The controversies emerging from recent elections underlined a wide-ranging panel discussion at the 2023 NCSL Legislative Summit.
“I think everybody in this room understands that these days that elections can be a hot political topic, and we’re not going to deny that at all,” said moderator Charles Stewart III, the Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Reasonable people will disagree based on their experience, their values, what they’re trying to get out of things, and so we should respect that. At the same time, there’s a surprising amount of agreement among people who think thoughtfully about the issues at hand.”
Joining Stewart were panelists Chad Ennis, vice president of the Honest Elections Project; Rachel Orey, senior associate director of the Bipartisan Policy Center; Liz Howard, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice; and Matt Germer, associate director and fellow at the R Street Institute.
Stewart guided the discussion through four topics—funding, workforce, security and list maintenance—before opening the floor for audience questions.
While 20 states now ban the use of private funding for elections, the nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life granted nearly $350 million to local election departments in 2020. The panelists agreed this was not optimal.
Ennis said private funding of elections “just reeks of potential for impropriety,” noting, “We want to keep that money out of elections.”
Orey added that the 2020 election cycle “revealed gaps in the current funding of election administration that we can’t ignore. If states are going to restrict the use of private funding for election administration, which we do support, we think they have to take a careful look at where those gaps are in their current funding process.”
Howard echoed that sentiment. “The ultimate answer can’t be that our voters and our election officials go without,” she explained. “These laws that have been passed (banning private funding of elections) have not been coupled, that I’m aware of, with mandatory minimum funding for our elections.”
One million workers across 10,000 local jurisdictions run the country’s elections, Stewart noted.
Orey cited the problem of turnover: In North Carolina, about half of county-level election directors have moved on since 2020, and that number is closer to 75% in Kansas. She said preserving institutional knowledge and fostering a talent pipeline are critical in the face of such losses.
The latter involves improving compensation, she added. “Election officials are typically paid really low compared to other officials in local or county government.”
Howard added some context. “The typical election official is a 50- to 64-year-old woman who makes about $50,000 a year,” she said. “She’s recently been informed that she’s responsible for protecting our election infrastructure against well-funded foreign adversaries. She could be one of the three local election officials who was reported being threatened, harassed or abused for simply doing her job.”
In January 2017, the Department of Homeland Security designated election infrastructure—information and communications technology and systems used to manage the election process—as critical infrastructure, and Howard said the decision can help states safeguard elections. “The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency at DHS was able to offer free tools and resources to our election officials,” she explained. “These are going to include personalized assessments where these officials will come to the election officials office and survey the equipment and the facilities and the networks that they have and provide customized recommendations for improvements.”
Maintaining public trust is vital, Germer added. “It is so complex to try to take care of cyber and physical security across all of those different factors, but it’s absolutely vital,” he said. “These issues really do touch on one another—funding, workforce, security—to make sure that at the end of the day, voters have something they can trust.”
Orey, however, was quick to point out that trust can be manipulated. “Transparency is a core component of a legitimate democratic process, but complete and unfettered transparency can sometimes backfire. When you have a 24-hour livestreaming of a voting site, a small clip of a poll worker updating or bringing in ballots can go viral and make it seem like fraud was taking place when it wasn’t.”
Stewart noted that roughly 45% of voters change physical addresses between presidential elections and about 5% of the electorate dies, meaning maintaining accurate voter rolls is an ongoing struggle.
Germer said that the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC, shares voter registration across state lines, but only about 30 states are members and Texas is leaving in late 2023, compounding the problem.
“If we want to live in a world in which vote by mail is available to voters ... clean voter rolls are a must,” he explained. “That’s where an organization like ERIC really provided value. I say provided because, unfortunately, as a result of state legislation over the last few months, I think we’re down to just about half of the states of the union now belonging to ERIC.”
Texas’ pending departure from the organization was largely based on a cost-benefit analysis of membership, which required mailing information to unregistered voters, said Ennis. “It was extraordinarily expensive to send all these mailers out to unregistered voters. And really the data Texas was getting back wasn’t really knocking a whole lot of voters off the voter rolls.”
Orey noted that a critical mass of data makes ERIC more valuable, and California’s pending membership will help compensate for the loss of Texas and other states. “The more states that are present, it’s easier to catch those fraudulent instances of double voting that are few and far between. But they do exist, and ERIC right now is one of the only tools available through which we can catch it.”
Eric Peterson is a Denver-based freelance writer.
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