electionline Q&A with David Becker and Amy Cohen on New Venture


[Screenshot image via electioninnovation]

Earlier this week, David Becker and Amy Cohen – two well-known figures in the election community – announced that they had launched a new non-profit focused on continued improvements to the nation’s voting process. My friend and colleague Mindy Moretti sat down (virtually) with the two of them for a Q&A in the latest electionlineWeekly:

Despite advances in voting technology that have made it easier than ever for Americans to register and cast a ballot, turnout in the United States — for most elections, not just presidential — remains on the decline and lags behind that of other democracies.

This week, the Center for Election Innovation & Research (CEIR) launched with the purpose finding a way to get more Americans involved in the process.

The nonprofit will use new research, data and experimentation to find the best ways to improve the efficiency and integrity of our election system — and do it in a way that encourages more people to participate.

CEIR is the brainchild of David Becker and Amy Cohen, two longtime experts in the field of election administration and we sat down with them to find out a bit about CEIR.

Q: Why did you choose to launch CEIR now?

DJB: This election season is drawing particular interest, and putting election officials from both parties under exceptional scrutiny. The work to help election officials maintain and build more secure and efficient election systems is as important as ever, and Amy and I feel strongly that there’s value in a data-driven approach to these issues.

It was important to both of us that we continue to build on our work with our non-partisan approach, and we’ve been overwhelmed by the response from so many election officials and other experts since we’ve announced this new effort.

Q: Is CEIR just the two of you or will you be partnering with other organizations/experts?

AC: We’ll be staffing up over the next several months, and we’ll absolutely be engaging in external partnerships with our colleagues in academia and the tech sector.

In some cases, we’ve already re-established partnerships with long-time friends in the field. And we can’t forget state and local election officials! We want to be responsive to the needs of the field, which makes election professionals our most important partners.

Q: What’s your ultimate goal with launching CEIR?

DJB: We’ve made great strides in election administration in the past five or so years – 32 states and D.C. now offer online voter registration (with more coming), 20+ states have joined the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) to better keep voter rolls up to date, millions of voters have access to election information online where they’re looking for it – but there are still areas for improvement.

Amy and I want to make sure that we can build on these successes and explore other areas, too, long into the future. We will promote and support secure and efficient elections in which all eligible voters can participate, if they choose.

And that gets to, perhaps, our most important goal of all – researching the reasons for the historic decline in turnout and determining whether, using rigorous and nonpartisan methodologies, we can help those seeking to increase baseline turnout in our elections.

In 5-10 years from now, we’ll judge ourselves by whether we contributed to more secure, efficient, and robust elections in this country.

Q: What — election administration-wise — is [are] your top priority[ies] as you launch this new endeavor?

We have four main pillars of our work.

  • Voter Registration – We’re going to keep working to bring voter registration further into the 21st century, with the goal of ensuring that all eligible voters who wish to be registered are on the rolls with accurate, up-to-date information. This also means encouraging states to share data via ERIC and better share data within their own borders across different government agencies.
  • Educating Voters – We will work to ensure all voters can find basic information about the voting process, including polling place and early vote locations and hours, and comprehensive ballot information.
  • New Research –Whether it’s studying the impact of e-pollbooks, convenience voting options, other new technologies and policies, or providing momentum behind efforts to create a common data format for all elections data, there is important research to be done to better inform election administrators at all levels.
  • Voter Turnout – We’ve all seen the downward trend in voter turnout. We want to work directly with state and local election administrators of both parties to conduct experiments to identify messages and modes of contact that can help increase the frequency of voting for sporadic voters and turn non-voters into active participants. We’re not going to wake up on November 9 and read that turnout was 90 percent, but this is a long-term goal to start moving the needle on turnout in all elections.

Q: Where do you see CEIR in a year, five, 10?

AC: This time next year, I’d like to see us staffed up to about 6-8 full time employees. We’ll be supporting election officials in any way we can, and doing our own original research, including getting started with some initial research on turnout and low propensity voters in the lead up to the 2017 off-year elections.

DJB: In the short term, we’ll keep encouraging states to join ERIC – there are 20 states and D.C. now, several of which joined in the last few months – but there is still room for growth, and many states have come to us for help with joining. In five years, I hope we’ll have a solid technical foundation in states, with more states than ever having efficient and effective voter registration and voting systems, and that we’ll have begun pointing the field in the right direction to engage voters more effectively. In 10 years, it’ll be the 250th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. What better time to ensure we have a toolkit that everyone can use – in churches and colleges, cities and farms to engage potential voters more efficiently, with a proven impact on overall turnout, in all elections, and all the way down-ballot.

Q: Obviously it takes a lot of administration work to get a new organization off the ground and you’ll be busy with that in the coming weeks, but where should we look for you on the elections front for the remainder of this election year?

DJB: Even though we’re a relative start-up, Amy and I are going to be very busy over the next few months. I’ll be testifying next week in front of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, and I’ll continue to be active in the media, in pieces like the one I did for NPR last month. And we’re already working as a resource where we can to assist our colleagues who actually do the hard work to run good elections.

AC: We’ll be regularly blogging on issues of interest to the field, so sign up to receive our newsletter. And as David mentioned, we’ll be out there talking with election officials and helping however we can to prepare for November. And if anyone has any other ideas of how we can help, let us know! Twitter, email, smoke signal – we want to hear from you.

Q: We’ll all be hearing a lot more from CEIR in the coming weeks and years to come, but is there anything else you want to add now that those in the elections administration should know about your new organization.

AC: I’ve spent a lot of the last year on the road talking to state and local election officials across the country (and New Jersey and Texas twice!) and from coast to coast, election officials at all levels know how important their jobs are, and they want to do them well every year, not just this year because it’s huge. Helping election administrators communicate with their voters or helping make their jobs easier is incredibly rewarding, and I’m proud to call myself a part of this community. I’m excited to get back out there and be a resource for the field and shape CEIR into an integral part of the elections world.

DJB: In my two decades of elections experience, my most meaningful work has been with election officials and experts across the political spectrum working to make real change to help voters in tangible ways – efficiencies, cost savings, etc. It makes a difference. I just can’t imagine leaving this work, and the response from everyone has been overwhelming. We’re looking forward to building even stronger partnerships with you all as we continue this adventure!

Congrats to David and Amy on this exciting new venture – the challenges facing election officials endure and so the community is stronger for having lots of knowledgeable and committed players in it – I look forward to seeing what happens next with CEIR!

Stay tuned …

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