NCSL’s The Canvass

Happy 10th Birthday, Canvass!

Canvass 2008 logoApril 2018 is a momentous month for The Canvass. Ten years ago, NCSL released the first edition of The Canvass; this one is the 85th! Looking back at the early issues, there are many differences from today’s. The format has changed (veteran readers may recognize some of the itereations of The Canvass logo scattered throughout this issue). Different names and different faces dot the layout. But the content? How different is election administration today than it was 10 years ago? 

The more things change, the more they stay the same?

Below are the titles of three articles previously featured in The Canvass. Are they from 2008 or this past year?

  • “What should states do about voting equipment?”
  • “Post-Election Audits: New Study Outlines Key Elements”
  • “School and Library Safety on Election Day”

You may be surprised (or not, if you’re a Canvass veteran) that all three articles were written in 2008.

Yet all these topics are still of great interest today. Just as elections are cyclical, so too is the discussion of election administration topics, if the content of the Canvass is any measure. Of the 82 lead articles written from 2008 to the end of 2017, 31 (almost 38 percent) have been written on five main election administration topics. Take a minute. Can you guess all five?

Need a hint? We're happy to help. Head over to our archive of every single Canvass edition, stored both chronologically and by election administration topic.

Top Five

  1. Voter Registration

This topic has seen several iterations over the years, whether it was the cost associated with inaccurate rolls, online voter registration, or, more recently, automatic voter registration. Still, perhaps the biggest voter registration story from 2008 to 2018 has been the proliferation of online voter registration

In 2008, only two states, Arizona and Washington, had implemented online voter registration. As of today, 37 states and the District of Columbia have online voter registration (and Oklahoma is on its way). Online voter registration has been the fastest moving election development in recent history. Now, in the age of heightened security concerns, it may again be a topic of discussion, but with a security twist.

Other changes may not have moved as quickly as online registration but they have moved the needle on how citizens register to vote.  Pre-registration, or allowing young voters to register and sometimes vote prior to turning 18, is present in most states in some manner. Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia specifically address the age for pre-registration, while 27 instead allow an individual voter to register to vote if they will turn 18 by the “next election.” In addition, Same Day Registration (SDR) has also seen some movement recently. SDR is now present in 15 states and the District of Columbia, with a majority of those states passing legislation since the mid-2000s. 

  1. Voting Technology/Equipment

In 2008, states that were replacing voting systems were choosing between direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machines and paper ballots and optical or digital scanning equipment. DREs increased efficiency and improved access for voters with disabilities. (Federal law did and does require that voters with disabilities be provided with the means to vote independently and with privacy). Back then, security advocates challenged the security of DREs and pushed for the paper-and-scanner option.

Many states now face replacing voting systems again, and the debate is pretty well over. States are adopting paper ballots, or at the least a voter-verifiable paper vote record. Paper provides a back-up in case of an elections disruption, and it provides an auditable record.

New “hybrid” systems that incorporate the best aspects of both DREs and paper ballots have come on the market in the last few years. These may include a “ballot marking tool” that works as a fancy pen to mark a paper ballot. The selections are made on a tablet or other device to produce a ballot, and these systems are likely to meet the needs of many voters with disabilities.

Depending on how the system works, these machines may be viewed with skepticism based on whether they tally the actual marks on the ballot, or by a vote record embedded in a bar code or QR code. In that sense, the 2008 debate is ongoing—how can our elections systems be both efficient and secure?

  1. Voter ID

Voter ID requirements have been a recurring issue for the past 10 years. Proponents see increasing requirements for identification as a way to prevent in-person voter impersonation and increase public confidence in the election process. Opponents say there is little fraud of this kind, and the burden on voters unduly restricts the right to vote and imposes unnecessary costs and administrative burdens on election administrators.

With 34 states now having some version of an ID requirement, it seems that most states that wanted to enact ID requirements have done so. Still, the conversation may be shifting away from should we/shouldn’t we, to which IDs are acceptable, voter verification for absentee or mail ballots, how states can provide IDs to voters, and what happens if someone doesn’t have the right ID on Election Day.

  1. Voting Groups

In the category, “voting groups,” NCSL is including military and overseas (UOCAVA) voters, individuals with disabilities, residents of long-term care facilities, and young voters, to name a few. The legislative trends for these voting groups have been aimed at increasing accessibility in our democracy. The largest statutory development however, was spurred by the federal Military and Overseas Voters Empowerment (MOVE) Act of 2009.

 The MOVE Act required that states provide blank absentee ballots to UOCAVA voters via an electronic method, commonly fax, email, or an online delivery system. Although not required, 31 states and the District of Columbia also allow the electronic return of voted ballots by eligible voters and have expanded who is eligible to receive a ballot electronically. 

This model is often cited by advocacy groups, especially for individuals with disabilities, who are championing vote-at-home options to allow individuals to use their own assistive devices in their own home. Yet security concerns are again being voiced. As ballots are sent electronically, the introduction of new technology, such as a personal computer, that is outside of the state’s security system, may open the whole system to new threats.               

  1. Convenience for Voters

In this category, we are including such topics as early in-person voting, no-excuse absentee voting, vote-by-mail and internet voting. Although internet voting garnered a lot of attention in the early part of this decade, the trend has cooled for the moment due to security concerns. One trend that has not cooled has been early and absentee voting. Only 13 states do not allow early voting and require an excuse to be able to vote absentee. The other 37 have some method to cast a ballot prior to Election Day, but it varies greatly from state to state.

Election day vote centers has gained in popularity, especially in conjunction with all-mail elections, is election day vote centers. Vote centers combine multiple polling precincts into one, generally central or “convenient,” polling location. Aside from convenience, cost savings from needing less staff and the general consolidation of equipment and supplies, is cited as a positive aspect of vote centers. However, many argue that a vote center can be confusing to voters and bucks the tradition of the neighborhood polling place. Still, 13 states allow jurisdictions to utilize vote centers on election day, while additional states permit it for early voting periods only.

Other Highlights

Beyond the big five evergreen issues, each year has brought new challenges and unique discussions. Below is a list of Canvass articles about big election administration issues that dominated that year.

April 2008: What Should States Do About Voting Equipment

June 2009: Registration "Modernization" Proposals Take Center Stage

August 2010: Ten Years Since the Florida Election Meltdown - Could it Happen Again?

June 2011: Online Voter Registration: Coming to a State Near You?

April 2012: Voter ID: Where Are We Now?

February 2013: Internet Voting - Not Ready for Prime Time?

July 2014: All-Mail Elections Quietly Flourish

April 2015: Elections, Meet Academia; Academia, Meet Elections

September 2016: Security and Elections: What Legislators Need to Know

November 2017: Cybersecurity for Elections: Everyone's Responsibility

Creation of the Canvass

Doug Chapin is well known for The Election Academy Blog and his work at the University of Minnesota’s Certificate of Election Administration program. NCSL’s Tim Storey is known for his redistricting knowledge and work with state legislative leaders. And they were the original masterminds behind The Canvass.

We spoke to Doug and Tim to discuss the creation of The Canvass 10 years ago and to look back over its evolution.

What was the original idea for creating The Canvass?

Doug: We found that there was a hunger for more information about the nuts and bolts of the election process among legislators and legislative staff. Around that time, people were realizing there is a lot to learn about the whole election process. The Canvass was an opportunity for folks to get an introduction to election administration from a trusted source.

Tim: I think it really goes back to the 2000 Bush vs. Gore election. During and after that election, there was an intense scrutiny that came to elections, and the states’ administration of those elections, that had never been present before. We had seen the first wave of newsletters come and go and thought NCSL could produce something with more staying power.

What do you think has been the role of The Canvas?

Doug: Like originally intended, The Canvass has been a trusted source and has helped fill the gap between election administration and legislators and legislative staff. The Canvass has become a way for NCSL to share with legislators and legislative staff not only what their peers are thinking, but also what they are asking about. The Canvass also serves as an “early warning system.” As NCSL is clued into growing trends among several states, The Canvass allows NCSL to reach out, share this information, and ask these same questions to others.

Tim: The No. 2 goal of NCSL is to share ideas and that’s what The Canvass does. The Canvass allows people to share ideas and different approaches to similar topics. It has filled a niche of informing policy makers (the legislators and legislative staff) of the multiple approaches that others are taking to make elections efficient, of high-quality, and accessible.

What has been the most valuable aspect of the Canvass?

Doug: The Canvass allows for NCSL to both drill down into the weeds while simultaneously pulling back for a larger perspective. I have really enjoyed the Elections Administrators Perspective section over the years. Reaching out to someone on the ground, focusing on one jurisdiction, and asking questions, offers a perspective that those in the election community may not be too aware of. Meanwhile, The Canvass also takes a look at the national level and you get to see the whole chessboard on one topic across the states.

Tim: I think the most valuable feature has been its consistency and staying power. It is now a permanent fixture in the election administration information realm. In addition, it is bipartisan and The Canvass advocates for nothing; even when it covers lightning rod issues, it maintains a neutrality.

Why do think the Canvass has been successful?

Doug: First, I think that election administration is, obviously, a very real topic for all the elected officials. Second, NCSL has many strong partnerships that will produce a never-ending source of interesting material and insight from the field. 

Tim: Much of its success derives from the readership. The Canvass draws heavily from its readers to not only be contributors, but to also be a source of topics and discussion.

Any last comments/thoughts/stories?

Doug: Although not Canvass-specific, I recall an NCSL voter technology meeting held in Boulder several years ago. After the meeting, Wendy Underhill [director of elections at NCSL] invited us back to her house. We all didn’t know each other well, but we sat around, talked shop, shared ideas, pushed and pulled on topics, and laid the groundwork for many of us to work together in the future. To me, I think that was the physical embodiment of what The Canvass does.

Tim: I’ve always liked the name. It’s a boutique election term that already had an identity associated with it. Tom Intorcio, the first Canvass editor, deserves credit for this. I don’t know of anyone else who does what The Canvass does and I hope we maintain a readership because it is a great resource.

From the Chair

For this special edition, we decided to speak with two chairs who have each been involved in elections policy for the length of The Canvass and then some. We spoke to both about elections over the past ten years and, more specifically, about the impact of NCSL and The Canvass over those years.

Senator Sam Hunt represents District 22 in Washington. Originally elected to House of Representatives in 2000, he is now the chair of the Senate State Government, Tribal Relations, and Elections Committee. Senator Hunt was actually mentioned in the very first edition of The Canvass (at that time he was Representative Hunt) for giving a presentation on post-election audits at a NCSL meeting.

Senator Hunt: I use The Canvass to keep track of what’s going on around the nation and what new ideas we may grab onto in Washington. Each state operates differently and I like to look at everything and see how each state individually functions and handles things. The Canvass is a great tool to have and it’s one thing NCSL does that I find to be most useful in my job.


Representative Bill Denny represents District 64 in Mississippi. He has served in this capacity since his election in 1988. He is the chair of the House Apportionment and Elections Committee. Representative Denny was featured in the July/August 2016 edition of The Canvass and has participated on many NCSL panels over the years.  

Representative Denny: I’ve been a legislative member for almost 31 years and I can say, coming in new, you want to get informed as fast as you can. I believe deeply in NCSL and instruct anyone new to go to leadership to have the privilege of attending a national meeting. If I ever get challenged on a point, I’m going to the computer and I’m looking at NCSL to get the information.

From NCSL's Elections team

A graphic that reads "From NCSL Elections Team"

The Canvass has hit double digits, and we’re feeling festive! In fact, we plan to slice a celebratory cake this month, and wish we could share it with you!

Instead, we'll share our thanks. The Canvass receives support from legislators around the nation—see the comments from Senator Sam Hunt (D-Wa.) and Representative Denny (R-Miss.) above to get the flavor. And, we benefit from a robust behind–the-scenes correspondence with chairs of legislative committees that have jurisdiction over elections, and with members of NCSL’s Elections Staff Network, a group of legislative staff who have elections administration in their portfolios. It is for these people that we work, and it is from these people that we get our passion. 

I also want to offer my thanks to the election administrators of our nation, who have generously shared their knowledge with us, and by extension with Canvass readers. These folks can be found through the National Association of State Election Directors, The Election Center and through each state's association of election officials or county clerks. 

And, we wouldn't be here today if it weren't for the generous support of sponsors. The Pew Charitable Trusts helped get us off the ground, and supported The Canvass for our first eight years. Pew spent years doing deep nonpartisan research on election administration and particularly voter registration, and we have relied on that body of work throughout, and continue to do so. 

We now receive support from the Democracy Fund for the broad array of elections work at NCSL. Adam Ambrogi, Stacey Scholl, Tammy Patrick and the rest of the Democracy Fund team are engaged in research on their own, and we draw from it often. We appreciate their confidence in us, as well as their generous financial contributions. Check out the Democracy Fund's list of their priorities.

And then there's you all: thanks to you for reading and keeping our beloved Canvass alive! Please stay in touch

—Wendy Underhill and Dylan Lynch