and process the various questions and scenarios that may arise in the poll. They have also created a series of videos that elections officials will be able to use to train poll workers early next year; An app is also in the works.
The URI VOTES team uses their skills as industrial engineers to study the district’s voting process, observe and ask and answer questions. Macht’s team bases its research on empirical information and values. They care about process and results, not individual votes.
“It’s about checking resource allocation. URI VOTES has done a really good job building the tool,” said Mach; The team has also shared its work overseas with election officials in the UK and Brussels. She was recently named an election expert by MIT’s Election Lab and says her election work is a calling. “It’s inspiring to see democracy at work.”
The team has provided data to help plan the construction of satellite vote centers in Philadelphia and consulted for the city of Los Angeles, the nation’s largest voting district. Prior to such analysis, election officials relied on very basic tools to plan voting: rules of thumb, past experience, and intuition.
There are many tools in an election scientist’s toolkit and different types of analysis have their uses. “We are not a Swiss Army knife, we are more of a scalpel in analyzing numbers,” she remarked.
While Mach and his team are focusing on data and science on politics, they see a strain on election officials.
“They are maximalists in their work, doing more with less, under intense scrutiny. They need to count ballots, be security experts, and handle accounting at the same time,” she said. “They wear a lot of hats.”
She notes that election administrators want to do a good job. Like other elected or appointed positions, her job isn’t a ladder: “I think election officials are some of the most patriotic people you’ll meet. They’re passionate about their work in the democratic process.”
His team’s neutral approach to data means they can more easily navigate the typical constraints of red state versus blue state.
“As engineers, we get into more doors,” she admits. There is no other place Mach wants to be, working at the intersection of humans, technology and democracy, extolling the value of mathematics as a tool to help. Polling officers can use their expertise to drive the model and achieve greater efficiency and effectiveness. Elections can run with less waiting in line and tabulated results. Their work can help democracies run more smoothly, one less cause for worry at election time.
His work demonstrates the value of industrial engineering, even if it is the last thing you think of when you enter the voting booth. “As we industrial engineers like to say, 99% of the world doesn’t see what we do, but we all use it every day, whether swiping our Easy Pass or our work badge.”
Now that the 2022 midterms are a thing of the past, URI VOTES will use this year’s data to better understand vote-by-mail tabulation.
Read more about Mach’s election work.