Not THAT Different: Decentralization in U.S. Election Administration


[Image courtesy of darkmirage]

As I mentioned, last week I attended a meeting of state election technology officials to discuss the future role of technology in election administration.

While we discussed several cutting-edge, forward-looking issues, one item came up during a Q&A that I think is worth exploring briefly. The question was about the decentralized nature of election administration in the United States – and more specifically, whether the wide variety of laws, practices and procedures in place across the nation meant that field is hopelessly “balkanized” to the point where innovations (technical or otherwise) cannot catch on and spread.

One answer in particular caught my ear; Google’s Ginny Hunt observed that the field could be described as “thousands of small startups” where good ideas and just enough support could take root and eventually persuade others to follow suit.

I like that; it has just the right mixture of can-do and go-it-alone that I know many election officials feel, especially at the local level.

And yet, I think the notion that the country’s 7,000-plus election jurisdictions result in “balkanization” is vastly overrated. Sure, different communities approach the voting process differently and with different laws, practices and terminology – but at the end of Election Day (see what I did there?) the job is substantially, overwhelmingly the same.

Election officials nationwide all engage in the same tasks: putting voters on the rolls and making sure those rolls are accurate, assembling and producing ballots for those voters to consider, finding and setting up locations where voters can cast those ballots and tallying and certifying the results. Those steps may have different names and different approaches but they are still part of a larger whole.

In this environment, innovation is not stifled but encouraged; good ideas in one community can be adopted (and adapted) in others – with the same benefits to voters. Our challenge as a profession will be to identify the concepts that unite jurisdictions and find ways to use those similarities as a path for improvements – big and small – to the election process.

You can – without much squinting or mental gymnastics – readily identify those elements that link different election jurisdictions. As the 2012 election races toward us, now is the time for election officials across the country to find ways to use one another’s best ideas to benefit everyone.

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