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From the Chair Interviews

From the Chair: Interviews

While all state legislators know about elections - they are voters and candidates, after all - it is the chairpeople for elections policy committees who are tasked with a critical role. These legislators can set a state's legislative agenda for elections policy and can draw attention to bills they believe are noteworthy. A feature in NCSL's elections newsletter, The Canvass, will let the voices of these legislators be heard. "From the Chair"  features interviews with some of them - senators, delegates, Republicans and Democrats. The Canvass will include short versions of these interviews, and the full text of the interviews is available below. Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

You may also be interested in another set of interviews: The Administrator's Perspective. Here we get the unique perspective of the people who run elections at the local and state level.

If you know of a committee chair who would be good to interview please contact us.

Senator Barry Finegold, Massachusetts (August 2014)

A photograph of Massachusetts Senator Barry FinegoldMassachusetts Senator Barry Finegold (D) is chair of the Joint Committee on Election Laws. He represents Andover. This legislative session, Massachusetts enacted a bill that creates an early voting period, allows online voter registration and provides pre-registration to teens ages 16 and 17. The Canvass spoke to Finegold on July 31.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about how Massachusetts’ new election law came to be?

A: Well, we did multiple things. It was a good bipartisan effort we had that allowed for early voting, allowed for pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds, and allowed for online registration. I think it really got Massachusetts in the forefront of election law reform and it was just a great bipartisan effort. We worked hand in hand with both Democrats and Republicans.

Q: When you were making the case for this bill, what were you telling other lawmakers about it and how it was going to help the state eventually?

A: It’s all about getting access to participate in the process and the more we get people to participate the better off we are as a society.

Q: Had this been an issue that you’d seen come up during your time there in the Senate?

A: Yeah. I think that, for example, if you wanted to register you had to send in a note, get a registration (application) back. You bank online. You buy things online. You should be able to register to vote online.

Q: What was the biggest challenge in terms of getting this bill passed?

A: The biggest challenge was just trying to convince town clerks and city clerks that the change is going to be OK. That was the challenge: making sure that the people who run elections thought this was going to be manageable and doable.

Q: I noticed that there was a same-day registration component in the bill at some point that didn’t make it through but the bill requires a study of such a system?

A: Obviously, I was hopeful (same-day registration) would make it in but sometimes you can’t build Rome in a day. Obviously, it’s something that I hope future legislators will address.

Q: Massachusetts will now have early voting. Is there a reason this is just now happening?

A: I think after the last election, where people waited in line for hours, there was impetus to do it.

Q: When were some considerations you made when studying whether to allow online voter registration?

A: Just making sure that it works; that there is not going to be fraud. I believe we have to work through those types issues.

Q: What should legislators keep in mind when working across the aisle to pass a bill?

A: I think the key is communication. In Massachusetts, Republicans are the minority but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have a voice. We made sure they had a voice and that’s why I think we got as much support as we did.

Q: What will—early voting or online voter registration—look like as a success? What are your expectations out of both of those measures?

A: If we just get more people to participate in the process, more people to come out to vote, especially younger people, then, to me, it will be a huge success.

Q: Do you happen to have an overarching philosophy about election law?

A: To me, (elections policy) is about can we make it as easy and as transparent as possible to get as many people to participate in the process? What we have here in the United States is something that you should never take for granted. It is something very special and what other countries don’t have and I think that’s why we always should be mindful of making sure that we try to get as many people to participate as possible.

Senator Margaret Dayton, Utah (July 2014)

A photograph of Utah Senator Margaret Dayton, chair of the Senate Government Operations and Political Subdivisions Committee.Utah Senator Margaret Dayton (R) is chair of the Senate Government Operations and Political Subdivisions Committee. She represents portions of Provo and Orem, communities that serve Brigham Young University students and employees. The Canvass spoke to Dayton on June 3.

Q: Do you have an overarching philosophy that guides your decisions about elections policy?

A: I think it’s crucial that we have elections policy that provides adequate opportunities for the citizens to vote but that we also have protection of those votes, so that we have integrity of the process.

Q: What elections policy has been notable in recent sessions?

A: One of the things we are talking about in Utah is maintaining the caucus system. I know a lot of states at one time had a caucus system where you elect delegates from each neighborhood. And these neighborhood delegates go to a county convention and then a state convention and choose the candidates. I really am supportive of the caucus system because I think it’s the ultimate in grass-roots politics. If you can persuade your neighbors who know you so that you can be elected as a delegate to be their voice, then you have crucial grass-roots representation which is essential for good policy. There has been an effort by some to eliminate the caucus system.

Q: What challenge does Utah face when it comes to elections?

A: We have the same challenge every state has in making sure that we have a well-informed electorate and good participation. It’s quite heartbreaking to me that so many people have paid the ultimate sacrifice for our right to vote and it’s disappointing to me that there is a significant number of people who choose not to vote.

Q: What are some solutions for addressing low participation in elections?

A: My county is very conservative that has quite good participation in our caucus system but we have seem to have a lower voter turnout than you would anticipate. I think that’s because we have two universities here in the county and a lot of times the students will come and register to vote. When they graduate and move on, they don’t realize that they need to notify the county elections office that they no longer need to be on the records. And the county elections officers are understandably loath to start removing people’s names off the voter registration list assuming that perhaps they were students who have gone because they have not voted for two or three years. I think if we had a really good cleanup of voter records so that we knew that only those people who were living in our elections areas were on the list, I think it would show a better voter turnout. But I also think that so many people are disappointed with what is happening with government overreach into their lives that sometimes they choose to ignore the whole system and just live their lives without getting themselves involved because they are so disappointed with what is happening in the political arena.

Q: This session, Utah enacted legislation that allows certain members of the military and voters with a disability to vote online in certain counties. What do you think about this policy?

A: I think it’s important to provide (Internet voting) for people who are out of the state because they are in the military or on ecclesiastical assignment, or for someone with a disability who cannot make it down to the polls. But I do have a concern about making that available to everybody. I don’t think it’s too much to ask to have people put in the effort to take some time to go to the polls and vote.

 Q: How do you make other legislators who do not serve on an elections committee aware of key elections policy issues?

A: I don’t think it’s ever difficult for elected officials to be tuned in to elections policy because they know it affects them directly. And in our state, anybody wants to learn about an issue that comes before a committee, they can listen to it in real time online or they can go back and watch the discussion and find out who from the public commented.

Senator Don Harmon, Illinois (May 2014)

A photo of Illinois Senator Don Harmon.Senator Don Harmon (D) is chairman of the Illinois Senate subcommittee on election law. He represents communities in and around northwest Chicago. The Canvass spoke to Harmon on May 5.

Q: Do you have an overarching philosophy about elections policy?

A: The more people are able to vote, the better the outcome. To me, there is no downside in making sure that the franchise is easier to exercise and that we knock down whatever artificial barriers we have erected over the last century.

Q: What are some the ways Illinois has enlarged that franchise?

A: We’ve had grace period voting. We’ve really done a good job in turning Election Day into election month…We have embraced technology. Early on we allowed voters to request absentee ballots online; we just enacted online voter registration and it should come alive this calendar year and that’s an important step forward…We recently allowed 17-year-olds to vote in the primary if they were going to be 18 by the general election day. And we have a constitutional amendment on the ballot to prohibit any sort of artificial voter suppression methods.

Q: What kind of elections challenges does the state face? Are there some possible ways to address these challenges?

A: Inertia is the most powerful force in government and when you propose to change things, it causes people to scratch their heads. We have folks who have been in elective politics for two years, we have folks in elective politics for two decades and whenever you are proposing to make change, you have to make a compelling case that this is in everyone’s best interest. It’s a constant challenge and one that many of us embrace willingly.

Q: Can you walk us through the process for crafting elections legislation that addressed a state challenge?

A: We had a governor who you may have heard of, who was a prolific fundraiser and it raised a lot of eyebrows even among the most jaded political types with that aggressive approach. So we enacted with some difficulty a ban on campaign contributions from some contractors back to the elected officials in charge of letting the contacts. The “pay to play” ban impacted the executive branch – our governor – most of all. It was a dramatic departure for Illinois from a real Wild West view of campaign finance but it really was a powerful restraint on the executive. It was one of the more difficult bills I had to pass. It led fairly directly to a round of fundraising efforts that in my view resulted in his arrest. After the impeachment of the governor we turned to a broader effort to limit campaign contributions.

Q: How did you do accomplish that?

A: A little bit of everything. Having a governor removed from office by impeachment and awaiting trial in the federal courts certainly sharpened people’s focus. I wouldn’t advise that for other states but I think it finally permeated the consciousness of the general assembly that we couldn’t be an outlier anymore. We had to enact sensible limitations on campaign contributions in order to survive the smell test.

Q: What kind of relationship do you have with elections administrators?

A: We have a really good relationship with the state board of elections. They are a professional operation, well-staffed and interested in efficient elections. The Cook County Clerk is probably the most progressive of the elections authorities in the state. He and his office are similarly professional but also willing to push for the same sorts of voter inclusion measures that we support…Some of the downstate counties are a little less technologically sophisticated. Those counties are much smaller and so we need to be cognizant of their economic limitations and staff limitations when we are trying to draft policy statewide. But I have been encouraged. Absent a handful of politically hot issues in particular parts of the state, we have pretty good working relationships with all of the clerks.

Q: How do you get other legislators to pay attention to elections policy issues?

A: Everyone has been elected to office in a very direct and personal way so it’s not too hard to get people to pay attention. We are lucky that we have robust majorities in the general assembly that have embraced the same sort of philosophy that I have-- that the more we encourage people to vote, the better the outcome. Our majorities are not particularly worried about having more people participate in the electoral process.

Q: Illinois is preparing to launch online voter registration this summer. What do you expect out of the system for it to be considered a successful tool?

A: I can’t imagine it won’t be successful. We are expecting it to come out July 1. But that is really the first step; to have a centralized portal where people can go and register to vote from their homes, from their tablets from their phones will be a huge step forward. Now, there are assumptions embedded that people have computers and tablets and cell phones. I don’t think we can rest on our laurels and assume that to be the case.

Representative Kathleen Passidomo, Florida (April 2014)

A photograph of Representative Kathleen Passidomo, chairwoman of Florida's House Ethics and Elections subcommittee.Florida Representative Kathleen Passidomo (R) is chairwoman of the House Ethics and Elections subcommittee. An attorney, Passidomo represents communities in southwest Florida along the Gulf of Mexico, including the city of Naples. The region is called the Paradise Coast. The Canvass interviewed Passidomo on April 7.

Q: Tells us about notable issues your committee has dealt with this session.

A: Because last session was such a heavy lift with an overhaul to both elections and ethics, we took a different tack in the Florida House of looking at anything passed last year for glitches that needed to be cleaned up...Often times you pass significant legislation then wait six months and people will say ‘it’s not working,’ and there is a call to pass something else. That doesn’t make any sense. My goal with my committee this year was to let everything settle in before we make any other major changes.

Q: What is the biggest elections challenge Florida faces?

A: One of our biggest challenges is making sure that the people who are voting are citizens of Florida and at the same time making sure we are not disenfranchising anybody.

Q: What kind of relationship do you have with elections administators?

A: The people on the frontlines of elections are the election supervisors and I take their guidance very seriously. My supervisor (Jennifer Edwards) is very knowledgeable. Our election in 2012 went very smoothly because she knew what the issues were. It makes sense to take the advice of people who do that work…Legislators need to have those practical discussions with their supervisors so we don’t get caught in some of the scenarios we had in 2012, when there were not enough machines at some locations and long lines at the polls. 

Q: How often do you have these discussions?

A: I talk to my supervisor regularly. She’s a constitutional officer and I speak to her just as much as I talk to my sheriff and the tax collector. We have a very tight-knit community where our elected officials meet regularly to talk about all items that impact us.

Q: Do you have an overarching philosophy about elections policy?

A: We have our caucus philosophy. As a Republican, I’m very cognizant of our conservative principles: we want to do the right thing and do it in the most cost-effective way. Voting is a right and a privilege and we want to make sure that everyone who is entitled to vote is able to vote. Any policies we have in place should follow that philosophy.

Q:  Are there any specific elections policies you would like to see considered in the coming years?

A: My biggest concern is what the effect of social media and the Internet will have on the elections process. I believe in freedom of speech but we probably need to have a discussion about whether a candidate can buy a website domain of another candidate’s name and put whatever they want on the website. Should that be an ethics violation?

Q: How do you keep legislators who are not part of your committee attuned to elections issues?

A: In Florida we are very aware of elections issues and that’s why we had our major legislation last year. Our colleagues are well aware of what we are doing.

Q: What do you most enjoy about being chair of the House elections committee?

A: Working with my colleagues and talking about important issues and sharing a sincere desire to get things right. That’s the best part.

Senator Katie Sieben, Minnesota (March 2014)

A photograph of Minnesota Senator Katie SiebenMinnesota Senator Katie Sieben (D) chairs the Rules and Administration Committee’s Subcommittee on Elections.  She represents a suburban part of St. Paul and previously served in the Minnesota House of Representatives. Sieben’s father, Michael Sieben, and grandfather, Harry Sieben, also served in the Minnesota House. The Canvass interviewed Sieben on March 14.

Q: Do you have an overarching philosophy about elections policy that you use?

A: There has been a tradition in Minnesota for the past couple of decades that major changes to elections policy should have bipartisan support. …What I found is that I need to work very closely with Republican members of my committee to see things pass and become law. We have relied in the past on the University of Minnesota, Humphrey School of Public Affairs to help facilitate conversations when there were pretty substantial changes to the elections system. In recent years we have used good old negotiations to craft language that garners bipartisan support.

Q: What major challenge does Minnesota face for elections?

A: There’s a whole lot of election equipment that will need to be replaced in the next decade or even sooner. Due to the absence of additional (Help America Vote Act) funds coming from the federal government, I think it’s a real concern that counties and cities all across the state will most likely have to rely on local property taxes to purchase new voting equipment.

Q: How prominent an issue is election equipment for most legislators?

A: That issue has not been forefront for many legislators. I do think that recent national and state conversations about improving election administration so that voters have confidence in our system and can vote without being held up in long lines has broadened coverage of administration pieces and received more discussion from legislators.

Q: What do you find most interesting about helping to shape elections policy?

A: I really like being able to see the impact you have on election administration and on voters. This last session we passed a bill that does away with the requirement of a voter having to have an excuse to vote absentee. In November this will be the first general election where voters can request an absentee ballot without having to provide an excuse. I’m hopeful that this will lead to higher turnout for people who may have to work or anticipate that it might be difficult for them to make it to the polls. Seeing a direct result of the committee’s work is gratifying.

Q: Are there measures you would like to see Minnesota consider?

A: I’m a strong proponent of early voting and it was the main component that was not included in the bill (that passed last session). Voters will be able to vote by absentee ballot if they so choose. I think it’s an inefficient system for voters who simply want to voter early. In Minnesota, if you want to vote by absentee ballot there is a longer process than voting early. There is a secrecy ballot and you have to have a witness and fill out an additional form. If we could just move to a system of early voting and agree to standards around early voting, that would certainly be a more efficient way for local elections officials to allow for that to occur. I think that’s where the public wants us to be. We just were not able to garner the bipartisan support to pass it. I’m hopeful that the results of this election and the costs of no-excuse absentee voting versus a pure early voting system will be persuasive to my colleagues on the other side of the aisle.

Q: What are some steps you take to learn about the state of elections in Minnesota?

A: I visit polling places and I see how ballot boards function. I’m pretty diligent about making sure the public knows about hearings that are coming up so they can provide input and testify before our committee. Those things help lead to better outcomes.

Q: What kind of relationship do you have with elections administrators in your state?

A: I think we have a really close working relationship. I just talked to a group of elections officials yesterday. They are the people who understand on the ground the nuts and bolts of how elections work and they are the ones who bring forth ideas for making things run more smoothly and saving taxpayer money that I appreciate.

Q: What advice do you have for how a legislator can breach a partisan divide so they can work with more of their colleagues?

A: You can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. You have to be willing to compromise and really listen to what folks on the other side of the aisle are saying. You need to have a genuine commitment to taking their input in order to see an end product that will achieve that bipartisan vote that is necessary to pass something.

Senator Thomas O’Mara, New York (February 2014)

A photograph of New York Senator Thomas O'MaraNew York Senator Thomas O’Mara (R) chairs the Senate Committee on Elections. Since 2010, he has represented a portion of southwest New York that includes rural communities, towns near the Finger Lakes and the college enclave of Ithaca. O’Mara is an attorney and previously served three terms in the New York Assembly. The Canvass interviewed O’Mara on Feb. 20, 2014.

Q: Do you have an overarching philosophy when it comes to elections legislation?

A: Over all, I’m disappointed with voter registration in and not just in New York, but everywhere around the country and then participation of those who are registered as far as getting to the polls. I look at ways to increase voter participation, to encourage individuals to register to vote and then follow through on actually voting. I’m concerned about people being involved in the process and with fairness – that only those people who are entitled to vote are actually voting and that we don’t have fraud in our elections.

Q: Has New York had issues with improper voting?

A: We want to make sure that people are properly registered to vote, that they are voting where they are supposed to vote and only voting in one place. We have had concerns over the years in areas of the Hudson Valley just north of New York City with dual-resident individuals who live in New York City and claim a home upstate where they may try to go and vote as opposed to where they actually live. There are ways to combat that and we are working on a state-wide database so we can cross-reference and make sure individuals are only registered in one place … most people, when they move, don’t get a hold of the Board of Elections and say, ‘Hey, we are moving.’ They register in the new place and they may be maintained in that former county for some period of time. Hopefully, with the technology today and with a centralized database that we develop, we can pick those cases out.

Q: How do you keep your colleagues interested in elections issues?

A: I think it has not been difficult in New York. Maybe it’s because of our diversity and the different viewpoints among the legislators.

We were a little bit slow getting involved with the Help American Vote Act and with the Military and Overseas Vote Empowerment Act and as a result, we have two separate primary dates in New York now, one for state and local offices and the other for the federal offices. We are still debating when we should have a proper date … figuring that out has been a hot topic for us. It’s helped keep people focused on elections issues here.

Q: What notable elections policy is New York working on this session?

A: We are working on expanding the registration process to other types of licensing, not just motor vehicle licensing. We have legislation pending now to have the option to register to vote when you are applying for a hunting and fishing license.

Q: New York in recent elections has had low turnout. Why do you think that is?

A: It’s not a recent development; it’s been going on for a long time. I think a lot of people are fed up with the process. I think the 24-7 news cycle causes people to tune out and a lot of that news is biased in both directions so people tune that out. I hear a lot of people say, ‘what difference is my vote going to make; it will just be the same outcome.’ I think there is, unfortunately, a bit of a disdain for government in general. We have made a little headway in recent years by having three budgets on time in a row and controlling spending a little bit, which has opened people’s eyes to the fact that we can compromise, and function and get things done.

Q: The college-town of Ithaca is in your district. What is your opinion about how and where college students should vote?

A: I think it’s important for students to make a declaration of where they are living, whether that be in their home towns or where they attend college. It’s long been the law in New York to be able to register at your college residence and there isn’t any movement to change that. But it all goes back to making sure the individual is registered to vote in only one place.

Q: What kind of relationship do you have with elections administrators in your state?

A: I have a very close relationship with the election commissioners in my district. My wife is a former board of elections commissioner. The elections administrators come to Albany as a state association a couple of times a year and we review with them their list of legislative priorities. One such change they recommended was to increase the size of an election district so that we could hopefully get away with a few less polling places as it’s become difficult to find poll workers.

Representative Darryl Owens, Kentucky (January 2014)

Kentucky Representative Darryl Owens (D) chairs the House Committee on Elections, Constitutional Amendments, and Intergovernmental Affairs. Since 2005, he has represented the 43rd district, which includes Louisville. Owens is an attorney specializing in probate and family law. The Canvass interviewed him on Jan. 13.

Q: What challenges does Kentucky face when it comes to elections?

A: The secretary of state is proposing to provide an easy vehicle for overseas and military voters. She has an interest in doing that electronically and not only letting them receive and return their ballots. We are interested in seeing if we can get through the legislature the ability for the military and people overseas to cast their votes (electronically). The question that comes up is security. There are already countries doing this. We need to ensure that our military and overseas voters can cast their vote in a timely manner. The secretary and I and others and trying to make sure that those who are ensuring our way of life, get their voices heard at election time.

Q: What do you keep in mind whenever crafting or dealing with proposed election legislation?

A: You want to do those things which encourage people to vote and to make the voting process easier. I would love to get to the point where you could vote from your computer at home. Anything we can do to encourage people to participate in the democratic process is important. That is always my primary interest: does this (legislation) help, does this enhance, is it a barrier and is it a necessary barrier?

Q: How does your relationship with election administrators inform your decision-making process?

A: I have an excellent relationship with the secretary of state. After each election, she comes before our committee and reports on any problems they might have had and suggests things we can do to help solve them. Right now we have wet/dry votes, sort of special elections in which voters decide whether to allow liquor sales in their precinct. We want to move those to a primary or general election date because there is a cost of conducting these elections and the turnout in those elections is pretty small. That is one piece of legislation we have pending.

Q: What other elections issues are in play in Kentucky?

A: Our election law environment has been fairly favorable. There are some things we can probably do better. We still carry poll books to the poll. I would like to get that electronically done, although I’m one of those folks who believe you still need a paper trail if you want to check ballots. If something ever comes up, we have that paper ballot.

Q: Any thoughts on how to fund the next wave of voting machines?

A: I have not had heard of any reports about problems with our machines. Obviously that has to be on our radar because at some point that is going to happen. The machine you have today is probably obsolete soon. But I don’t think we need to move too quickly with new technology. I think we need to move at a pace where we can ensure the integrity of the ballot. That’s the key: when you have voting integrity and access to the ballot then I think we are doing our jobs.

Photo of Senator Bryan TaylorSenator Bryan Taylor, Alabama (December 2013)

Alabama Senator Bryan Taylor (R) understands the importance of public service. Prior to becoming chair of Alabama’s Senate Committee on Constitution, Campaign Finance, Ethics and Elections, Senator Taylor served in the Army and was deployed during the Iraq War. The small business owner and practicing attorney continues to serve as a major in the Alabama National Guard. The Canvass interviewed Senator Taylor on Dec. 16.

Q: Do you have an overriding perspective that guides your decision-making when crafting election law?

A: We still have parts of the state where election fraud seems to occur repeatedly and so during my term we have made a concerted effort to try to enact some reforms to crack down on it. Some of those bills have passed; some of them have not. I had a bill last year, for example, that would increase the penalties to a felony level for paying somebody to vote in an election and that is all-day illegal but it goes on, so we tried to increase the penalty. That bill did not pass so we’ll try that again this year.

Anything we can do to ensure that the people of Alabama – that it’s easier for them to vote while protecting the integrity of elections – is something we have been trying to do, particularly with regard to military and overseas folks. Probably the most significant piece of legislation that we have passed is legislation that is bringing Alabama into the 21st century: fax-machine and email requests for ballots for military and overseas folks. We have looked at going to some kind of online voting for the military, their families and overseas families but we are still struggling with some security issues on that.

Q: Is this issue something you are familiar with as an Iraq War veteran?

A: I deployed in Iraq in 2003 and in 2004 and while I was over there, I tried to vote, and I was a resident of Texas at the time. It took forever to get a ballot. In fact, by the time I had requested and received my ballot, the election had already taken place. It’s a tragedy any time a servicemember is locked out of an election simply because of the delay and the snail mail, especially when we have got all the new technology we have at our fingertips. 

We have also tried to enhance accessibility to absentee voting, particularly for first-responders. We passed a bill last year in the wake of Superstorm Sandy up in New York. We had so many first-responders and utility workers deploy to provide assistance in that case and they deployed on short notice and were not able to get absentee ballots and vote in the election. So we passed a bill that would allow the secretary of state to issue an emergency rule allowing anybody who is deployed in support of response to a natural disaster or other emergency to request by email an absentee ballot, and then they can fill that out and mail that in and, as long as it is mailed by the date of the election, it will be counted. And we already had that in place for servicemembers. I used that during Superstorm Sandy. I was activated as a member of the Alabama National Guard. I was activated two days before the election, which is ordinarily after the cutoff for requesting absentee ballots. Because I was in military service, I was able to request an absentee ballot by email, it was emailed to me, I printed it out, filled it out, put a stamp on it and sent it in, and my vote got counted. (Those first responders) wore a different uniform and they still were deployed in the same service – in the response to a natural disaster – so there was no reason that they shouldn’t be afforded the same rights.

Q: What is the biggest challenge or issue Alabama is facing as far as elections?

A: I think just continuing to improve the processing of voter registration. Under current Alabama law, I think the cutoff for registering to vote is several days before an election. So what happens is the voting registrars get swamped with all of these voter registration applications just days before the election and they have trouble processing a lot of those prior to the election.  People end up going to the polls and they are not on the list, so they have to vote a provisional ballot and that has its own challenges and problems. So we have been trying to pass a bill to increase the amount of time that the registrars have to process voter registration applications and that also protects the integrity of elections.

For example, in Jefferson County, the probate judge up there will print the voting list 10 days before the election but then somebody will register down in Elmore County, and because they have moved, they will register three days before the election. Well, now they are going to show up on two voting lists. It’s just another one of those areas where we ought to be able to improve elections with technology enhancements.

Funding for those improvements is obviously critical. How to pay for elections is becoming an increasingly bigger challenge simply because, like all states, we are struggling, particularly in our general fund.

Q: How do you get other lawmakers to pay attention to elections issues and bills?

A: Personal communication and contact with other members is vitally important. Nobody has time to go to a meeting for a committee that they are not on and listen to the testimony, so working those votes on the floor, visiting other senators in their offices after-hours or before hours when they have a little bit of time, and letting them know what your most important pieces of legislation are and letting them know how it impacts their voters, their constituents, is critical.

Q: What is your relationship with the local election officials in your state?

A: I work very closely with our secretary of state and, in Alabama, our probate judges are responsible for voting in each county. I speak with them, with their association, throughout the session. We always talk about every single bill that affects the local voting process. The secretary of state and I work hand in hand. We have got a great relationship.

 Q: What other election developments in Alabama can you point to?

A: Real reform has been in the area of campaign finance. We passed a bill two years ago to require the secretary of state to put all of our campaign contributions and expenditure reporting online in a searchable database. In the last election, if someone wanted to see who my contributors were, it was online but it was a PDF, so they had to go pull up my paper report in a PDF format and they had to look through the report and they can see who contributed to me for that report but then they would have to go look up prior reporting periods for my paper filings if they wanted to see a pattern. Now, we have a wonderful system, the secretary of state did a great job implementing it, everything is online. With one search you can click on my name and you can see every contribution I have ever received dating back to the initiation of the system.

photo of Senator Jeff DanielsonSenator Jeff Danielson, Iowa (November 2013)

Senator Jeff Danielson (D-IA) has served on the Iowa Senate’s State Government Committee for 10 years, and is the current chair, holding that position for the previous three years.  He earned a masters degree in public policy, and self-identifies as a policy geek.  In terms of elections, he says that “democracy is not a spectator sport, you gotta participate to make it work.”  The Canvass spoke with him on October 22, 2013.

Q: Do you have an overriding perspective that guides your decisions?

A: Yes. I want Iowa to have the most secure, accurate and efficient elections in America without disenfranchising a single voter. Each one is its own pillar—security, accuracy and efficiency, providing Iowans an election system they can be proud of in multiple ways. As importantly, we consider voting a right and take seriously our duty to not disenfranchise a single Iowa voter when proposing changes.

Q: Iowa’s legislature is one of only three that has divided control, with each House controlled by a different party. Has that affected your lawmaking?

A: It’s not necessarily divided government that’s a problem. We’ve had moments in Iowa’s history when we’ve been divided before, but we’ve always focused on keeping politics out of election law. What’s changed more recently is a desire by some to politicize election law to gain a partisan advantage by suppressing votes. We’ve seen what I call ‘extreme, aggressive’ proposals around the country and here in Iowa that, in my view, would disenfranchise citizens from participating in elections by creating barriers to voting, prior to election day and at polling places, under the guise of security.

For example, since 2010 Iowa hasn’t passed a single change to our election laws because our current secretary of state, Matt Schultz, has insisted on what I consider an extreme voter ID law. This has stifled any meaningful debate or ability to work together on other issues related to elections law. We haven’t seen this type of hyper-partisanship in the secretary of state’s office before.

Q: So voter ID has been a challenge?

A: I find the focus on photo ID leaves the public with a false perception of Iowa’s elections, that our elections are not secure and therefore corrupt. That is not true at all. We currently have one of the most secure, accurate and efficient systems in the country. The real issue is how we improve current security, without reducing participation. Extreme photo ID proposals suppress the vote, plain and simple. It’s a false choice and it’s irresponsible. We owe it to Iowans to be more thoughtful than that.

I favor a layered approach to elections security that includes multiple ways to verify people’s identity when they vote. The ultimate irony of the current photo ID debate in Iowa is that we do have a photo ID law already. Precinct workers can ask for a photo ID if they suspect the person attempting to vote is not who they say they are. We balance security with efficiency by not making it compulsory and there hasn’t been a single situation where new extreme photo ID laws would have improved security at the polls. Many Iowans don’t even vote at the polls, choosing to vote by mail, where photo ID has no impact on the process. Add it all up and extreme photo ID proposals are long on fear and short on facts.

This is not a new dynamic. There are moments in America’s election law history where new rules are proposed, under the guise of security, only to find all they’ve accomplished is voter suppression. We don’t need to relearn those lessons here in Iowa.  Protecting the right to vote and ensuring the security of Iowa’s elections are not opposing values. We will do both.

Q: What moves has your state made in terms of running good elections that you think other legislators might find intriguing?

A: Before 2010, Iowa was one of the more progressive, forward-thinking states in terms of elections. We changed the law to allow for same day registration. Previously, you had to register 10 days in advance. It was ironic that you had to wait 3 days to buy a gun but 10 days to vote. Same day registration is a very secure system, and you have to use an ID for it.

In terms of voting technology, I believe our goal should be one person/one vote/one way to verify that vote. In 2006 we passed a law requiring a voter-verified paper audit trail, using the same voting machines in every Iowa polling place. So our verification process is uniform, using the same equipment and getting the same training. It works. I know because in 2008 I won my race by 22 votes out of 34,000 cast. We recounted it by hand nearly three times before my opponent conceded.

We’ve also encouraged the family aspect of voting, by allowing spouses to carry voted absentee or mail ballots to the auditor’s office or polling place, and made veteran-friendly changes to our vote-by-mail process. That’s important because Iowa has one of the highest per-capita percentages of people who serve in the military.   And, we’ve improved the ability for younger Iowans to play a meaningful part in the elections process, by serving as youth poll workers. All of these are examples of impediments to participation where we’ve said, ‘let’s remove those barriers and increase opportunities to participate’.

Q: What is your relationship with the local election officials in your state?

A: We have a great working relationship with our local county auditors, and we should since they are the ones who actually run elections in Iowa. There’s too much focus on secretaries of state. Especially here in Iowa, the secretary of state does not conduct the day-to-day operations of elections; the local county auditors do. By the way, auditors are also elected officials, and run as Democrats and Republicans in Iowa. They’ve worked together across party lines to share ideas on administering elections.

We have a Republican county auditor, Ken Kline, who’s led elections technology innovation efforts. He invented, tested and has perfected “Precinct Atlas” to better administer elections.  Precinct Atlas has converted the old paper poll books to a computer system that’s more efficient and accurate and provides better customer service. We believe this system can strengthen our state and local partnerships, and I’m hopeful the state will commit resources to ramp it up so it can go statewide. Right now it is used in about half the counties.


photo of Senator Lloyd SmuckerSenator Lloyd Smucker, Pennsylvania (August-September 2013)

Pennsylvania’s Senator Lloyd Smucker chairs the Senate State Government Committee.  Before running for his current position, he owned the Smucker Company, a family-owned commercial construction firm with more than 150 employees. He represents Lancaster and York Counties, in southeastern Pennsylvania. The Canvass interviewed him on September 4, 2013.

Q: Do you have an overriding perspective that guides your decisionmaking on elections?

A:  We have a continued problem with voter turnout, so I’m always looking for ways to encourage greater participation.  There is also plenty of opportunity to increase efficiency in the system, through technology.

Q: Technology? How so?

A: Online voter registration, for one thing. We don’t have it in place here in Pennsylvania yet. I first became aware of it when a constituent wanted to register to vote close to the deadline, and he wanted to do it online. This is one area where we aren’t using technology in ways that could help the process for voters.  (Note: Senator Smucker is a sponsor of bill SB 37, that would authorize online registration.)

Q: Are there other ways to use technology to make voting easier?

A: Yes, for ballot transmission. The technology to transmit ballots electronically would allow folks overseas and in the service to return their ballots electronically.  And yet, we still have to protect the integrity of the voting process. So we want to make sure any system is secure.

Q: Voter ID still seems to be a hot issue in Pennsylvania.

A:  The voter ID law was passed before I became chair. Since then it’s been tied up in the courts and we’ll see if it gets put into place here.  If today you started from scratch designing an election system,  and you had a choice between verifying a voter through a signature or a photo ID, you’d probably pick the photo ID.  We’ll see where the courts end up.

Q: What is your relationship with the local election officials in your state?

A: Prior to serving in this role, I was a business owner, and I found the best ideas came from the front lines, those who were doing the work every day. So when we discuss any legislation that affects the process, I’ll talk directly to the county boards that are responsible for carrying out the election law. I also spend time talking to the officials here in the counties I represent, to be sure I understand how the process works. They’re the people on the front lines.



Picture of Senator Dennis Pyle, KSSenator Dennis Pyle, Kansas (July 2013)


Senator Dennis Pyle chairs Kansas’ Senate Ethics, Elections and Local Government committee. He points out that Kansas has a “citizen legislature,” and that he is a farmer.  “Dealing with elections issues and with agriculture business at home has kept me very busy this session.  At times I almost envy legislative colleagues who have retired from there general occupation,” he said when The Canvass spoke with him in April. 
 
Q: Do you have an overriding perspective that guides your decisions?

A: That is simple for me. It’s important to make sure that Kansas citizens who have the legal right to vote can do it as simply and easily as possible, and that we have fair and legitimate elections.  In some countries, they dip fingers in ink to make sure everyone only votes once. I am not saying that should be our approach, but insuring that each voter votes only once is critical. We want elections to go smoothly and we want our rules to be as easy and simple as possible for our voters and for our clerks and election officers. Otherwise we risk the controversy that threatens the integrity of the process.
 
Q: What election legislation caught your attention this year?

A:This year we’ve had legislation (SB 63) that proposes to give the Secretary of State, in addition to local authorities and the AG, authority to prosecute election crimes; the bill also defines crimes more precisely and expands them and increases penalties.  We also had a bill in committee (SB 38) that would allow an advance vote count even if the voter dies between advance voting and Election Day.
 
The big debate has been about moving spring election dates to the fall. We get such low turnout in spring elections. There are mixed opinions on this; some think it would be easy to do, while others don’t want to move the dates.  There were questions about ballot length and costs, for example. There is a lot to look at, and we’ll probably give that more consideration next session.
 
Q: Anything else?

A: The House dealt with party registration this year.  During last year’s primary cycle, voters were changing affiliation to have an effect on the other party in the primaries. Some want to tighten up that loophole. There are two sides to that and we may consider the issue in the senate next year.
 
Q: What is your relationship with the local election officials in your state?

A:  We have great county clerks, and they help ensure the integrity of the process. The SOS as chief election official, and his staff, work hard to affect this. I always welcome their input. As a chair, I’m learning to value the input of those who are directly involved with elections on an everyday basis. 

Q: How has proof of citizenship been going for Kansas, and does this ruling mean Kansas will have to re-think its procedures too?

A: It became law January 2013. I am not aware of any reason we should rethink Kansas’ position.
 


photo of Chris GarrettRepresentative Chris Garrett, Oregon (May 2013)


Oregon Representative Chris Garrett (D) is the state’s speaker pro tempore and the chair of the House Rules Committee. He serves in the district where he grew up—southwest Portland and Lake Oswego. The Canvass spoke with him on May 9, 2013.
 
Q:  Do you have an overriding perspective that guides your decisions?

A: Making the act of voting as simple as possible.
 
Q: How has that come up recently?
 
A:  We just had a lengthy hearing on a proposal from the secretary of state to take ‘motor voter registration’ and make it into an “opt out” plan. This would mean that people who have gone to the DMV would be automatically registered.  Some opponents think it is taking away choice. There may be people who deliberately decide not to vote, but they’re far out-numbered by people who don’t think about it until it’s too late to register.  It strikes the balance in favor of removing barriers to voting.  Potentially we could add a few hundred thousand new voters overnight.
 
Q: How would this work?
 
A: The person’s information from the department of motor vehicles would be sent to the secretary of state’s office for the purpose of registering them. Before they become part of the voting rolls, they would have the chance to opt out.  Other than that, those folks would become active registered voters and receive a ballot like everyone else.
 
Q:  That brings up vote-by-mail, something Oregon pioneered. How is that working?
 
A: Oregonians love vote-by-mail. People get their ballots about 15 to 20 days before the election. Voters don’t have to worry about taking time off from work to vote and standing in line. 

Q:  Money seems to be an issue for elections everywhere. How about Oregon?

A: Anytime we have an idea, the cost issues are important because our counties are resource-starved.  We had a couple of county commissioners write in opposition to the automatic registration bill, largely due to fiscal concerns. Sensitive as I am to fiscal concerns, I just don’t think it’s a good enough reason not to promote access.

Q: What is your relationship with local election officials?
 
A:  Elections is the main topic in our portfolio in the Rules Committee, so we’re in regular contact with the secretary of state, the association of counties, and the county clerks. There’s an ongoing dialogue. Sometimes we do things that they think are going to make their lives harder and more expensive, but overall it’s a collaborative working relationship.

 


photo of Senator A.J. GriffinSenator A.J. Griffin, Oklahoma (April 2013)


Senator A.J. Griffin chairs the Senate Rules Committee, a job she was given because she’s known for being detail-oriented and because of her strong relationship with her local elected officials.  She represents four largely-rural Oklahoma counties, one of which is the fastest growing county in the state.  The Canvass interviewed her on April 15, 2013.
 
Q: Do you have an overriding perspective that guides your decisions?

A:  Even as we continue to improve the voting procedures in our state, we also continue to see dwindling numbers of voters. We need to be cognizant in doing anything that makes the voting process a hindrance to casting a ballot.

Q: How does the rural nature of your district affect your work?
 
Having grown up in a rural area, and serving a significant amount of the rural population in Oklahoma, I’m interested in creating policies and systems that allow every single voter an equal opportunity to vote. Like most states, we are becoming more urbanized as people move towards our two major urban areas, leaving the other areas more isolated.  In those areas, geography, and the distance to the polling place, can be challenging. We don’t want to starve the rural areas of resources, at the same time we do not want the right to vote in urban areas to be impeded by long lines.
 
Q: What are the pressing elections issues in your state?
 
A: We passed voter ID a couple of years ago. Now we want to expand options for our citizens, particularly those in the military who may not have a driver’s license. This year we sent a bill to the governor (SB 752) to permit military IDs to be used.
 
Also, the presidential elections gave us “lessons learned” about early voting and absentee voting. In our largest counties, we’d like to offer alternative locations for early voting so everyone doesn’t try to vote at the county courthouse. This should reduce waiting times during early voting.  We’re also shifting the early voting time from Friday-Saturday-Monday to Thursday-Friday-Saturday to allow county election officials time to process absentee ballots.
 
Q: What is the relationship between state election officials and local election officials in Oklahoma?
 
A: We have a very uniform election process across our state; the procedures, rules and equipment are identical from county to county. Because of that, more information is being shared between the counties, and has a ‘continual quality improvement processes in place.  Centralization helps protect the integrity of the process, and provide the same efficiency and accuracy regardless of where you live within the state.  We have a state election board, whose relationship with the county election officials is collaborative--not dictatorial at all.
 
 


photo of Pat SpearmanSenator Pat Spearman, Nevada (March 2013)

Nevada’s Senator Pat Spearman chairs the Senate Legislative Operations and Elections Committee, a wonderful assignment for a freshman legislator.  She is a retired military officer and an ordained minister—and is completing her doctorate in business administration.  On March 20, 2013, she spoke with NCSL about running elections in the Silver State.
                                               
Q: How do you approach your legislative work?

A:  For anything I’m considering, I pray. I try to become centered on the fact that every decision I make will ultimately affect the lives of every Nevadan. In terms of how I function, I ask a lot of questions because I never want to make a decision that is ill-informed.  I always want to make decisions based upon the information that both proponents or opponents offer.

Q: What are the elections issues in your committee this year?
 
A:  Our secretary of state, Ross Miller, rolled out a plan that people say was a form of voter ID. That’s not what he’s talking about. 
During his tenure he’s developed a way for people to register online, and it involves a technological nexus between his office and the department of motor vehicles. This year’s proposal is a next step to that. If the DMV is already verifying information for voters who register online, and since they have pictures for their driver’s licenses, why not equip electronic pollbooks with those pictures? Then, when I show up to vote, they type my name in, and my picture comes up. That takes the onus off the voter to provide the identification and places it on the government, if you will.
 
Q: What about people who don’t have a picture in the system?
 
A: They can opt to have a picture taken right there at the polls, or they can sign an affidavit.  That piece is still being considered.  This system also would allow voters to vote at polling stations outside their neighborhood.  Instead of racing back across town, I can find a polling place where I am, and I could vote—because my information would all be right there in the electronic pollbook.
 
Q: Are there other issues pending that relate to elections?
 
A: We have just voted out Senate Bill 203, which says that lobbyists have to report their activities once per quarter, even when not in session.  For this and all our work, the goal is to ensure that our constituents have the opportunity to put full faith and trust in what we’re doing because we are making sure that there are protocols in place that facilitate honesty and integrity.
 
Q: What is your relationship with the local election officials in your state?
 
A: I always like to hear what local officials have to say because even though I represent a constituency in southern Nevada, I’m still one level removed from the impact of any legislation that comes out of here. It’s always a good idea to get their ideas and understanding so we know how they will implement a new plan.

 


Representative Kathy Bernier, Wisconsin (February 2013)

Representative Kathy Bernier (R) is the chair of Wisconsin’s Committee on Campaigns and Elections.  She brings great professional depth to the job, since she served as a county clerk for more than a dozen years before being elected to the Wisconsin Assembly in 2010.  NCSL spoke with her on January 8, 2013. 

Q: Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board is often held up as an example of good non-partisan management. What do you think?

A: I think the GAB could do a better job of ensuring election integrity, especially with the complaints and concerns that have been filed with them on voter fraud issues.  The onus seems to be put entirely on election officials, rather than electors for providing proper information to register and vote same day. I think they can do a better job of supporting poll workers in this regard. (Editor’s note: in Wisconsin and nine other states, plus the District of Columbia, residents can register to vote and cast a ballot on Election Day.)

Q: Has Election Day Registration been an issue?

A:  In the past decade or so we’ve lost some of our integrity in regard to Election Day Registration.  I believe it was intended for people who have moved shortly before an election, not for everyone.  When people register on Election Day, it puts pressure on the poll workers and slows the process down. Poll workers bend over backwards to allow people to vote. They are afraid to challenge people who might not be eligible voters.  I also have reports that curb side voting and nursing home voting has had integrity problems as well. 

Q:  So it’s a poll worker training problem?

A:  Only in part. The Government Accountability Board is responsible for training the chief inspectors and clerks, who then train the poll workers. But some clerks have other jobs, and may not put enough emphasis on elections.  When I was a county clerk, we did training and continuing education for clerks and poll workers. Most importantly, we did sample recounts—that proved to be the best way to educate poll workers.  I’m in favor of testing poll workers, but not to get rid of them.  We can give them the answers to the test, and let them keep practicing until they adequately understand the laws and rules of election administration and support them when they need to make a tough call.

Q: What is on your agenda for 2013 in Wisconsin?

A:  We’re going to address recalls and the Constitutional issues associated with them, especially recalls for the lieutenant governor and governor, which should go hand in hand.  We may also focus on recount procedures using electronic voting equipment and hand counts.  We’ll be taking a deeper look at Election Day Registration and voter ID which has been and continues to be a concern in certain areas. There are a number of smaller election administration issues that will need to be addressed. I will be using a clerk advisory group to gather feedback on proposed election related legislation.


 

photo of Clayton Hee
Senator Clayton Hee, Hawaii (January 2013)

 


Senator Clayton Hee is Hawaii’s chair of the Committee on Judiciary and Labor. He was first elected to Hawaii’s house in 1982, and is sought out for his “institutional memory.”  (On a private note, he reports that he “vividly remembers when I saw the first person who had blonde hair on Waikiki,” in the late 1950s.) On January 3, NCSL asked him about Hawaii’s elections.
 
Q: Do you have an overriding perspective that guides your decisions about elections?
 
A:  In my opinion, it’s a fair statement that the legislature has tried to make elections and voting easier. There have been proposals in the past for registering on the day of the election. Recently the governor publicly stated that he was very interested in the Oregon system of voting by mail. Hawaii is a state that looks at all kinds of ways to increase the participation of the voting age population.
 
Q: Is Hawaii unique in its concern to increase participation?
 
A: When Hawaii became a state in 1959, participation was in excess of 90 percent. Today it’s closer to 50 percent. There’s been a dropoff, and the legislature has tried to respond to that to increase participation. At the end of the day, it’s up to the voters, though.
 
Q: Hawaii is one of the most heavily Democratic states in the nation. How does that effect the legislture?
 
A:  It seems the blue ties have gained in both chambers. (Note: The Senate has 24 Democrats and one Republican; the House has 44 Democrats and 7 Republicans.)  You’d think based on those kinds of issues that Hawaii was a fairly left, liberal state, and in some ways it is.  And yet, there are issues that the conservative side of our blue state raises.  Overall the legislature has moved more toward the center; and that’s a conundrum and an interesting dynamic in Hawaii.
 
Q: Hawaii made the news in the presidential election because not enough ballots were on hand to meet demand.
               
A: It’s called being inept. It’s not like Hawaii went from 40 percent of turnout to 80 percent! There’s really no excuse for that to occur.  Evidently there were enough ballots, but they just couldn’t get them out where they were needed. Keeping the ballots secure in a central location makes sense, but if you can’t get them, it’s not logical. Especially on an archipelago with eight islands, you have to be able to disperse them expeditiously.  It’s my guess we’ll use a “short form bill” relating to elections to propose a remedy. 
 
There was going to be a Senate investigation, but appropriately and quickly the Hawaii Elections Commission said they would initiate an invest immediately, asking what happened and what caused it? I presume they’ll make recommendations to the legislature.”
 
Q: What else is on your radar, legislatively speaking?
 
A: The one bill I was asked to consider was by Voter Owned Hawaii (Note: an advocacy group) that would raise the limits on matching funds for campaigns. This group believes that it is not worth the candidate’s time to participate in a matching fund situation like we have now, because the match is too low.  This would encourage candidates who don’t have the financial means to run on their own to accept contribution limits that would be tied to matching funds from the state.
                


photo of Senator Ray HolmbergSenator Ray Holmberg, chair of North Dakota’s Committee on Appropriations and of the Joint Committee on Legislative Redistricting (October 2012)

Senator Ray Holmberg is North Dakota’s chair of the Committee on Appropriations and of the Joint Committee on Legislative Redistricting. He began his legislative career in 1977, and almost immediately became involved with all things elections-related. While his legislative assignments have changed over time, his interest in running good elections never has. On September 13, 2012, NCSL asked him about North Dakota’s elections.

Q: North Dakota is noteworthy as a state without a full-on voter registration system. Tell us about that.

A:  It’s true that we don’t require registration; people can come on Election Day and vote. And yet the election workers do have a list of all the people who have voted in the past, or are potential voters. We kind of have a ‘velvet glove’ approach to voting. We do require a photo ID, but a voter without it is allowed to sign an affidavit, and allowed to vote on a regular ballot, not a provisional ballot. From the standpoint of elections, North Dakota is clean. We have very good election workers, and they are  very easy to work with.

Q:  What else is unusual about North Dakota elections?

A:  Well, we have a number of our counties, particularly those in the north and in rural areas, who use vote-by-mail, and they may have only one precinct each. We initially allowed experimentation with vote-by-mail in primary elections. The election officials sent ballots to people who had voted before. Also, with our velvet glove approach, anyone can notify the county auditor’s office to get on the list.
The auditors came back and reported that vote-by-mail worked very well and it allowed more people the opportunity to vote and it didn’t create problems with fraud. We then authorized vote-by-mail statewide, but with the proviso that there had to be at least one place for people who wanted to vote the more traditional way to vote. Now we have some folks who want us to mandate more than one place in a county to be open for in-person voting.

Q: What s on your mind about North Dakota’s elections, as you look into the future?

A: With the influx of new people moving into the state, running elections is more of a challenge. It’s more problematic now that we can’t rely on knowing everybody. Also, our counties and cities which handle voting precincts have consistently reduced their number of precincts. There are 450 statewide now, whereas there used to be 2500. With bigger precincts, it gets harder to know everyone.

Q:  What new proposals do you expect to consider in the next session?

A:  We’ll have a proposal that every legislative district will have to have at least a certain number of precincts. The person proposing this doesn’t care how many voting places there are in a district—one location is fine, with all the precincts in the same place. The idea is that if your entire district votes in one precinct, you don’t know where your political strength is coming from. This has some appeal to the political junkies. I think there will be pushback from the counties and the cities, because it’s pretty convenient to combine precincts.

We may also see some refinement to initiative and referendum  laws. We are in the midst of a large scandal regarding the utilization of out-of-state firms to collect signatures, and hiring people to do it. When problems hit the media, the politicians hit the microphones.
 


photo of Representative Mary Helen GarciaRepresentative Mary Helen Garcia, Chair of New Mexico's House Committee on Voters and Elections (September 2012)
 

 Representative Mary Helen Garcia (D), the chair of New Mexico’s House Committee on Voters and Elections, says that campaigning “is in my DNA,” having grown up in a political family.  While NCSL asked her about elections issues in the Land of Enchantment, it’s worth noting that her work at the Roundhouse (New Mexico’s capitol) has largely been about education.  No surprise there—she’s a retired educator. On August 29, 2012, NCSL asked her about New Mexico and its elections issues.

Q: Tell us about New Mexico’s position in terms of voter ID.

A: New Mexico is a very unique state.  A lot of people have a difficult time with some of the cultural things we need to be so careful with here. People harp about photo voter ID, but in New Mexico we cannot have it because, for many Native Americans, it is a part of their culture that they do not take pictures.  Many other states have Native American populations as well, but I don’t hear this being talked about as an issue. It definitely is one here.
 
And then there is the issue of a driver’s license.  I have a sister-in-law who never drove in her life, and she didn’t have a picture photo ID.  I think it is voter suppression, that they’re trying to make it inconvenient for a lot of our citizens to vote. Besides, we don’t require photo ID with absentee ballots, so why would we require it at the polls?
 
Q: What other elections issues come up in New Mexico?
 
A: What’s occurring here now is that we’re trying to condense precincts into election centers.  It can be rather confusing to implement this.  Perhaps we can do a model in some areas where the people are more sophisticated and educated, but that is hard to address.  In areas that are not as sophisticated, people have been voting in the same way and in the same location for years, so a change like this can be confusing.
 
Q: What are your priorities now in terms of elections?
 
A:  We’re trying to do more voter registration with women and with the younger generation, perhaps the children of immigrants who were born here. This younger generation just doesn’t seem to be as involved, although people who have just gotten their citizenship are very involved.  I think President Obama’s “deferred action” for people who would qualify for the Dream Act is going to activate a lot of people into going to the polls.
 
Q: How do your legislators get along with New Mexico’s election officials?
 
A:  We have been  very satisfied with our election officials.  Since 1930-something we have always had a secretary of state who was a Democrat. The last two years we have had a Republican, who had been in the senate and also has been a county clerk.  This was a drastic shift.  I work well with her.  Just like with education, elections are not a Democrat or a Republican issue. We need to work together for consensus in the state of New Mexico.  
 
 


Representative Pete Illoway, WYRepresentative Pete Illoway, Wyoming's Chair of the House Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee (July-August 2012) 

 

Representative Pete Illoway (R) is Wyoming’s outgoing chair of the House Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee. He says “I termed myself out” after seven sessions, or 14 years. He’d planned on leaving after six terms, but decided to stay through a seventh term so his redistricting expertise from a decade earlier could be put to use.  As for his future, he says “I don’t want to make any decisions yet. I don’t want to work too hard, but you never know what might come up.” On July 11, 2012 he spoke with NCSL about his experiences dealing with election policy and other matters in the cowboy state.

Q:  As the outgoing chairperson, do you have advice for those who are continuing in the business of setting elections policy?

A: Nationally, a lot of people are having a problem with voter ID requirements. I don’t think we have a problem in Wyoming.  Here’s what we did in verifying voter registration, and it works for us. The law says the secretary of state and the director of motor vehicle bureau are to match voter registration data with data from driver’s licenses. Then the secretary of state and the attorney general are to enter into an agreement to compare data, and then the same with the director of the Department of Health, and the director of the State Board of Paroles, and the Supreme Court to match information with records that generate jury lists.  That works for us.
We do have problems with people who legitimately don’t have a birth certificate or a driver’s license. If you legitimately don’t have something, we’ll work with those folks. Wyoming isn’t so big that you can’t work through these things. To those who come after me in the legislature, I’d say ‘work closely with the folks who administer elections and stay in tune with them.’  To the feds I’d say, ‘Keep your fingers off Wyoming.’

Q:  What moves has your state made in terms of running good elections that you think other legislators might find intriguing?

A: Besides the data matching I described,  we have day-of-election registration.  A citizen swears that he or she is a bona fide resident of the state, is 18 years of age and mentally competent and if the name is not on the polling list, the voter fills out a form right there that says ‘I am who I am,” and then vote. Maybe somebody gets by occasionally, I don’t know.  We’ve just never had a problem or a history of problems.

Q: You were heavily involved with redistricting this year as well as a decade ago. 

A:.  The Joint Corporations Interim Committee, with 14 senators and representatives, drove around the state, held meetings listening to folks and we came back and put together the best process we could.  When it got down to playing with legislative district lines, we used software and those census districts and we could see exactly how it affected the count. We have a lawsuit from some disgruntled folks, but I don’t think it will get far.  We feel very good about our process. 

Q:  Are there issues about elections that concern you as you look toward the future?

A:  Yes. The issues are civility and cost.  In Wyoming we typically don’t have civility problems, but it may be starting.  About a month ago we had a pie social in Pine Bluffs in the eastern part of Laramie County.  All the folks who were running for office were there and had a chance to speak. One of the folks pretty well ripped his opponent. The incumbent handled it well, but it was not necessary. We need to stick to civility, even if on the national level that isn’t the case.
Then there is the cost of running an election.   This still isn’t a big issue in Wyoming, but if you’re a candidate for the legislature in Colorado or elsewhere, it’s going to cost you $25,000 or $50,000 or more. In Wyoming, it’s not necessary--yet. You do have to get your name out and if you haven’t made a name for yourself in the community, you’re going to have to spend money to get out there and do it. Fourteen years ago when I first ran, they said “you’ll have no trouble getting elected because the people all know you.” Yes, but they all knew the other guy, too.  That’s how it is in Wyoming.

Q: What is the relationship between local election officials, state officials and the legislature in Wyoming?

A: Excellent.  Wyoming is blessed with 563,000 people in the state, and only 23 counties, so we only have 23 clerks to deal with.  We work very closely with the county clerks. Most of them have been in their position for a number of years, which makes it so they can easily go through the statutes and make suggestions. The committee listens to the county clerks and generally goes with what they’re after because we work so closely.

 


 



Representative Russ Morin
, Co-Chair of Connecticut's Government Administration and Elections Committee (June 2012)

 

photo of Representative Russ MorinRepresentative Russ Morin (D) is Connecticut’s House co-chair of the Government Administration and Elections Committee; Senator Gayle Slossberg is the Senate co-chair. On May 31, 2012, NCSL asked him about his very productive year, during which eight elections-related bills were enacted.  Highlights include permitting citizens to complete voter registration online; approval of Election Day registration; and the passage of a constitutional amendment to permit early voting and no-excuse absentee voting. Similar legislation will need to pass in the next legislative session as well before the amendment becomes part of the state constitution.

Q: How did you feel about your legislative successes in 2012 in terms of elections legislation?

A: Connecticut is the “Land of Steady Habits,” and trying to get people to change is not easy, so it was exciting to see us have these successes this year. Generally when you’re in this job, you just have to be patient.

Election Day registration was a huge win for Connecticut voters. Despite a long, mainly partisan, debate, we were able to pass this legislation with the goal of getting more people to the voting booths on Election Day. 

Q: How do you account for your success?

My co-chair, Senator Slossberg, and I worked hard to meet with all the players on both sides of the aisle. I also had a good ranking member, Tony Hwang, and we went full bore on the things we agreed on. The governor and the secretary of the state were on board; our new secretary of the state, Denise Merrill, came from the legislature and that always helps.

Having joint committees here in Connecticut helps, too. Once we’re in agreement in committee, it is easier when the legislation gets to the House and Senate.

Q: What are the pressing elections issues in your state that still remain?

A: Number one for me would be the state constitutional amendment that would allow us to address early voting and absentee voting. In a state like Connecticut, it’s not uncommon for people to be working in New York City or Boston. People are so busy with their jobs and their families, that voting on Election Day can be a real problem. When I look at other countries or states where they have early voting options and see that the turnout is higher, I want that for Connecticut, too. That’s what it’s all about, getting the people to vote.  

Otherwise, we can expect that no matter how good this year’s new legislation is, when it is put into practice for the end users—the clerks and registrars and voters—we may have to make tweaks.

Q: What is your relationship with your clerks and registrars in your state?

 A: We want them at the table and to be part of the discussion. We have 169 towns and 169 types of leadership, and it means that everybody does their thing their own way. Because of that, we want, and get, a lot of input for a small state.

As for my big concern, the constitutional amendment, early voting and no-excuse absentee balloting make some of our clerks and registrars of voters nervous. It is the registrars who would handle the early voting, and the absentee ballots would go to the clerks. This could be perceived as giving them more responsibility at a time when governments have to be leaner. I don’t want that; I’d like it to make elections work more smoothly overall. 


 

Representative Andre Cushing, III, Chair of the Maine Election committee (May 2012)

photo of Representative Cushing

 Representative Andre Cushing III (R) is Maine’s assistant majority leader and chair of the House Election Committee.  On May 2, 2012, NCSL asked him about the work that he and his state are doing on elections, especially since Maine is, as he puts it, a “retail” politics state, with small communities and small districts (8500 people in a House district, and 40,000 in a Senate district). 

Q: How does being a small state effect elections?

A:  We’re a rural state. Clerks know their residents, and the residents know the clerks. So the bulk of our elections go smoothly, and voter fraud is a small issue in Maine.  Most of our communities have town clerks who serve in many capacities, including running elections. These clerks are very conscientious about what they do, and they make sure the integrity of the system is up held.

In terms of running a campaign, in many cases it is like running for a town council. The amount of money you spend is not important, although it does weigh in. It’s more about getting to know the voters, doing the door to door local activities to earn their votes.

Q: Do you have an overriding principal that guides your decisions?

A:  Yes. I support people being able to vote, but I also want to protect the integrity of the ballot box. It’s not so much about fraud; it’s to protect against error on the part of the voter or the election officials.  

When it comes to issues such as voting, my personal feeling is that it’s a right, but there’s a responsibility that comes with that right. Voters should know where to vote and be prepared to know who they’re voting for and what they’re voting for. If you have to stretch just a little bit, if you have to be more prepared to vote, then you treat the vote with more respect. You’re exercising a right that many have paid a great price to protect. As part of that, I believe that if you are going to vote in our elections in our communities, you should be a resident, someone who participates in the community and understands what’s going on. We’ve had a few instances where people have voted absentee in their home state and also voted locally here.

Q: Maine also gained national attention in 2011 for enacting legislation to end Election Day registration, and then saw that decision overturned by the voters.  What were the lessons from that?

A:  We changed the voter registration requirements so that voters would have to be registered at least two days before Election Day; that’s all we were asking for in Maine.  Some of the clerks would have preferred 10 days to two weeks, so they could adequately confirm those registrations.  The burden of same day voter registration, along with absentee voting puts a stress on some of the local offices.

The bill was about more than same day registration, though. It also included a change to the absentee law. We still do not permit same-day absentee voting. 

Q: How have elections changed in recent years in Maine?

A: In the last couple elections, we’ve had 25 to 40 percent of our voters use the absentee or early voting system, so the nature of voting is changing. Those early votes mean that the volume of work for the clerks is sometimes tripling. They issue the ballots, collect the ballots and process the ballots.

Q: What do you see as your role in encouraging citizen participation in political decisionmaking?

A:  It troubles me when we have only 40 to 60 percent of registered voters turn out for elections. And that’s people who registered! So I try to engage people in our processes. I go and speak to high school classes, and encourage school classes to visit the legislature.  I help run mock legislative sessions, and I encourage people to get involved in the political process every way they can. 


Delegate Jon Cardin, Chair of the Maryland Election Law subcommittee (April 2012)

Delegate Jon Cardin (D) is the chair of Maryland’s Election Law subcommittee of the Ways and Means Committee.  On March 22, 2012, NCSL asked him about the work that he and his state are doing on elections, especially since Maryland has recently modernized its registration process.

Q: Do you have an overriding principal that guides your decisions?

A: For all Marylanders who are legal to vote, I try to make voting as convenient and transparent as possible, while at the same time making sure we have mechanisms to catch fraud and mistakes. We have to always balance competing interests.” 

Q: What are your legislative priorities in your state?

A: There are always budgetary issues.  We have to make sure that we create the availability of funds to improve our voting systems. That needs to be done fairly soon, as nearly 100 percent of our machines will be obsolete by 2016. 

In terms of policy issues, we have some bills to create pilot programs that would allow vote-by-mail for certain jurisdictions for special elections. We’re trying this as a way for local boards to save a significant amount of money—over  50 percent of the cost of running an elections. Eventually we may want to use vote-by-mail for regular elections, too. 

This year we’ll make some minor fixes to online voter registration. This, too, can save tremendous money for the state and local boards and also make it easier for people to register to vote. 

I’m also moving ahead with several campaign finance-related bills. I’ve been the biggest proponent of a public finance system, because I believe anybody should be able to run for election regardless of whether they’re good fundraisers. That being said, I think people should be able to raise money, too, and we should have full disclosure of where the money comes from. Transparency is important and I also believe that libertarian rights are important too. 

Q: What is your relationship with the local election officials in your state?

A: I don’t spend a lot of time creating a relationship; they come to me and they tell me how they feel, and some identify with my positions and some do not. I’m open to hearing other people’s opinions and willing to move from one position to another. For example, I had been personally in favor of Sunday voting, and I’ve changed my opinion after hearing more about it. The practicalities are difficult and it put people in uncomfortable positions. If I learn still more, I may change my mind again. I want to hear what people, especially people who work on these issues every day, have to say.


Senator Sue Landske, Chair of the Indiana Elections and Apportionment Committee (March 2012)

photo of Senator Sue LandskeAssistant President Pro Tempore Sue Landske (R) is the chair of the Indiana Elections and Apportionment committee. On Feb. 21, 2012, NCSL asked her about the work that she and the state are doing on elections, especially since Indiana is one of the first states to fully implement a photo voter ID requirement.

Q:  Is there an overarching approach that Indiana takes to elections?

A:  Yes.  Our Secretary of State’s Election Division is run by co-directors who represent each party. They stay in very close contact with local election officials. We try to get their perspective at every step of the way. Our counties have some latitude, too. There are many decisions that the local offices make. That seems to be the most acceptable plan, and everyone seems satisfied with that.

Q: Indiana has a high profile in the elections world because it was one of the first to implement strict photo ID for voters. How is that working?

A: It seems to be working very well here. There are still those who say it is an impediment for voters, but we’ve expanded the opportunities to obtain an ID card from the DMV; it’s now open on Election Day. And you can cast a provisional ballot, if you don’t have your ID with you. It’s working just fine here.”

Q: I’ll bet that there are other Indiana practices that other states might be interested in.

A: One of the things that has made a big difference in Indiana is that we allow some of the poll workers to work  half a day. It’s hard to find pollworkers sometimes, and it’s a long day. To help with that, we do allow students to work, too, with special permission. We also use vote centers. I think it has made a huge difference in the counties that do use them. It’s up to them. 

Q: What legislation will you see this year?

A: We’ll have a couple of easy corrections in redistricting. And we’ve really tried to update a couple of the statutes that needed changing; just routine things that happen after a census. They’re really the kind of administrative issues that need to be taken care of every now and then.”


Sam Hunt, Chair of Washington's State Government and Tribal Affairs Committee (February 2012)

photo of Representative Sam HuntRepresentative Sam Hunt (D) is the chair of the Washington State Government and Tribal Affairs Committee. He’s served in the legislature for ten years. On Jan. 13, 2012, NCSL asked him about the work that he and the state are doing on elections.

Q: Is there an overarching perspective you hold when considering elections-related legislation?

A: I keep it in mind that it is the right to vote, not the permission to vote, and we want to maintain as much access for qualified voters as we can.  

Q: Washington is one of just two states that uses all-mail voting. How does that work for you?

A: Last year we became the second all vote-by- mail state, after our neighbor, Oregon. Vote-by-mail has been a huge success. We mail out ballots a long time before the election, and voters can fill it out the day they receive it or they can wait to Election Day to do it. In 2010, when all counties used mail ballots, voter turnout was 53 percent, a large number in a year when there were several statewide initiatives and referenda and two special legislative district elections but no statewide offices up for election.

The law also allows county auditors (Washington’s local election officials) to set up voting centers because there are people who say ‘I just want to go cast my vote.’ Those people take their ballot with them to the local library or courthouse, and vote it there. Many county auditors have installed secure drop-boxes for ballots, too, so if somebody objects to paying first class postage on it, they can physically take their ballot and drop it without paying postage.

For those who worry about ID at the polls, we have extremely good checks and balances. We have an envelope mailed to the voter; in that is the ballot and a security envelope and a return envelope. On the return one, you have to sign the oath that you are you, and sign it and date it. The elections people have your signature on file; if the envelope signature doesn’t look like the electronic signature, then you have to make a personal appearance.

 Q: What are your legislative plans for 2012?

A:  This year we have a couple of bills. One would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to register; these records would be kept in a separate file from the voter registration rolls until the young people turn 18.  The other bill would permit same-day registration. Our neighbor, Idaho, offers this. Right now in Washington you can register online up to 29 days before the election, or in person or on paper up to eight days before. This bill would move online registration up to seven or eight days before Election Day, and in-person registration right up through Election Day. We have a number of people from the Washington Students Association who have been working on this. The University of Washington uses  a quarter schedule, and the fall quarter starts in October, giving them only two weeks to put together a good registration campaign.

The county auditors are opposing this; they worry that if thousands of people wait until the last minute, it could disenfranchise some by creating long lines. I expect these bills to move out of committee, but can’t predict what the House and Senate will do.

Q: Do you see these issues as partisan?

 A: No, I don’t. Our Secretary of State, the state elections officer, is a Republican, and we have worked very well together over the years. He’s the one who recommended online voter registration. We also work with the county auditors. I sympathize with their budget problems and their concerns for the security and privacy of the ballot.


For More Information

For more information or to suggest a committee chairperson to interview, please contact us at 303-364-7700 or by email.

 

 

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