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  • Meagan Dorsch
    Director of Public Affairs
  • Jon Kuhl
    Public Affairs Specialist
    Washington, D.C.
Dec. 28, 2011

Elections Issues in 2012

Experts from across the country discuss what the top elections issues will be for state legislatures in 2012.

The gas will be full throttle for state legislatures as they move toward a big election season in 2012. States will be holding their own primaries, along with presidential primaries before the Nov. 6 general election. Cities and counties will also be holding thousands of school board, city and special district elections. 

Thirty-one states require all voters to show ID before voting at the polls and the debate around this issue continues. Will voter ID be an issue for state legislatures in this heavy election year? The January edition of the monthly election newsletter, The Canvass, issued by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) with support from the Pew Charitable Trusts, asked elections experts from across the nation to weigh in on how states will prepare for the first presidential election after redistricting, and what legislatures can do to ensure that elections are run efficiently and accurately, and are open to everyone who is qualified to vote while protecting against election fraud. Registration, resources, and reaching voters all made the top of the list.

Below are some expert opinions, in alphabetical order, from the  interviews highlighted in The Canvass newsletter. Read the January edition of the newsletter.

David Becker, director of election initiatives, Pew Center on the States

Harnessing Technology to Serve Voters and Taxpayers

If policymakers are interested in alleviating some of the administrative burdens presented by a presidential election year, they may want to look at the pioneering way some states are harnessing technology to improve elections. The states that are leading the way are doing things such as registering voters electronically; using new technological tools to reach military and overseas voters; finding better ways to connect with other agencies in their states and even in other states; and constantly looking for ways they can get information to voters at the time and in the place voters are looking for it. We expect at the end of the next election cycle, these states will be able to demonstrate efficiencies and reduce costs, and at the same time improve both the perception and the reality of greater integrity in the overall process.

Doug Chapin, director of the Program for Excellence in Election Administration, University of Minnesota

Partisanship Is NOT the Story

People like me who work in the field and believe it really is possible to separate election administration from partisan considerations will see that line become blurry in the public mind. Because people will default to a suspicion that politics is behind every decision or change, elections officials will have to be extra careful to describe why that isn’t so.

In 2012, state legislatures will be thinking about the cost of election administration. We’ll see the desire to make every vote count run up against making every dollar count. And yet legislators don’t understand how a presidential election strains elections offices, and I’m not sure elections officials understand the perspective of legislators. Using 2012 as an opportunity to make that dialogue happen would be helpful.

Elizabeth Ensley Deiter, president, International Association of Clerks, Recorders, Election Officials and Treasurers, and Election Commissioner, Shawnee County, Kan.

Local Administrators Run the Show

It seems as though many states are going through re-writing their election laws, whether it is new or additional voter ID, or changes in registration, or other changes. At the same time, redistricting will require lots of time and careful attention in 2012. Everyone wants it done accurately, but no one wants to provide the time to do this. 

In most states, the real responsibility for putting these changes into effect is at the local level. It is local election officials who face big challenges as we implement changes. In 2012, it will be a challenge to re-train office staff and poll workers to operate with these new rules. Notifying voters of what to expect is essential and everybody needs to be on the same page as to how that is going to be accomplished. And election deadlines and calendar conflicts will be a serious challenge for us, too.

Edward (Ned) Foley, director, election law program, Ohio State University Moritz School of Law

Turbulence Continues

This year, New York, Texas and a bunch of other states haven’t yet reached closure on redistricting and that has ramifications in the voting process in ways I don’t recall seeing 10 years ago. This is, after all, the first redistricting in the post-HAVA, post Bush v Gore environment. There’s also a 2012 wild card: Americans Elect, which plans to use an Internet-based nominating event. That is uncharted waters for us. It may fizzle out, but I can imagine issues arising on topics such as ballot access, campaign finance and tax law status for political parties. Is this a political party, or isn’t it?

John Fortier, Scholar,  director, Democracy Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center

Registration is the Key

In many ways, registration is the key issue on both sides—for those who worry that there are some people without access to the polls, and for those who worry that there are people on the rolls who shouldn’t be there. We have moved toward a system of statewide voter registration, but states are still new at them, so getting the kinks out might be necessary. For state legislators in 2012, I think they could focus more on improving their states’ recount laws. We can talk about all sorts of things to improve elections, and yet, even if we had a nearly perfect system, we’d still have very close elections and the potential for real conflict. States need a recount process that is fair and transparent but also has some relative certitude on the length of time. If we thought about that at the front end, we’d have a better process.

Richard Hasen, professor of Law and Political Science, University of California-Irvine

2012 Is Not the Time For More Change

I would like to see election improvement legislation being proposed and passed on a bipartisan basis. If it is something that can get bipartisan support, it’s likely to be good for elections. One specific idea is that state legislatures could call for an audit of their election laws. They could have experts look at their laws and see if there are any holes or outdated provisions on the books. This would minimize the risk of post-election problems in the case of razor-thin margins. Ideally, this kind of audit would be handled through a bipartisan commission headed by a neutral person with respect from Ds and Rs, and it would include local election officials, outside election law experts and state officials. In the end, it would recommend a package of election law reforms to the legislatures.

Jeannie Layson, communications director, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission

Know Before You Go

In working with election officials, we’re seeing new state laws and redistricting actions that will change the location of polling places for some people.  Because of these changes, election administrators are increasing efforts to be sure voters have the information they need. 

Any efforts state legislators can undertake to help support pushing that information out to their constituents would be great. It’s customer service for local elections officials and for legislators. The bottom line is that there have been a lot of changes leading up to 2012; now let’s be sure that voters are aware of those changes, and that they have the information they need.

Norm Ornstein, resident scholar, American Enterprise Institute

Registration, Weekend Voting and Vote Centers

The real question for me is, will states move forward on an agenda to alter the registration system so that eligible voters can actually vote, and that states can begin to leach out the real cases of people who are not eligible still being able to vote. There are very few cases of people trying to cheat the system; in the overwhelming majority of cases it is either people who go to the wrong place to vote, or are registered in two places, but it is something we ought to take care of.

The bigger problem with voter registration is the likelihood for false negatives, where people show up as ineligible to vote or as not registered, when in fact they are. States haven’t come into even the 20th century yet, so voter registration modernization is an urgent need, especially when that means interoperability across state lines for registration rolls.

Sean Parnell, president, Impact Policy Management, and Outreach Director for Save Our States

National Popular Vote—A Bad Idea

With the addition of California, National Popular Vote advocates are now halfway toward their goal of effectively abolishing the Electoral College. While it’s almost impossible to see them reaching their goal in time to affect the 2012 presidential election, there’s a very real likelihood they may get their way by the 2016 election. For those of us that value the carefully crafted system of checks and balances, protections for minority rights and small states, and the need of candidates to build broad national coalitions that the Founding Fathers established, this would be a serious blow.

The most important thing to understand is that adopting the NPV compact would create almost unimaginable election problems. Despite claims to the contrary, states most likely could leave the compact late in the election cycle o advance partisan interests, creating turmoil. In the case of a close election, such as those in 1880, 1884, 1888, 1960, 1968, and 2000, there are no NPV standards for recounts, leading to a chaotic situation where some states might recount while others do not, simultaneously making every state a replay of Florida in the 2000 election. And these problems are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to NPV’s potential for electoral chaos.

Tova Wang, senior democracy fellow, Demos

Protecting the Franchise

Because of continued unsubstantiated outcries about voter fraud, we also have the potential for problems related to large numbers of poll watchers or others showing up at specifically targeted polls challenging voters. We saw some of this in 2010. These people aren’t always trying to do anything wrong, or realize that their activity is potentially illegal, but their presence can create an environment where voters feel uncomfortable or even intimidated, or they may cause confusion at the polling place.

It would be wonderful if state legislators could think about how to increase the number of people who could vote, rather than adding more restrictions. Same Day Registration is very effective at bringing more people into the process, and as the citizens of Maine recently showed us all, is a system that works and that voters who have had it on the books for years really like.

Richard Winger,editor, Ballot Access News

Better Ballot Access is Public Fairness

I believe the majority of state legislators act in what they think is in the interest of public fairness. We believe in free competition in this country, and that should extend to candidate access to the ballot, especially for minor parties. 

The issue is that minor parties are always slower on choosing their nominees, as they wait for the big parties to act first. Often they don’t have enough money to petition to get onto the ballot—unless they have a really good presidential candidate, in which case they can raise the money. The trouble is, early deadlines for handing in petitions may mean that it’s too late! We have had the phenomenon in 2011 of four state legislatures passing early petition deadlines for minor parties that are identical or worse than previous laws that have been struck down in those very same states. These new laws are leading to lawsuits.

To read the full interviews, please log onto the January edition of The Canvass.

NCSL is a bipartisan organization that serves the legislators and staffs of the states, commonwealths and territories. It provides research, technical assistance and opportunities for policymakers to exchange ideas on the most pressing state issues and is an effective and respected advocate for the interests of the states in the American federal system.