An Election Geek’s View of the New Presidential Commission Report (Subtitle: YAY)

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[Image courtesy of yours truly]

Yesterday, the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA) released its final report (“The American Voting Experience“) on ways in which the nation’s election system can and should improve.

The report is 112 pages long – and thus will provide weeks of election-geek blogging goodness – but for today I want to touch on the high points that will likely frame the discussion in weeks and months to come:

First, the PCEA made the decision to set 30 minutes as the benchmark for the maximum time that any voter should spend waiting in line, with the caveat that such a guideline will be tested more than occasionally:

The Commission has concluded that, as a general rule, no voter should have to wait more than half an hour in order to have an opportunity to vote.

Of course, there will be circumstances that strain this goal, such as when a busload of people shows up unexpectedly at a polling location, or a hundred-person line of enthusiastic voters is waiting to greet the poll worker who opens the polling place in the morning. Nonetheless, local officials should be able to plan the allocation of their resources such that during the normal course of the day, nearly all voters can be processed within the 30-minute standard. Any wait time that exceeds this half-hour standard is an indication that something is amiss and that corrective measures should be deployed. Furthermore, knowing that the process will inevitably break down somewhere within a jurisdiction on Election Day — it may not be possible to predict exactly where breakdowns will happen — these corrective measures need to be developed in advance and activated as necessary to handle these situations. Excessive wait times are avoidable if the jurisdiction has undergone proper planning and develops systems to inform the responsible authorities when a breakdown occurs. (p. 13)

Second, the PCEA embraced the expansion of online voter registration and improved voter roll maintenance as a way to increase the capacity of the process on and before Election Day:

The Commission received consistently affirmative assessments of the benefits that online registration can provide to the overall objectives of election administration. An online voter registration system:

  • • reduces the high potential for error that exists with traditional paper-based systems;
  • • saves jurisdictions a significant amount of money;
  • • increases the accuracy and currency of the voter rolls, thereby reducing delays and congestion at the polling place; and
  • • improves the voter experience because voters get immediate feedback when they are registered or when their information (e.g., address, party, etc.) has been updated. (p. 24)

Moreover, the report notes that online registration can help mitigate the threat of long lines: “Error-ridden voter rolls contribute to congestion and lines on Election Day. Voters whose information is missing from the rolls or incorrectly entered require the time and attention of officials. This necessarily delays the movement of other voters through the polling place.” (p. 25)

Third, the PCEA recognizes – and draws attention to – what it calls the “impending crisis” in voting technology:

Perhaps the most dire warning the Commission heard in its investigation of the topics in the Executive Order concerned the impending crisis in voting technology. Well-known to election administrators, if not the public at large, this impending crisis arises from the widespread wearing out of voting machines purchased a decade ago, the lack of any voting machines on the market that meet the current needs of election administrators, a standard-setting process that has broken down, and a certification process for new machines that is costly and time-consuming. In short, jurisdictions do not have the money to purchase new machines, and legal and market constraints prevent the development of machines they would want even if they had the funds. (p. 62)

To meet this challenge, the PCEA calls for reform of the voting system testing and certification process as well as a commitment to a comprehensive system of auditing and disclosure of voting technology performance.

Finally, the PCEA endorses two bedrock principles that are close to this election geek’s heart: better use of data and a commitment to professionalism in the field.

On the data front:

The Commission has endeavored to ground its findings and recommendations in the best dispassionate research that has been conducted by government agencies, academic institutions, and private citizen organizations. This research has been illuminating and helpful. At the same time, we have been struck by the gaps that remain in the endeavor to improve election administration through the use of modern management tools –tools that are regularly applied to other critical public services such as health care, transportation, and law enforcement …

There is much more to using election performance data than simply checking on whether federal voting laws are being followed. Just as important are data that inform us about the positive and negative experiences of individual voters. We cannot learn much about the quality of the individual voter experience from these federal surveys, and must rely instead on state and local data programs.

Unfortunately, local efforts to gather and disseminate performance statistics at a more finely tuned level have lagged far behind the federal programs. All jurisdictions know their election returns; nearly all know how many individuals voted. Together, this information can be useful in allocating resources for future elections and diagnosing problems with voting machines. However, turnout data are rarely disseminated widely, nor analyzed in a publicly accessible way that explains the connection between, for instance, turnout and the allocation of voting booths to polling places …

Much has been made in recent years of the puzzling gap between the technological revolution in the lives of most Americans and the technological systems voters encounter when they register and when they cast their ballots. A new technological gap is beginning to emerge, between the data analytical capacity that has improved customer service in the private sector, and the lack of data-driven efforts to improve the experience of voters. Without new management capacities and tools that draw on what is available in the private sector, the problems that gave rise to this Commission’s creation are guaranteed to recur in the future. (pp. 67-70)

As for professionalism, the PCEA recognizes – and in many ways rests the future of its recommendations overall on – the idea that election administration is a profession that can be learned and should be taught:

[T]he Commission found general agreement that election administration is public administration. That means that in every respect possible, the responsible department or agency in every state should have on staff individuals who are chosen and serve solely on the basis of their experience and expertise. The Commission notes that this is often the case in departments across the country, and it is a model to which all jurisdictions should aspire.

Elected officials are well-served having professional support, and it would also bolster the voting public’s confidence in the voting process. Professionalism in administration assumes particular importance in a field characterized by scarcity of resources and
increased public demand for a high quality of administration with keen political sensitivities. It is evident to the Commission that the core competencies required of today’s election administrator are different from those in the past. The last decade’s heightened demand for more professional administration of elections and modernization of the process demonstrates that there is an increasing need for technology acumen, public relations skills, and data savvy.

Indeed, the Commission would go further and urge the integration of election administration in university curriculums of public administration. For the most part, election officials now migrate into their positions from other areas of government or political party service … It is time that election administration is also counted among those fields for which graduate training in a professional school can constitute preparation for a career. (pp. 18-19)

Most encouraging of all, however, were the remarks by Commission members yesterday that they view this report as merely the beginning of a nationwide conversation aimed at putting its ideas and proposals into actual practice. That – even more than the good work evidenced by the report – is reason for optimism that the Commission is likely to have a profound impact on American elections in both the short- and long-term.

To Commission co-chairs Bob Bauer and Ben Ginsberg as well as members Brian Britton, Joe Echevarria, Trey Grayson, Larry Lomax, Michele Coleman Mayes, Ann McGeehan, Tammy Patrick, Christopher Thomas and research director Nate Persily: thanks for your time and commitment to study these issues and I look forward to seeing as much as possible of these recommendations become regular practice as soon as possible!

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