California’s statewide primary is approaching rapidly, and it sounds as if voter interest in the primary is building. This could be an important test of the state’s top-two primary system, and it might the first time that we see strong voter turnout under the top-two. Clearly election officials throughout the state need to be prepared — there might be a lot of last-minute new registrants, a lot of ballots cast by mail, and perhaps many new voters showing up on election day. The LA Times editorialized about this exactly concern, “How do we prevent the California primary from becoming another Arizona?”.
Last week President Obama visited the South By Southwest event, and he got engaged in a pretty wide-ranging discussion about a lot of ways in which the federal government could do a better job using technology to engage citizens in government. You can watch the video, or read the transcript.
The part of the conversation that I thought was most interesting regarded some of his comments about technology and elections. Here’s an extended quotation of his comments, which I wanted to emphasize:
THE PRESIDENT: Exactly. I’ve give you a second example, and that is the issue of voting — I mentioned this earlier. We’re the only advanced democracy in the world that makes it harder for people to vote. (Laughter.) No, I hear laughing, but it’s sad. We take enormous pride in the fact that we are the world’s oldest continuous democracy, and yet we systematically put up barriers and make it as hard as possible for our citizens to vote. And it is much easier to order pizza or a trip than it is for you to exercise the single most important task in a democracy, and that is for you to select who is going to represent you in government.
Now, I think it’s important for a group like this, as we come up to an election, regardless of your party affiliation, to think about how do we redesign our systems so that we don’t have 50 percent or 55 percent voter participation on presidential elections, and during off-year congressional elections, you’ve got 39 or 40 percent voting.
Q Mr. President, you’re in the state with the worst voter turnout in the country over the last few years.
THE PRESIDENT: By coincidence.
Q We would take 55 percent tomorrow if we could get it. (Laughter.)
THE PRESIDENT: There is a reason I’m bringing this up. (Laughter.) But it’s not just Texas. And so one of the things that we’re doing is engaging folks who are already doing interesting work in the online space, how can we create safe, secure, smart systems for people to be able to vote much easier online, and what are the technologies to help people get aware of what they’re voting about, who they’re voting for — that’s, again, an issue where you don’t want the federal government engineering all that. But what we can do is to have the incredible talent that’s represented in this auditorium really spend time thinking about that and getting to work on it.
This sounds interesting — it’s an excellent idea for the federal government to launch an initiative like this; a large-scale research effort to study “safe, secure, smart” systems for the administration of elections. I look forward to hearing more about this as the election season progresses, and I hope that the President makes good on his promise to “engage folks who are already doing interesting work” in this area. So as way of a shout-out to the President, the team at the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project has been working on these issues since 2000, and we are ready to do more!
The Presidential Commission on Election Administration’s report is getting a lot of attention and praise following its release on Wednesday. One aspect of the report I want to highlight is the degree to which the Commission aimed to ground their findings in the best available research, academic and otherwise. It renews my faith that it may be possible to build a field of election administration that is more technocratic than it currently is.
I want to lift up an important subset of that appendix, which is a collection of white papers written by a collection of scholars, drawn from a variety of fields and perspectives, that summarized the large literatures that were relevant to the commission’s work. A collection of those papers has been assembled in one place, on the VTP web site, so that others might have easy access to them. Here are the authors and subjects:
- Barry C. Burden and Jeffrey Milyo, “The Recruitment and Training of Poll Workers: What We Know from Scholarly Research”
- Barry C. Burden and Brian J. Gaines, “Administration of Absentee Ballot Programs”
- Charles Stewart III and Daron Shaw, “Lessons from the 2012 Election Administration and Voting Survey”
- Charles Stewart III and Stephen Ansolabehere, “Waiting in Line to Vote”
- Daron Shaw and Vincent Hutchings, “Report on Provisional Ballots and American Elections”
- Lisa Schur, “Reducing Obstacles to Voting for People with Disabilities”
- Robert M. Stein, “Election Administration during Natural Disasters and Emergencies: Hurricane Sandy and the 2012 Election”
- Stephen Ansolabehere and Charles Stewart III, “Report on Registration Systems in American Elections”
- Donald S. Inbody, “Voting by Overseas Citizens and Deployed Military Personnel”
Much of this research effort was assisted by the Democracy Fund, though of course, the research is all the work and opinions of the authors. Speaking personally, I greatly appreciate the support and encouragement of the Fund through these past few months.
About 6 weeks ago now, I got a call from two different Green voters asking me if they were still eligible to vote because of a letter that they received from New Mexico Secretary of State Diana Duran. The letter was dated November 5, 2013 and said,
RE: Disqualification of NM Green Party
Dear Green Party registered voter:
In the 2012 General Election, the Green Party’s candidate for president of the United States did not receive the required percentage required by law for the Green Party to remain an active political party in New Mexico.
The Secretary of State’s office is required by law to notify all registered Green party voters that the party is no longer a qualified political party.
To re-qualify, the Green party would be required to submit petition signatures and comply with the requirements under the Election Code for political parties.
If you have any questions please feel free to contact our office.
Director, Bureau of Elections
Of course, Green voters were not deregistered or disqualified, although their party was, but the letter was a bit ambiguous, especially given the fact that a high profile anti-abortion city initiative was on the ballot in the city of Albuquerque on November 19 and early voting had already begun. I called the Green Party and they indicated to me that they received a number of calls from concerned party members that they would not be able to vote in the city election.
The law indicates, as reported by Steve Terrell of the Santa Fe New Mexican, see here, that the Secretary of State is supposed to provide notification by March 15 to the party chair and within 45 days of that to all party members of the disqualification. She is also supposed to inform all of the county clerks of her decision. However, the Secretary of State did not keep to this timeline, even once she decided to move forward with disqualification and never contacted the County Clerks regarding this matter.
The Constitution Party has filed suit based upon the fact that she did not follow the timeline or inform the county clerks as was required by law (NM statue 1-7-2).
The biggest concern, however, is that some registered voters thought that as the party goes so do they; thus quite a number of Greens along with Constitution and Independent Party members thought they may have been disqualified and unable to vote. Given that this happened during a high stakes city election in which turnout was higher than in the previous months mayoral election, it is even more disconcerting. Some eligible voters may have decided not to turnout because they thought incorrectly they were no longer legitimately registered voters. A simple fix would have been to make the implications of the law clear to the voter and include in the letter an added sentence indicating that disqualification of the party, does not imply disqualification of the voter.
Well, I went to the polls this AM to vote –I get a kick out of voting on Election Day, that symbolic moment when we all come together to make a decision; it’s sort of romantic. But, lo and behold, when I gave the poll worker my name there was something odd written next to it on the paper voter rolls –INACTIVE. As a regular voter, even in tiny school board elections, who hasn’t moved and never received a card stating I was at risk of being purged from the polls, I was a bit shocked. Fortunately, I was allowed to vote a regular ballot, though the poll workers did request I fill out a new voter registration form. However, as I filled it out, I realized there was a problem because I wasn’t an inactive voter and I hadn’t moved. So, when the form asked something like, do you agree for us to cancel your voter registration in county x and state x, I realized I didn’t agree, indeed I wanted my status to be reinstated to active not canceled and reentered. Moreover, my understanding of the law is that if I voted from an inactive status I would once again revert to active status. Therefore, given the glitch was clerical and there were no changes to my voter information, the poll workers should have done nothing and let me return to my true state of activity!
The issue of purging voters has been a front burner election topic with our current Secretary of State who is concerned that the voter roles may have people on it who are not regular voters (go here). Amusingly, I join prominent political wives and election reform activists who were determined “inactive” in a recent Secretary of State mailing. Obviously, something is wrong with the process of identifying inactive voters.
This brings up a more important point; keeping voter lists “clean” may have unintended consequences like purging legitimate voters who have a right to vote. We included a question on our NM Election Administration Voter Survey this year that asks voters if they are concerned they might be accidentally purged from the voter file. Let’s just say after my own experience today, I’m a bit more concerned myself and interested in seeing how average voters feel about this issue.
As Hurricane Sandy approaches the coast of New Jersey and is causing havoc on the coast from North Carolina north, it is interesting to ask a simple question — what if this storm was hitting on November 5, not at the end of October?
The impact of such an event could be devastating to the ability of states to hold elections and to national politics. Steven Huefner at the Moritz College of law wrote a nice legal analysis of some of the implications of Sandy on elections. I want to make some of what he implied more specific and also raise some additional questions for consideration.
First, lets briefly consider some of the things likely to be wrought by Sandy.
Massive and lasting power outages.
- No power means that DREs will only operate as long as their batteries last. It also means that voters voting on paper ballots will not have the use of scanners to identify errors on their ballots. But wait, there is more!
- No power means no alarm clocks to wake up poll workers, no phones to call the custodian to open the school, and no lights in the school for voting.
- No power means no call centers for when problems arise, no printing last minute changes to the voter registration roster, and limited use of those automatic poll books.
Evacuations and Traffic.
- Some voters will literally not be able to vote because they will have been evacuated from their local polling place and there is no provision for remote voting. Imagine if Long Island was under an evacuation notice; how would those voters vote?
- Today in New York and DC, there is no transit. How do people get to the polls where there is flooding, no power for traffic lights, and no public transport available?
The Horizontal State Problem and the Early Voting Problem
- The horizontal state problem are best epitomized by Pennsylvania and New York. Neither state has early voting and both have very strict absentee voting laws. Hurricane Sandy hits tonight and there is no power on Election Day in Philadelphia or New York City. People are warned to stay indoors because of downed power lines and flooding. However, in the rest of both states, people can vote. Such an event could systematically disenfranchise major metropolitan areas critical to determining who wins these states in Presidential and Senate races. Also, who wins the contested House races in these localities.
- The early voting problem is an extension of the horizontal state problem. Imagine that North Carolina is severely hit — a state with extensive early voting and liberal absentee voting. Does the system make any allowance for one voter having an easier time voting than the voter who wants to vote on Election Day?
Not A New Problem
Ever since 9/11, we have all been well-aware that disasters can completely disrupt an election. However, Congress and state legislatures have avoided considering these contingencies. Perhaps we should before we have a real constitutional crisis.
I like the story but I don’t like the metaphor used in this week’s Electionline.
Mindy Moretti writes:
Like alcohol during prohibition, it turns out that many Ohio voters actually liked many of the elections procedures recently banned by the state legislature.
The point is well-taken; the Ohio Legislature eliminated times and places for voting that we taken advantage of by 234,000 citizens in Franklin County alone. Like the changes being made in a number of other states, including Florida, Texas, and Georgia, legislators argue that these changes will save money. The fiscal impact note accompanying the bill, however, provides only slim evidence:
This provision shortens the amount of time for in-person absentee voting, which could reduce some costs for county boards of elections for operating these absent voter locations. Continue reading
The EAC has just posted its biennial statutory overview report, conducted as part of their 2010 Election Administration and Voting Survey. I haven’t delved into the details, but I’m sure I will, as will many others, in the coming weeks and months.
Click here for a pdf version of the report.
Denise Lamb, the Deputy County Clerk in Santa Fe County, contacted me to share the results of a couple of focus groups her staff ran after the recent election with poll judges. In late April, her election coordinator, Pat Hummer, hosted two focus groups for presiding judges to, “find out their thoughts about how we could improve elections.” The focus groups were very productive and Pat built the attached spreadsheet summarizing her findings and the actions they will take in response.
This is an awesome idea and one in which Mike, Thad and I advocate in a book we are writing on evaluating elections. I have posted Denise and Pat’s outcome report here Summary of Results of the PJ Focus Group because I think this provides a great example of how feedback can lead to productive and positive changes in election administration practices and how LEOs can seek out useful information fairly cheaply.
A number of the policy changes in the summary are consistent with recommendations we have made based upon our election observations and our surveys of poll workers, which shows how different types of data collection methods can produce complimentary results and reinforce findings. In addition, many new items appeared that could inform future data collection efforts and tweaks in current election administration practices.
The needs assessment report for 5 June 2011 local elections in Moldova has been issued by OSCE / ODIHR (http://www.osce.org/odihr/76447) and the call for LTO’s has appeared at PAE-REACT (http://www.paegroup.com/career-react-opportunities). There are no short term observers for this mission.