At a time when voting rights is an issue of national concern, and the problems faced by voters in 2012 have not faded from memory, election administration is a critical component in the voting rights picture.
In January, the Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA) released a report that identified best practices and made recommendations regarding election administration. Wednesday, the PCEA co-chairs, Robert Bauer and Benjamin Ginsberg (counsel to Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, respectively, in the 2012 campaign) testified before the Committee on House Administration about the PCEA recommendations.
One of the themes of the hearing, first emerging in Bauer’s opening statement, was the idea that election administration should be a topic of public administration: voters should be viewed as customers, and as such, they should be treated with respect and offered the best service possible. Accordingly, the PCEA report addressed the issue of long lines and recommends that no citizen should have to wait for more than 30 minutes to vote. While Congressman Robert Brady (D-PA) commented that long lines are better than no lines because lines indicate people are turning out to vote, he also said that the Committee had a duty to ensure no eligible voter was turned away from voting for any reason. And of course, there are better methods available for measuring voter turnout.
More importantly, voting should be something that fits into Americans’ daily lives. Bauer highlighted that the act of voting is what is special, and that this act does not have to be crammed into one Tuesday in November in order to remain special. There is no reason a parent or guardian should have to wait in a three hour line to vote only to have to leave before casting a ballot because they do not have child care for longer than that block of time. If there is concern for preserving the sanctity of voting, then the voter experience should be the foremost consideration. Otherwise, we risk further alienating voters whose experiences do nothing but suggest their vote is not important or that voting will always be a burden.
Bauer and Ginsberg discussed two recommendations for improving the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of election administration: the use of online voter registration and crosschecking voter registration lists. People all along the political spectrum can agree that accurate voter registration lists are a necessity. Online voter registration will help from the start of the process by providing an efficient means through which eligible voters can register. Online voter registration helps reduce data entry errors, is less expensive than using paper, and “reaches an increasingly Internet-savvy population.” In keeping with the idea of customer service, eligible voters would be able to register to vote from their home or other convenient location without having to worry about traveling to a registration location.
Next, although Ginsberg commented on the benefits of crosschecking databases, a lack of clear, specific criteria for states for performing list maintenance and conducting purges has resulted in inconsistencies among states and the disenfranchisement of eligible voters. If the use of crosschecking programs is to become helpful without harming voters, there must be compliance with federal statutes, states must abide by notice requirements before removing a voter’s registration from their list, and uniform, accurate systems must be developed that crosscheck more than just a voter’s name and date of birth.
In addition, Ginsberg’s testimony shed light on two impending problems for election administration. First, he predicted a “looming technology crisis;” the PCEA research showed that no jurisdictions were pleased with their voting machines, the ability to verify voter registration records, or the transitions to newer technology. The technology currently in use for elections is also out-of-date. The Election Assistance Commission (EAC) is granted power to monitor and approve election technology, but Congress’s failure to approve Presidential nominations for all four open Commissioner positions has precluded this agency from helping with this issue. As a result, the EAC has not been able to update certification standards since 2007. Fortunately, there are now four nominees awaiting confirmation, and we hope that the Senate will take swift action to confirm those nominees.
Second, Ginsberg said there are some safety concerns about using schools as polling locations, particularly in light of school shootings and bomb threats. On the other side of the argument, schools are uniquely well suited to serve as polling locations because they have a lot of space, are ADA-compliant, and are often well-known locations in communities. But he stressed that the rights of voters and the safety of children need not be in conflict. One potential solution the report suggests is to have teacher in-service trainings scheduled on Election Day, which would ensure students are not in attendance that day.
Bauer reported that many jurisdictions are not complying with federal laws that are designed to protect certain groups, such as persons with disabilities and language minorities. In addition, the research conducted by the PCEA revealed that departments of motor vehicles are not adhering to the requirements of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), which mandates that they assist with voter registration. This noncompliance with the NVRA removes an important venue for eligible voters to register. In general, the report cited the NVRA as the “election statute most often ignored,” and urged stepped up enforcement.
Mr. Bauer and Mr. Ginsberg agreed that the PCEA report has now set in motion a long-term project rather than a short-lived study of election administration. The PCEA worked with the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) while producing the report and will continue to work with the organization to implement its recommendations. The BPC has been instrumental in working with states and localities to pass legislation pertaining to election administration. Moving forward, the BPC is researching legislative opportunities for implementing online voter registration and addressing the concerns associated with using schools as polling locations. The PCEA, in researching and assembling this report, took an important step toward improving election administration procedures, but now it is time to begin putting their best practices and recommendations into effect.
Photo by Tom Arthur via Wikimedia Commons
Emily Rouleau is a legal intern with Project Vote.