Compilation of election returns and validation of the outcome that forms the basis of the official results by a political subdivision.
“Elections are the way we measure the democratic process,” said Kathleen Hale, associate professor at Auburn University in Alabama. “As technology changes, and the pace of change accelerates, having top skills in the part of our government that measures democracy is critical.”
Her university and a number of others are doing their part to help measure democracy better—and otherwise help improve the election process.
If you’re a legislator from Alabama, California, Connecticut, Georgia, Indiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico, Ohio, Virginia and a few other states, count yourselves lucky. These states already get help from academia to improve election management.
And if you’re from other states? By reading on, you may feel just a tiny bit jealous—and then motivated to put the town-gown connection to work for the benefit of your state’s voters, election administrators and election policymakers. “Universities are filled with smart people who know how to solve problems,” says Merle King, director of the Center for Election Systems at Georgia’s Kennesaw State University. “Finding a match between that problem-solving capacity and the deadlines and budget constraints inherent to the election process is where the magic is.”
NCSL has gathered examples of “magic” in election-related teaching, research and service—the triad of values at the heart of the mission for most universities. These are followed by a few ideas on how legislators could wave their wands and create similar projects close to home.
The 2014 report from the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration says “The last decade’s heightened demand for more professional administration of elections and modernization of the process demonstrates that there is an increasing need for technology acumen, public relations skills, and data savvy.” In that vein, the report calls for election administration to be included in public administration graduate programs.
Grad school training is great, but training for working professionals matters, too—and legislatures can have a huge impact on these requirements. This year, Connecticut’s SB 1051 would require the state to develop and deliver a certification program for local election officials. And Montana’s lawmakers have just updated training requirements for local election officials, including permitting the development and use of online classes.
Here’s what some schools are doing:
Legislators often ask questions such as, which costs more: early in-person voting or no-excuse absentee voting? Does online voter registration have any effect on voter turnout? What will security look like for the next generation of voting equipment? Academics can slice and dice data to find answers to substantial, real-world questions such as these. “Given that there are so many political science folks looking for jobs, this is an avenue that is largely unexplored,” says King.
Here are some schools that do election-related research of dramatically different kinds:
University centers can provide direct services to local jurisdictions, such as designing ballots, preparing poll books, accept-ance testing of equipment and training for election workers. Or, they may provide support at the state level, such as testing voting equipment, establishing election procedures and providing information and analysis to the state’s policymakers. Some states use a decentralized model for running elections, and others use a more centralized model, so no one idea will fly everywhere.
Charles Stewart III, MIT professor and co-director of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project, has a dream. It’s that the elections world would have what the agricultural world already has: services provided to local jurisdictions by land grant universities. In the ag world, that means “extension services” that help farmers and gardeners take advantage of evidence-based research. For elections, every state could have a designated university that provides “extension services” to help local election officials take advantage of elections-related teaching, research and service.
Legislators could take steps towards this dream—or at least consider options such as these:
Long ago, when the United States was still young, many state constitutions permanently removed voting rights from individuals who were convicted of felonies.
In the mid-20th century, a few states began reversing these prohibitions, and that trend has slowly continued—although by no means has it moved in just one direction.
Proponents of automatic restoration of voting rights say that it is not just about voting; it is also about restoring that person to his or her place in society. For example, former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, in a letter detailing his 2013 decision to ease the process for restoration of voting rights, said, “I believe that a person who is a non-violent felon, and has served his time as well as probation or parole, and fully satisfied all court costs, fines, restitution, and other court-ordered conditions, should be able to regain his civil rights and resume his life as a fully engaged member of society.”
Opponents are likely to argue that those who break laws shouldn’t have a hand in making laws by voting. Additionally, there is a states’ rights argument: “States are and should be entitled to make their own decisions on this issue—a prerogative that includes implementing procedures to ensure that those who injure or murder their fellow citizens, steal, or damage our democracy by committing election crimes or engaging in public corruption like bribery have demonstrated that they can now be trusted again to exercise all of the rights of full citizenship,” writes Hans von Spakovsky, of the Heritage Foundation, in Felon Voting and Unconstitutional Congressional Overreach.
During the 2015 legislative session, 52 bills dealing with felons’ voting rights have been introduced in 15 states and Puerto Rico. The vast majority of these bills are aimed at restoring voting rights to some felons, depending on their crime and with some caveats, such as completion of incarceration, parole or probation.
Maryland’s legislature has sent the governor a bill that will permit felons who have served their prison time, but may not have completed parole or probation, to vote. And Wyoming now requires the department of corrections to issue a certification of restoration of voting rights to certain nonviolent felons who are being released from the state’s prisons.
Congress also has legislation this year, including the Civil Rights Voting Restoration Act of 2015, introduced by Senator Rand Paul, and the Democracy Restoration Act of 2015.
How many people are affected by these laws? Lots. Revive My Vote, a Williamsburg-based group that helps Virginians with prior felony convictions restore their right to vote, says that 350,000 Virginians are disenfranchised because of previous convictions. The Sentencing Project, an advocacy group for prison reform, estimates 5.85 million Americans cannot vote because of their criminal records.
See where states stand at NCSL’s webpage, Felon Voting Rights. For this year’s legislation, see NCSL’s Election Legislation Database.
Do absentee or mail ballots include prepaid postage for their return?
NCSL knows of just one state—Arizona—that requires local jurisdictions to provide prepaid postage. Generally speaking, voters are expected to put the stamps on. Some jurisdictions, such as San Francisco, may decide to include prepaid postage on their own. Even so, many or most jurisdictions have an account to cover the cost of ballots that arrive without sufficient postage. They do this so they will never have to turn away a voted ballot. Some say that it doesn’t cost that much to provide prepaid postage because most mail ballot users drop their ballots off, and the account is only charged for those that are actually mailed in. This year, several states, including Colorado, Oregon and Washington (the three states that mail ballots to all voters), have bills to provide prepaid postage. Others do too: Hawaii, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and North Carolina.
Wyoming and Idaho will permit the use of electronic poll books (and Wyoming’s bill authorizes the use of vote centers as well).
Florida, Idaho and Michigan put their presidential primaries in March; Florida’s will be on the third Tuesday, and Idaho and Michigan’s on the second.
West Virginia eliminated straight-ticket voting.
Oregon becomes the first in the nation to register all people with driver’s licenses or state ID cards, with the option to opt out.
Senator John Murante, Nebraska, began his legislative career as a legislative aide, and his portfolio included election law. When elected from the 49th district, not far from Omaha, he was appointed to the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over elections. He now chairs the committee. The Canvass spoke with him on March 30.
Read the full interview with Murante.
Don Blevins is the county clerk in Fayette County, Ky.—the second largest county in the Bluegrass State and the home of Lexington. His office handles land records, marriage licenses, vehicle registration, elections and more. The Canvass spoke with him on April 16.
Read the full interview with Blevins.
It’s “mark your calendars” time.
May 1 (free webinar): Linking Drivers Records to Voting Records. Learn what states are doing to fulfill their National Voter Registration Act requirements by hearing from faculty from The Pew Charitable Trusts, NCSL and Delaware.
June 3-5, Santa Fe: Policy and Elections Technology: A Legislative Perspective. Join 40 or more legislators in learning about upcoming challenges in elections. The conference is free for legislators and legislative staff, and the fee for others is reasonable.
August 3-6, Seattle: NCSL’s Legislative Summit. NCSL’s Redistricting and Elections Standing Committee will host workshops and sessions on many topics relating to redistricting, elections, campaign finance and the role of money in the life of a legislator.
Thanks for reading, and please stay in touch.
—Wendy Underhill and Meghan McCann
The Canvass, an Elections Newsletter for Legislatures © 2015 | Published by the National Conference of State Legislatures | William T. Pound, Executive Director
In conjunction with NCSL, funding support for The Canvass is provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Election Initiatives project. Any opinions, findings or conclusions in this publication are those of NCSL and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Pew Charitable Trusts. Links provided do not indicate NCSL or The Pew Charitable Trusts endorsement of these sites.
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