The Canvass Newsletter Vote button

September 2011

can•vass (n.)
Compilation of election returns and validation of the outcome that forms the basis of the official results by a political subdivision.

—U.S. Election Assistance Commission: Glossary of Key Election Terminology

In This Issue

  • Efficiency in Elections
  • Election Challenges
  • Colorado Case Study
  • National Popular Vote
  • One Big Number
  • From NCSL's Election Team
  • Bookmark This
  • Worth Noting
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Election Challenges (Doug Lewis)

Doug Lewis told the NCSL audience to expect to face notable elections “oopses” in 2012, and even more in 2014 and beyond if we stay on today’s course. Lewis, who has been at the heart of the election administration community for three decades, boiled down the complicated world of election challenges to just three:

  • Budget cuts have been deep enough that we may see problems in 2012, some relating to understaffed polling places or undertrained poll workers.
  • Election costs are driven in large measure by federal and state laws and regulations; states’ recent focus on complying with the Military and Overseas Voter Act of 2009 has reduced time and energy for other election legislation.
  • Technology and voting equipment are money sinks.

After three consecutive years of belt-tightening in every nook and cranny of governmental budgets, elections will begin to show the effects, says Lewis. Between the increased turnout expected in a presidential year and reduced budgets, the result will likely be longer wait times at the polls in 2012—something all elected officials will hear about.

As for federal laws, the Military and Overseas Voters Empowerment Act of 2009 and the earlier Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) continue to influence state legislative action.  These laws may indeed serve laudable purposes, but they force states to play “catch up.”


Many states last bought new equipment somewhere in the early 2000s with federal money made available through HAVA funds, Lewis reported. Now, much of that equipment needs to be replaced and no new federal money is in the offing. Lewis predicts that most jurisdictions will limp through 2012, but 2014 could be disastrous, with spare parts and equipment simply unavailable, no matter the price.

Complicating matters further, much of the existing equipment is too complex for medium and small jurisdictions to maintain, so they contract with vendors. This has proved more expensive than the original purchase in some jurisdictions.

What can states do to help?  Lewis proposed that they offer greater technical support to local elections officials, and cited Georgia as a place where this idea is working well.  He noted, too, that “technology can cut two ways.” States that overcome the complications inherent in adapting to new technology can save real money by using online voter registration, electronic poll books, and electronic distribution of voter information, thus freeing up money for other needs.

Keeping up with these and other technological advances does not mean putting the gadget-of-the-year into state law. Instead of locking down election details in statute, Lewis recommends that legislatures offer general guidance. And, he proposes that new laws should seek to increase stability and good performance, not fix last year’s elections goof.

From Page 1Efficiency in Elections (Zachary Markovits)

Markovits pointed to a few across-the-board trends. First, the cost per vote in small jurisdictions can be 10 times more than in big ones. Second, the distribution of voter information can eat up more than10 percent of an election budget. And last, recounts are surprisingly costly.

As for outputs, Markovits said the entire election process offers plenty of options. Polling place wait times, the prevalence of provisional ballots, and the number of over- and under-votes are just a few of the  metrics that can be (and should be) collected and studied at the state level.

Where to look for these costs and outputs? Markovits says that “both costs and outputs have their data issues.” (This begs the question, are bad data better than no data?)  One place to look is in the U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s Election Administration and Voting Survey, which has been conducted every two years since 2004. Another is the U.S. Census’ Voting and Registration Supplement to their Current Population Survey, a good source of consistent elections data since 1964. “It is one of the longest running sets of data collected over time about voting and voter registration in America,” said  Markovits. And yet, he added, it is under-used. Some states are doing their own studies as well, and their findings may be applicable elsewhere.  Alaska, Colorado and New Mexico have done so this year.

Markovits acknowledged that every state has its own election laws and its own elections culture, and that it wouldn’t be appropriate to have a “one-size-fits-all” approach to elections. However, he did offer three broad-brush messages to legislators:

  • Good data do exist to measure the efficiency of elections; they simply need to be captured and used.
  • Where good data do not exist, states could adopt policies to encourage their election agencies to begin collecting and recording it.
  • Legislators can use existing data, imperfect though they may be, to drive election legislation so that policy supports better outputs and reduced costs—or, in other words, greater election efficiency.

Elections Team

For many legislators, September kicks off the season of planning. Because most legislatures are not in session, the fall is a nice opportunity to meet with constituents and form a legislative agenda for the upcoming year.

Which issues will you tackle? What bills will you introduce? Where will you get your information? During this phase, please feel free to ask us for data, trends, experts to interview, or access to bills from other states--basically anything that may beof use to you as you craft legislation for 2012.

Contact us by email or by phone at 303-364-7700.


Colorado Case Study (Allan Wallis)

Colorado State Flag

Professor Wallis co-authored (along with Peggy Cuciti) Changing the Way Colorado Votes: a Study of Selected Reforms, commissioned by the state’s Best Practices and Vision Commission.

Wallis told the NCSL audience that between 2004 and 2008, election costs rose by 42 percent and have continued to go up. The cost of running elections is driven by two categories: 1) equipment and its maintenance, and 2) labor. He also noted that Colorado’s county clerks are increasingly  “having trouble finding people who can run a modern election.”

The study looked at the potential for all-mail voting in terms of both political acceptance and financial viability. The study predicted Colorado would save money by switching to all-mail voting. However, a  bill to permit Colorado counties to use all-mail voting was withdrawn by its sponsor before the committee could vote on it. Wallis offered these closing words: “Political reality can wipe out rationality very, very quickly.”

Bookmark This:

Doug Chapin’s new blog. Chapin, who left the Pew Center on the States to become the director of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs’ Program for Excellence in Election Administration, is writing almost daily about our favorite topic (elections). His posts are pithy, instructive, and sometimes funny. And, he always includes excellent images. This deserves notice because we at The Canvass know that it can be hard to find images to illustrate election news.

Worth Noting

-- Home rule in action: Marana, Ariz., is doing away with precincts for local elections and using mail-only ballots instead.

-- Fake IDs are getting better all the time; ask anyone in the 18-20 year old demographic. The Washington Post reports that high-quality IDs are primarily desired by underage drinkers. Could fake IDs be used for voter fraud as well?

--In August, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission held a roundtable called “Design Counts in Elections.”  NCSL’s Wendy Underhill joined local elections officials and experts on usability, “plain language” initiatives and accessibility to talk about guiding principles and real-life examples of good ballot and polling place design. The webcast is available to one and all.

--NCSL just released a LegisBrief on pre-Election Day voting. This is an easy-to-read, super-short analysis of early in-person voting and no-excuse absentee voting. LegisBriefs are free for NCSL members and cost five dollars for all others.

--Point/Counterpoint: The Heritage Foundation’s Hans von Spakovsky weighs in on voter ID with Voter Photo Identification: Protecting the Security of Elections. And, Dan Tokaji, professor at the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law,  offers an opinion on this year’s legislative action on election policy in The Right To Vote: Bending Toward Justice or Backsliding? Listen to a debate between von Spakovsky and Tokaji recorded at the 2011 National Election Law Seminar.

--Federal Update: As we go to press, the U.S. Senate is holding a hearing on "New State Voting Laws: Barriers to the Ballot?" Get the details from the Senate Judiciary Committee