NCSL's election experts break down the midterm state legislative elections along voters' verdict on statewide ballot measures.
Issue 46 | February 2014
Compilation of election returns and validation of the outcome that forms the basis of the official results by a political subdivision.
Robert Bauer and Benjamin Ginsberg must be hoarse by now.
Both men have spent the past month touting the January report and recommendations of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, a 10-member panel they co-chaired. They have presented their guidelines for helping to improve elections before members of the U.S. Senate and have discussed key points of the report with many of the country’s top elections administrators. Read the report and recommendations
But perhaps the most important audience for the report is the state lawmakers who craft elections policy across the country. Bauer and Ginsberg spoke with The Canvass to discuss several of the commission’s 18 recommendations for improving elections, including online voter registration, ensuring safety at schools during elections and the certification of voting machines.
“Lawmakers do want to address the needs of their constituents and we hope that the report will provide ways to do that in areas where they need it,” said Ginsberg, who served as national counsel for Republican Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign and for both Bush-Cheney presidential campaigns.
Read a bio on Benjamin Ginsberg
Bauer, who was the chief lawyer during President Barack Obama’s presidential re-election campaign and Obama’s former White House counsel, said it is important to note the commission’s bipartisan composition. The panel spent six months talking with state and local elections administrators as well as academics to glean the best practices on how to administer an efficient election, he said.
Read a bio on Robert Bauer
“This is not a report that emerges out of Washington and is directed toward Washington,” Bauer said. “It’s a report that really emerges from engagement on the ground and throughout the country and is meant to return there for discussion. For that reason, I think we ought to be able to open up with legislators the same type of bipartisan communication we had among ourselves and with those who testified and worked with us on the report.”
The report’s key recommendations call for:
The commission maintains that no voter should have to wait more than one-half hour to have an opportunity to vote. Its report noted that during the 2012 presidential election more than five million voters experienced wait times exceeding one hour.
The report recommends that more states adopt online voter registration, citing its convenience for voters to register or update their information, the cost-savings for the states that already have it and the benefit of improving accuracy for voter lists, which helps make polls more efficient and reduces wait times.
Arizona was the first to implement the paperless registration system in 2002 and 18 other states since then have authorized online voter registration.
Bauer said legislators who have concerns about online voter registration should talk with their colleagues from other states where online voter registration is already in place. In November 2013, NCSL hosted a webinar that featured an analysis of online voter registration, including the security measures states have used for their systems. watch the webinar
Ohio Senator Frank LaRose (R) said he intends to point to the commission’s recommendation to expand online voter registration to help make a case for SB 175, a bill he sponsored this session. Read the bill
“When I stand up in the caucus room or in committee to ask them to vote in favor of online voter registration, I’m going to highlight this presidential commission but I’m also going to highlight what other states have done,” he said, adding that online voter registration enjoys the support of many of Ohio’s elections experts including its current and former secretaries of state. “This study commission consists of some of the best minds that this country has in elections administration and so their recommendation should be taken very seriously.”
In addition to a call to expand interstate exchanges of voter registration information, the report also recommends integrating into voting lists data acquired through motor vehicle departments.
Those measures are employed by several states to keep accurate voter registration lists. A December 2013 report shows that a partnership among seven states to refine and share voter registration information enjoyed success; the program is facilitated by The Pew Charitable Trusts. Read the report
The commission also recommended that schools should be used as polling places. It offered examples of states that use in-service days on Election Day when student safety is a concern.
Ginsberg said the issue of keeping students and voters separate continues to resonate. The commission found about a quarter of all voters nationwide voted in schools during the past two presidential elections.
Legislators have taken notice of the issue recently as more school districts have asked to not serve as polling places. Many election administrators maintain schools offer ideal space for hosting voters because they are located at the heart of many neighborhoods or communities, are inexpensive and provide accessibility for voters with disabilities. Read more on the issue
“The implementation of in-service training days on Election Day seems to be a way to first of all answer the safety concerns and secondly maybe even provide some additional quality poll workers,” Ginsberg said.
The report also focused on the need to reform the process for setting standards for voting machines.
The responsibility to create voluntary guidelines for voting machine certification was given to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) in the Help America Vote Act of 2002. The EAC has been without commissioners since 2011, and therefore has not been able to pass any new policy or adopt new standards. As a result, states and local jurisdictions have been struggling to maintain voting systems which may soon reach the end of their life cycle, and vendor development of state-of-the-art products is hampered because the standards and certification process is stalled.
Visit the U.S. Election Assistance Commission website
The commission said the process for setting standards for voting machines cannot rely on the EAC but Ginsberg said states should find a way to reach some kind of uniformity in adopting the next generation of machines.
“The need to set standards probably has to be done on a national level simply because if you have different sets of standards it would be impossible for manufacturers to produce the actual systems that I think we all want implemented on one level or another,” Ginsberg said.
Some states, however, have used state-specific standards for years. In the absence of federal guidelines, others may join them.
Bauer hopes the report also brings attention to the meager resources local elections administrators typically have, warning that budget requests for elections are “often shuffled to the bottom of the deck.”
The commission's report drew criticism from the National Republican Lawyers Association, which said it had “concerns about the one-size-fits-all nature of these proposals.” Read the criticism
Ginsberg said the commission’s recommendations are offered for states to use as they see fit and provide a guide based on what has proven successful in some jurisdictions.
Nevada Senator Pat Spearman (D) is looking forward to her next legislative session so she can cite the report when she crafts new election law, especially her desire to help ease the voting process for military and overseas voters. And she is hoping all of her colleagues will listen to its advice and not dwell on the presidential charge that produced it.
“There is never a time when we can justify not reading a piece of literature when it is trying to help improve elections,” she said. “I don’t care if Dr. Seuss’ name was on the front of it.”
– Michael D. Hernandez
Running accurate and efficient elections is a complex undertaking for elections administrators. When something comes along that makes the process easier, elections administrators and the legislators who work with them are glad to give it a try.
Last month’s report from the Presidential Commission on Election Administration cited electronic poll books (or e-poll books) as one such advancement. “In the national survey of election officials, e-poll books was one of the most frequently identified innovations that respondents desired,” the report stated. They allow poll workers to quickly locate a voter’s information and issue the correct ballot, direct a voter who is at the incorrect polling place to the correct one and more easily deal with voter registration problems. E-poll books can even gather information about wait times and save money on printing paper poll books. Read the commission's report
An e-poll book replaces the traditional paper poll book, the roster of eligible voters in a precinct or district. An e-poll book typically looks like a tablet or a laptop computer and allows poll workers to look up a voter as they would search on Google, rather than sift through an alphabetical list of names. E-poll books also make more data available to the poll worker than a traditional paper poll book. For instance, the poll worker can immediately see if the voter is in the correct polling location and if he or she has already voted.
Some e-poll books can scan driver’s licenses, speeding up the voter check-in process. Other e-poll books use an electronic signature pad that immediately captures the voter’s signature, just like a signature pad in the grocery store.
“[E-poll books] will help tremendously for the post-election process since voter records are automatically updated,” said Indiana Representative Peggy Mayfield (R), who authored legislation last year that addressed the use of e-poll books. “Right now in Indiana after an election you literally have to scan each voter’s signature from the paper poll book.” With an e-poll book, the press of a button automatically uploads the signatures, saving time and labor costs. Mayfield notes, however, that if a signature is challenged, the electronic version can be difficult to read.
Iowa Senator Jeff Danielson (D) touts Iowa’s Precinct Atlas, an e-poll book developed by Cerro Gordo County, for all of the reasons Mayfield and the PCEA like them. He said it can provide poll watchers with live data on who has voted and who hasn’t. This allows political parties to focus their “get-out-the vote” activities and increase turnout. “The great thing about a program like Precinct Atlas is that it isn’t partisan,” Danielson said. “It’s just basic good business. The universal goal is to make elections pure, accurate and efficient.”
View the precinct atlas
As with any new technology, moving to e-poll books requires a learning curve, both for election administrators and for poll workers. Laptops start at $500 and with the additional costs of software and maintenance, significant start-up funds may be needed to use e-poll books.
Some e-poll books require access to the Internet. This can be a problem in rural counties that don’t have good Internet connectivity, and also raises concerns about hacking or cyber-attacks. The physical security of the e-poll books as well as the integrity of the data they contain must be a consideration when choosing to deploy them.
How common are e-poll books? Only two states, Maryland and Georgia, use e-poll books statewide, but 26 other states have at least some jurisdictions using e-poll books. Fifteen states specifically mention e-poll books in statute. They address functions that e-poll books should include, security measures that must be taken, and some even relate to a certification process. e-poll books in statute
The most comprehensive legislation regarding e-poll books is in Indiana. In 2013 Indiana passed two bills requiring that e-poll books must be capable of checking if a voter has already cast a ballot or voted absentee; real-time transmission of information; reading bar codes on driver’s licenses; and allowing a voter to sign the e-poll book electronically (§3‐11‐8‐10.3). The bills also amended the election code to address the encryption of information contained on the e-poll books and specified that the secretary of State’s office must test and certify e-poll books (§3-11-18.1-12).
Election administrators and legislators alike appreciate the efficiency and cost-savings that e-poll books can bring to the election process. When balanced with security and cost concerns, they may be a good investment for election jurisdictions nationwide.
13,445,285. That’s how many registered voters Texas tallied as of November 2013. The Lone Star State was the focus of an NCSL visit in January 2014 during which legislators, elections experts and elections administrators discussed voting-related technology. Participants were treated to a field trip to learn how Burnet County runs its elections. The group reconvened at the statehouse in Austin to further consider issues such as funding, certification standards and the use of technology to assist voters and administrators. The Texas trip was the first of six state visits NCSL, with help from the MacArthur Foundation, will make to analyze elections-related technology issues. For more about the visit, read this blog post by NCSL’s Katy Owens Hubler. Read the blog post
NCSL’s Elections Legislation Database provides data on these bills and more.
New 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. Excerpts:
Read the full interview with O'Mara
Neal Kelley is registrar of voters for Orange County, Calif., the fifth largest jurisdiction in the U.S., which has about 1.6 million registered voters. A former entrepreneur and police officer, Kelley was appointed registrar of voters in 2006. The Canvass interviewed him on Jan. 22. Excerpts:
Read the full interview with Kelley
Keeping a sharp eye out for elections news is never performed alone. Everything from state and federal agencies with robust resources to enterprising blogs help keep us at the National Conference of State Legislatures informed about elections policy. For that, we are grateful, and happy to share our list of Elections Resources. Please let us know if there is a resource we should add to the list or if any resource needs an update. See our elections resources
Michael D. Hernandez, Katy Owens Hubler and Wendy Underhill
The Canvass is produced by NCSL with a generous grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts.
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