New NCSL Canvass Has “Expert Predictions for 2017”

[Screenshot image via ncsl]

The latest edition of NCSL’s must-read Canvass newsletter for state legislators and staff takes a look ahead at 2017 with a series of predictions about the election policy issues and challenges facing state capitols. It’s an interesting read:

NCSL asked some of our favorite elections experts to share what they think 2017 will bring in terms of election legislation. Unlike previous years when we have asked this question, this time the answers had a great deal of overlap. The Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) was mentioned repeatedly, as was new technology (and funding for it) and the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration. Election security was almost universally a concern. Below are our respondents’ answers, lightly edited for clarity and length. 

Senator Devin LeMahieu (R-WI)

Last session, the Wisconsin Legislature tackled a lot of important elections issues. We started by reforming our elections agency and creating new bipartisan elections and ethics boards. We also created a secure online voter registration system (now live at myvote.wi.gov), making Wisconsin one of six states to offer both online and same day voter registration. Other successes included updating our campaign finance law, joining the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), and adopting recommendations by local election officials to streamline election administration.

Moving forward, I expect the Legislature to discuss our state’s recount laws. The Jill Stein recount briefly thrust Wisconsin into the national spotlight and it’s still fresh on the minds of election officials and state representatives. The recount results proved that Wisconsin’s elections are accurate and secure. While the Stein campaign is rightfully on the hook for the recount costs, the process was a monumental task for local clerks and election officials. The time and energy of our state and local governments should not be wasted by a candidate that lost by over 1.3 million votes and has no proof of any wrongdoing. I plan on introducing legislation that will preserve the right to request a recount but also to prevent unnecessary, baseless challenges.

Denise Merrill, Connecticut Secretary of State/NASS President

The National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) represents 40 of the nation’s chief state election officials. Members were recently polled on their top election-related priorities for 2017.  Here are some key issue areas where state election officials may be looking to work with their state legislators:

Cybersecurity: Although it’s important to point out that no credible evidence of hacking into ballot casting or counting was ever discovered or presented in 2016, there is no doubt that more can be done to help state and local officials secure election systems from very serious new threats that exist in the digital age. Reviewing resources, security protocols and technical support that is available are crucial to this process, along with promoting sound cyber hygiene practices and conducting election systems testing to identify and address risks and vulnerabilities.   

Contingency/Emergency Planning: Cyberthreats are just one of many potential issues that state and local election officials aim to address in their election-related contingency planning. Post-election recount attempts in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin raised legitimate issues about fail-safes for voting, such as recount procedures, post-election audits and back-up paper ballots. Planning for voting equipment issues, poll book problems, excessively long lines and claims or reports of voting machine tampering/failure also remain important issues for future contingency planning efforts.

Voting Equipment:  Many states and localities want to replace or update their aging voting equipment, which is approaching the end of its useful life and may have increasing technical vulnerabilities as a result. Election officials are hoping to approach their state legislators for a commitment to funding such efforts. In turn, legislators might ask their election officials for cost estimates on purchasing new voting systems, as well as perspectives on the benefits of voter verifiable paper audit trails (VVPATs), which can be used for audits or recounts and may bolster public confidence in election results.

Matt Masterson, Commissioner & Vice Chair, U.S. Election Assistance Commission

It is my hope that the 2017 legislative session is an opportunity for legislators and election officials to engage in a much needed discussion regarding election modernization. Certainly the 2016 election cycle gave all of us in elections world plenty of talking points for discussing the current process and the plan moving forward.  

The top priority should be to develop a legislative plan for upgrades to and replacement of voting technology. That process should begin with engaging state and local election officials about their needs. The need for modernization of elections does not end at replacing aging voting systems used in many states, though updating that equipment is a large part of the overall plan. 

The reality is that since the passage of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002, efforts to modernize the election administration process move slowly, especially when compared to the speed of technological advances. In many states the statewide voter registration system, developed as a result of HAVA, is as old as the voting systems used in the state and may be in need of an upgrade.  In addition, items like e-pollbooks, ballot-on-demand printers, ballot delivery systems and election night reporting systems are now common place in election administration. 

Legislators should engage their election officials to understand the current state of the technology used in their jurisdiction; urgent needs vs. long term needs; and develop short and long term plans for the purchase, maintenance and replacement of these systems moving forward, just as they budget for other areas of state IT infrastructure. This type of plan will ensure a secure, accurate and accessible election process for all voters moving forward.

As legislators work to address the technology needs of election officials in their state they can also work to improve the efficiency of the election process. A well designed legislative plan for elections created in concert with election officials can lead to long term cost savings. For instance, increased data sharing both within the state and across states can improve the accuracy and currency of the voter registration rolls. Data from various state agencies, like motor vehicles and public assistance offices, can and should be shared efficiently with election officials. Legislators should understand how the data exchange process works and how it can be improved. Improved data sharing done in concert with online voter registration and e-pollbook deployment leads to improved services for voters while saving money at the state and local level.

The good news is that legislators don’t need to start from square one. At the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) one of our areas of focus this year is to provide information to stakeholders to help them procure and implement new election technology. Currently we have a variety of resources to help posted on our webpage www.eac.gov. These include best practices, checklists and requests for purchase (RFP’s) for a variety of election technologies. I encourage anyone working on these issues to visit our webpage and reach out to us for help as they move forward creating a comprehensive plan to upgrade their election system.

Adam Ambrogi, Program Director, Democracy Fund

From our vantage point at Democracy Fund, we feel legislators might want to prioritize the future of voting equipment in their states and look to improve their voter registration systems. 

In 2014, the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration highlighted concerns that many jurisdictions were relying on voting equipment well beyond its natural life span. As the 2016 election played out, we were relieved the country avoided a widespread equipment meltdown. On this side of the election, however, we worry state and local officials could be lured into a false sense of security, believing their equipment can simply be bandaged and make it through 2020. Numerous reports, as well as our own conversations with election officials, reveal the need for new voting systems with even more robust features of accessibility and security. Jurisdictions—state and local—will have to consider how to pay for these upgrades.

There are also new innovations like electronic poll books that bring tremendous benefit to voters and officials in polling places, and yet some of this new technology may not even be authorized under some state law. It will be important for lawmakers to assess where election codes might hamstring technology solutions. Legislative races themselves function best when good equipment and processes exist and are fully operational.

Another issue taking off now is the improvement of state voter registration systems and management. During the last five years, more than 30 states have made online voter registration available. Additionally, many states have joined the Electronic Registration Information Center (or ERIC) where over 20 participating state offices work to share data to reach out to eligible unregistered citizens and find and remove the names of individuals who have moved or are eligible for removal. Legislators can take advantage of key learnings from those states, especially if the information reveals opportunities to improve the registration process for voters and save money.

Tim Mattice, Executive Director, The Election Center (National Association of Election Officials)

Some of the issues that we noted last year will continue in 2017, perhaps in a more robust manner. These trends include an increase in online voter registration as well as an increase in automatic registration in many states. Accessibility issues in elections will continue to be a highlighted issue as baby boomer voters, voters who are very engaged, reach senior status, resulting in an increase of voters with mobility issues, with low muscle motor skills, with vision problems, with cognitive problems and the ever-growing language difficulties. Those include not only non-English languages but also literacy issues and functional literacy problems.

With the likelihood of no federal funding to assist in the purchase of new voting systems, resources allocated toward new systems will be a critical issue for many jurisdictions for the next couple of years at least. As we move toward an increase in technology not only in voting systems but also in election operations, and with the shortened lifespan of advanced technology, the issues of maintenance and longevity must be factored into the equation.

Then there’s the issue of cyber security. Election officials have been dealing with the notion of “security” in their operations for years. However, the new reality of cyber security will not only impact the systems that are in place now but all of the advanced technology systems that are being explored and tested involving the internet and the potential for hacking and intrusion in one form or another. With the recent announcement of the Department of Homeland Security designating election systems as “critical infrastructure” a whole new formula for discussion and debate will certainly be played out in 2017 and beyond. 

Election administrators in the United States remain the gatekeepers of democracy and they do that job with integrity and a genuine conviction for fair and transparent elections despite the challenges that confront them.  

Alexis Schuler and Samuel Derheimer, Senior Director and Senior Manager, The Pew Charitable Trusts

As part of its mission to support American democracy, The  Pew Charitable Trusts works directly with election officials and private sector partners to create tools that make voting easier, more efficient, and less costly. Two tools that played an outsize role in 2016 and will continue to affect election administration in 2017 and beyond are:

The Voting Information Project (VIP), a partnership among Pew, the states, Google, and many other companies, provides voters with official information about the election process where they look for it most—online. Through partners such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Etsy, Instagram, Mozilla, AOL, Twitter, AT&T, and Foursquare, VIP delivered crucial voting information more than 100 million times in the days leading up to the election.

The Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) houses a sophisticated data-matching process to inform states about voter records that may be out of date and about eligible but unregistered citizens. It was begun with assistance  from Pew and is now governed and funded by its member states, which have increased from seven in 2012 to 20 plus the District of Columbia today. Independent researchers found that ERIC states outperformed non-ERIC states on several key metrics of election administration, including voter registration and turnout rates.

November’s election was a long and hard-fought exercise in democracy, illuminating deep differences on how best to keep our country moving forward. The robust public debate will not end simply because the election is over. The good news is that, thanks to tools such as VIP and ERIC, for many Americans the ability to express their preferences through the ballot was easier and more efficient this year than ever before. 

Tammy Patrick, Fellow, Bipartisan Policy Center

After every presidential election there is an opportunity to review and revise election statutes and 2017 will be no exception. After the 2012 cycle and the establishment of the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA), the nation experienced an increase in states adopting online registration, expanding voting opportunities with early voting and no-excuse absentee, allowing interstate data-sharing of voter rolls to increase the accuracy of the lists, among many other recommendations that were adopted. 

This legislative session we expect to see continuation of those considerations as well as renewed attention to the replacement of aging voting equipment across the country. It is possible that the recent Department of Homeland Security designation of election administration as critical infrastructure will bring with it resources, but it remains to be seen who will pick up the tab in the end.

One major area of concern is around vote by mail and absentee voting, particularly prescribed due dates, envelope design requirements that complicate the return of voted ballots, and postmarking. In 2015 the United States Postal Service (USPS) delivery standards changed. However, the majority of states have not modified their dates for when a ballot application can be made, nor the considerations for its timely return. 

Allowing voters to drop off ballots at drop-boxes and at the polls, in addition to increased education of the electorate, can mitigate some of the negative impact of changes in the mail system. Additionally, using postmarks and ballot tracking data for ballots that come in after Election Day can assure that the ballot was submitted in a timely manner and allow that citizen’s vote to be counted.  States like Iowa and Ohio are leading the nation in this area and provide model legislation and direction. Resources are available for legislators on this issue in The New Reality of Voting By Mail

Doug Chapin, Director, University of Minnesota’s Program in Election Administration

2017 brings state legislatures a series of challenges they’ll need to face in the field of elections.

The first is the changing federal landscape. For the last eight years, the federal government has been under Democratic control, with an attendant focus on guarding voting rights and resisting many state efforts to enact changes to the voting process. The 2016 election results could set up conflicts with states who view the concept of voting rights more expansively than the incoming GOP Administration.

The second is the continuing interest in registration reform. With online voter registration now the default for most states, the focus is likely to shift to further registration improvements like interstate data exchanges and automatic voter registration. That will challenge states to identify both costs – and savings – associated with such reforms.

The third is an evolving understanding of the voting process. The so-called Colorado model, in which every voter is mailed a ballot and allowed to choose how to return it—by mail, by dropbox or in person on or before Election Day—is being tested in several California counties and may begin to gain backers in other states as well. Expect to see this discussed in more state capitols across America.

The last—and likely most important—is the need to upgrade and/or replace old voting technology. Legislatures seeking to make these upgrades will be faced with two difficult approaches: find money to replace existing machines using the current precinct-based voting model, or reduce equipment costs by rethinking the process to allow for more non-precinct voting. Either way, legislators will need to step outside of their comfort zones (fiscal, political or both) to identify the best way forward.

In case it isn’t obvious, each of us were consulted for our views weeks ago, meaning that none of us mentioned the controversy being driven by the new Administration’s concerns about “voter fraud.” It remains to be seen how, if at all, that controversy will upend the other predictions; I hope it doesn’t, because the to-do list that emerges from above is important and challenging enough.

Thanks to the NCSL Elections team – Wendy Underhill, Dan Diorio and Amanda Buchanan- for pulling these together… once again, it’s clear that 2017 won’t be an “off year” in election policy.

Stay tuned …

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