By Katy Owens-Hubler
If there’s one major takeaway from the first state visit of NCSL’s Elections 2020 project studying election technology and funding new equipment in states, it’s this: Collaboration is key.
That may be a no-brainer, but in the decentralized world of election administration it can be tough to identify who is (or should be) responsible for what. Especially when it comes to the ever-elusive question of where funding for aging voting equipment might come from.
The Elections 2020 project, funded by the Democracy Fund, seeks to study this issue in states. We’ve heard it time and again—voting machines are aging, they need to be replaced, it’s clear that the funding will come from public funds—but from which bucket? From federal funds? From the state? From counties? Some combination of the three?
In many states, the last round of voting equipment was purchased with federal funds through the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) and although some states still have some HAVA funds left (see this article from The Canvass) to help counties with making purchases, most are back to the drawing board. Before HAVA it was often up to county governments to pay for new voting equipment. But HAVA consolidated much of the responsibility for these purchases on the state. After HAVA more and more states began using the same equipment in all jurisdictions. Many that have gone that way are reluctant to go back, but making a state-level purchase requires buy-in from a lot of different groups. That’s where we come back to the key: collaboration.
Many different groups came together in Fargo, N.D. last week to discuss this issue—legislators from both sides of the aisle, state and local election officials, and a couple of NCSL staffers eager to learn about elections in high-performing North Dakota. We saw demonstrations of the voting process and had a conversation about where elections in North Dakota might be headed. Legislators saw the equipment used for voting and were struck by its age and the difficulty that jurisdictions have in getting new parts. As Senator Jon Casper (R-N.D.) put it, “It looks like we can’t just fix the roof, we’ve got to build a whole new house!”
By the end of the day it was obvious that there was a lot of energy around the topic, a lot of ideas, and a recognition that these different groups will need to work together in the coming months to help set the future direction of election technology in the state.
“County auditors are the flight chiefs and mechanics of election systems," said Senator Jim Dotzenrod (D-N.D.). "We in the legislature rely on them to tell us what they need.” If counties support getting new equipment and the secretary of state’s office is able to provide a reasonable estimate of what purchasing a statewide system might cost, the legislature can try to make it happen.
According to The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Election Performance Index, North Dakota was No. 1 in the country for effective administration of the 2012 elections. North Dakota has realized that voting systems are critical infrastructure in the state, and, by working closely with different stakeholders, the state is already ahead of the curve in dealing with an issue that will be facing every state in the near future.
Katy Owens Hubler is a former member of NCSL’s elections team and currently consults for NCSL.