Category Archives: Presidential Commission on Election Administration

PCEA research white papers

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.

The report’s appendix, available through the web site, is a valuable resource on the available research about each aspect of the commission’s charge.

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:

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.

Election toolkits and the PCA report

In the minds of some, the Presidential Commission on Election Administration was President Obama’s “long lines commission.” While that is an overly narrow description of the commission’s mandate, it identifies the most salient of the motivations behind appointing the commission — reports of voters waiting to vote in the 2012 election. In the words of President Obama, “we have to fix that.”

The commission — rightfully, in my view  — didn’t weigh in with diagnosis about what causes all lines, nor did it prescribe a magic bullet to fix them.  It did pronounce that a maximum of 30 minutes should be the upper bound of acceptable waiting which, again, is defensible and achievable.

One reason for long lines is that resources are sometimes misallocated to polling places (either on Election Day or in Early Voting).  The commission encourages the development of computerized tools to help local jurisdictions figure out how many resources  — people, voting machines, poll books, etc.  — need to be allocated to each voting location.  The encouragement is so strong that a link to a collection of such tools appears on the Commission’s web site, right next to the link one clicks on to download its final report.  (In addition, a little down the page, the Commission’s web site has a link to the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology-maintained site that will host these tools in perpetuity, hopefully adding more as time goes by.)

I encourage people to give the tools a look.  They include resource calculators developed by MIT Sloan School Professor Steve Graves, election geek Aaron Strauss, and software developer Mark Pelczarski, and various online voter registration tools developed by Rock the Vote.  The tools range from efforts that have already proven themselves in past elections (the Pelczarski and RtV tools) to more notional examples that I trust will continue to develop in the coming months.

Here is the most important part of the online tool kit, in my view:  Most local election officials are flying blind, when it comes to knowing how many voting machines (and similar devices) they should have in order to serve their communities well, and how to spread those devices among their precincts.  They will tell you, as they have told me, that they have rules they follow, based on state law and past elections.  But, as far as I can tell, the reigning rules of thumb about resource allocation are unrelated to machine performance.

Most election directors in large jurisdictions, where lines were the biggest problem, could not tell you (within a reasonable degree of certainty) how many voting machines and poll books they would need to meet the commission’s 30-minute standard, because they generally don’t have access to engineering-based tools to compute the right answer.

To some degree, these tools do exist, and the online tool kit web site is an effort to begin collecting them.  Still, even the existing tools need to be refined, in light of the needs of local election officials.  It is my hope that the online tool kit site, hosted by the VTP, will be the focus of tool development in the coming years.  I encourage people to give them a look, to try and improve them, and to contribute to the collection.

VTP resources relevant to the PCEA report

With the release of the final report of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, readers may be interested in a set of resources that were produced in response to the commission’s charge.  All of these are mentioned somewhere in the commission’s report (and appendix) and on its web site, but here is a convenient listing.  More information about each of them will be forthcoming over the next 24 hours.

Survey of Local Election Officials:  Results of a nationwide survey of all local election officials (response rate around 50%) about their work and the challenges they face.  (Please note that the data file still needs a little more cleaning, but should be of interest for those interested in exploring these topics from the perspective of local officials.)

Election Toolkit:  The beginning of a collection of computer tools that can be used to help manage various aspect of elections. (We encourage further contributions.)

White papers on election administration:  Papers written by a collection of top social scientists in the election administration field about aspects of the commission’s charge.  (These are VTP working papers 111-119.)

I am in the middle of end-of-semester grades meetings at MIT today, which is preventing me from blogging more about these resources and issues raised by the commission report.  So, stay tuned!