By Katy Owens-Hubler
A rainy day in Sun Prairie, Wisc., was the backdrop for the latest stop for NCSL’s Elections Technology Project. The project connects state legislators and legislative staff with election officials to get a taste of how elections are run in the state.
Wisconsin is a unique case study in elections administration because it is highly decentralized. Elections are run by 1,852 jurisdictions at the city, town and village level, rather than on the county level as in most other states. Sun Prairie has about 18,000 registered voters, making it larger that many jurisdictions in Wisconsin. The smallest election jurisdiction in the state has just 45 voters and most have fewer than 1,000!
Sun Prairie’s excellent clerk, Diane Hermann-Brown, showed our group—composed of Wisconsin state legislators, legislative staff, members of the state-level Government Accountability Board (GAB), county clerks and municipal clerks—the various types of voting machines used in Wisconsin.
Because each municipality chooses its own equipment, there was quite a range of machinery to exhibit. While some smaller towns hand count paper ballots, others use touch-screen voting machines to directly record votes, and still others use paper ballots that are counted through optical scanners. As Representative Kathleen Bernier (R) put it, “Voters would be stunned to know how much work is involved!”
Elections in Wisconsin are mostly funded at the local level—through city councils, with or without support from county governments. This means that some village clerks in Wisconsin work from their homes and provide their own office supplies. Others live in areas that don’t have reliable Internet, making it difficult for them to take advantage of technological innovations such as the GAB’s MyVote system allowing voters to change or update their voter registration online.
Hermann-Brown has been lucky to have a supportive city council that has allowed her to develop technology to make elections in Sun Prairie more efficient. A prime example is a software tool to permit voters to register at the polling place using a laptop computer. Wisconsin is one of 10 states that permits same-day registration, allowing any qualified resident of the state to go to the polls, register that day, and then vote.
An advantage of having so many local jurisdictions administering elections is that each can experiment with new technology or procedures to improve the voting experience, and then share what they learn with others. The downside is that not all voters in Wisconsin have a similar experience. Voters in urban areas may vote on high-tech machines and voters in a more rural area may feed paper ballots into a padlocked stainless steel milk box.
It’s important to remember, though, that technology is just a tool. No matter how they cast their ballots, what really matters is making sure voters are confident in the result and that the result is accurate.
Katy Owens Hubler is an elections policy specialist at NCSL.