New CSG Capitol Ideas Piece on “Preparing for Success at the Polls”

Prepare written on multiple road sign

[Image via engageselling]

I was honored to be asked by the Council of State Governments to contribute a short piece (page 12 of the PDF) to the newest issue of Capitol Ideas. The topic is how states can prepare for 2016 – and while many of the ideas are likely familiar to regular readers of the blog, it’s still (I think) a nice “cheat sheet” for the big items on everyone’s to-do list:

As the 2016 election approaches, it’s not just candidates who are getting ready for the busy year ahead. Election officials in every state are already hard at work making sure that voters will be able to cast their ballots and choose the next class of political leaders. 

What, specifically, can election officials do to maximize the effectiveness of the voting system and minimize the likelihood of problems at the polls in 2016? There are three major jobs for election officials between now and Election Day.

Know who’s coming.

For all the talk about changes to the process—new machines, new laws, court cases, etc.— no single change has had more of an impact on elections in the last several years than the spread of online voter registration and other tools designed to improve the quality of state voter lists. More than half the states now have online voter registration systems, whereas just two states had such systems in place as recently as six years ago. 

Online voter registration is allowing people to add their names to the voter rolls in a fraction of the time it used to take. Even in places where online voter registration isn’t yet in place, other online measures have been taken to improve the process. Ohio, for example, has built, and is encouraging citizens to use, a site that allows them to check their voter record and make updates to their registration information. The result is a better voter list that reduces confusion at the polls.

Plan ahead.

It has become almost cliché to wring our hands at the decline in voter participation, but those concerns are not likely to be as pressing in a year when there is an open seat for the White House and fierce partisan disagreements across the issue spectrum nationwide. In that environment, the danger is not so much a lack of enthusiasm as it is a lack of capacity—the prospect of polling places becoming overwhelmed and under-supplied, resulting in long lines and angry voters. Thanks to the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, election officials across the country now have access to tools that will allow them to see the impact of adding (or subtracting) locations, machines and/or workers at the polls. At the same time, the growth of non-polling place voting options such as absentee, early voting and mail-in voting can have a profound effect on how many people show up on Election Day to cast a ballot. Using all of this information to make an informed forecast of capacity needs on Election Day will be invaluable. Yet even the most well-prepared jurisdiction will know that it needs to be flexible in the event of unforeseen circumstances, such as inclement weather and power failures. 

Put the voter first.

Finally, election officials need to be aware that our election system both depends on and is intended to serve individual voters. For that reason, it is crucial that anything or anyone a voter encounters—ballots, voter guides, websites, polling locations or election workers—be thoughtfully designed or thoroughly trained with an eye toward the individual experience. In an era where user experience can make or break a consumer product, election officials must similarly craft an experience that gives the voter the best chance to succeed—and want to return.

These three tasks—voter roll building/maintenance, forecasting and usability—aren’t likely to get the same kind of attention in 2016 as aging voting technology, legal maneuvering or partisan crossfire, but they will help voters do their very important job: choose America’s future.

Thanks to the folks at CSG for the invitation to participate; I look forward to seeing how this all plays out in practice!

Stay tuned …

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