Worlds Apart: New NCSL Canvass Looks at Urban/Rural Divide in Election Administration

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[Image courtesy of Social Media Blog]

The National Conference of State Legislatures’ latest Canvass newsletter leads off with a “Worlds Apart,” which examines the differences between urban and rural election systems across the United States. Here are some excerpts:

Minnesota Representative Steve Simon (D) always greets an elections bill with the same question: What impact will the proposed law have on both urban and rural communities?

The query comes from an understanding that every jurisdiction in his state has different needs and conditions for running elections, from Hennepin County and its 712,151 registered voters in and around Minneapolis to the 2,075 voters in Traverse County.

“I think most states have what Minnesota has: at least one densely populated metropolitan area and large swaths of rural communities,” he said. “The voting environment is very different in each of those communities.”

The article drills down on this issue of diversity and illuminates just how vastly different the experience is for election officials across the nation – a state of affairs that came to a head after the 2000 election:

Because elections are de-centralized, they are guided by local officials and often are shaped by the communities they serve. Los Angeles County, the largest voting jurisdiction in the country with 4.8 million registered voters, employed helicopters to ferry ballots from some of its most distant precincts. Some elections offices in Wisconsin townships are headquartered at the home of the local elections administrator.

Those longstanding differences only gained prominence after the clamorous 2000 U.S. presidential contest and its postmortem trained a nation’s focus on the elections process.

That gave rise to the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA), which set new elections standards and injected states with $3 billion in federal funds to improve the country’s voting systems. The law highlighted the divide between how elections worked in urban and rural communities, said Doug Chapin, director of the Program for Excellence in Election Administration at the University of Minnesota.

“There have always been those tensions,” Chapin said. “You started to see more of a recognition and friction between jurisdictions about where that (HAVA) money would be spent and how it would be spent. The recognition of those differences is very new.”

Scholars of election administration are constantly fleshing out the urban-rural differences and demonstrating how (and why) they affect the voting experience:

Typically, urban jurisdictions have a more migratory set of voters, greater resources to use during an election, a larger pool of poll workers to lean on and more often serve as the Petri dish for innovations in elections administration.

Rural jurisdictions often have more settled voters, shorter wait times at the polling places but are challenged with smaller elections staffs and less money to spend on election administration. Typically, local election officials in small jurisdictions also favor traditional in-person Election Day voting, according to the report by David Kimball and Brady Baybeck, “Are All Jurisdictions Equal? Size Disparity in Election Administration.” Rural areas tend to have higher costs per voter. An analysis of Colorado’s 2013 coordinated election showed higher costs per voter were in several rural counties.

The sheer size of some rural jurisdictions mean transportation is an issue for voters seeking to get to the polling place, or, sometimes, to obtain required identification for voting purposes. It’s also a time-and-money  issue for administrators, who must service polling places that are an hour or even two hours away from the county seat.

With this wide range of communities and experiences, states have to wrestle with how to balance uniformity and variation in election laws and procedures:

[L]egislators should consider which policies should be uniform in every jurisdiction and which policies are best left to the discretion of localities based on budget, space and personnel.

Those rural budgets are easily stretched thin whenever a state has a policy that is geared toward voters in urban communities but applies to all jurisdictions, said Doug Lewis, director of Election Center, a nonprofit that serves local election administrators.

“The more requirements for doing (elections) in sort of a cafeteria-style plan, in offering voters every option that they might want, …the more difficult it is for smaller jurisdictions to keep up with that,” Lewis said.

An additional complication is that many elections administrators are tasked with a variety of duties such as county clerk or auditor.

“In some cases, these people are not just wearing a hat as an election administrator,” he said. “They are trying to work election administration in as a piece of what they do.” …

Legislators have long grappled with creating election laws that achieve uniformity for all jurisdictions but also account for the preferences of voters and the resources of local elections officials.

Texas Representative Geanie Morrison (R), who chairs the House Elections committee, said she always keeps in mind that proposed changes must be fair to voters in every jurisdiction. “My top priority is to make certain that the bill benefits all Texans,” she said.

The new trend is to set a statewide floor for some aspects of election administration but then build in flexibility for communities to tailor the rules to their own situation:

Simon said that kind of thinking shaped HF 894, enacted in 2013, which allows any town of any size to hold all-mail elections. Previously, all-mail elections were allowed only in towns with fewer than 400 registered voters. Yet, towns with larger populations also wanted the option to run their elections through the mail service.

“Townships with limited and, in some cases, nearly non-existent budgets had trouble maintaining a polling place particularly to the standards required by state and/or federal law,” he said, adding that the new law is permissive as it gives local elections flexibility to implement all-mail elections for their communities.

Earlier this year, Republican legislators in Wisconsin passed SB 324 on the basis that statewide uniform times and dates for early voting were necessary. The measure eliminated early voting on weekends, which had been common in urban areas. Supporters of early voting say it provides more convenience because it increases the opportunities to cast a ballot and participate in an election. Opponents such as the Republican National Lawyers Association maintain that early voting is too costly and resources should be devoted instead to absentee voting and improving polling places on Election Day.

Implementing new elections policy that uses technology, such as online voter registration or electronic poll books, could favor urban jurisdictions that have more robust access to the Internet over rural communities, where connectivity is a key concern for legislators.

Wyoming Representative Troy Mader said he considers how each new elections policy will affect his constituents who live in a county that is 4,802 square-miles large and where turnout is acutely impacted by the distance between a person’s home and the polling place.

“Already less than half of the rural voters in my district voted, and most of my district is rural,” he said.

Because large municipalities have a wider tax base, elections administrators in urban jurisdictions often have more resources than their rural colleagues.

This enables urban election administrators to tackle two challenges Kimball and Baybeck noted in their 2013 report that are unique in such communities: maintaining an accurate voter registration list amidst the tides of incoming and outgoing residents as well as managing a large and complex elections system of polling places and poll workers.       

One field where the urban-rural divide is seen most starkly is in the development and deployment of new voting technology:

[Kimball and Baybeck’s] report included a survey that showed elections officials in urban communities supported new voting methods such as vote centers, early voting, voting by mail and Internet voting more than elections administrators from rural jurisdictions.

Morrison said it is important to embrace changes brought about by new technology but she said those changes should “protect the voter and the integrity of our electoral process.”

Simon said there can be drawbacks when an innovation takes shape in an urban jurisdiction. He said electronic poll books were a big hit for some of Minnesota’s elections administrators when they were first tested but using them to help verify and check-in voters at the polling places was not possible in some rural communities that did not have adequate wireless connectivity …

Chapin said it is no accident that new voting systems to replace the country’s fast-aging voting equipment are being developed in Los Angeles County, Calif., and Travis County in Austin, Texas, both of which are massive jurisdictions. California legislators in 2013 passed SB 360, which unhooks testing and certification from federal voluntary guidelines and allows development of a new system based on state standards.

These differences suggest that state boundaries may not always be the common thread that brings communities together:

Chapin said jurisdictions are likely to look to similarly sized communities in other states to refine their elections administration procedures.

He said the future for elections technology could unfold in one of two ways: large jurisdictions could continue to develop innovations that suit their voters’ needs, and smaller jurisdictions can choose components of those systems that best serve their communities.

“The other extreme would be a system where urban jurisdictions and rural jurisdictions have such vastly different election policies that it really does matter where you in live in terms of what kind of experience that you have,” Chapin said.

These community-by-community differences are likely to be come more pronounced over time and it’s vital that policymakers and election officials alike recognize what it means for the voting experience. Thanks to NCSL and especially author Michael D. Hernandez for the story!

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