Last year, a bipartisan commission established by President Obama declared that the U.S. faces an “impending crisis in voting technology.” After the 2000 Florida recount showed the world that the American presidency could be determined by hanging chads, Congress set aside $3.3 billion, most of it to help local election officials upgrade their voting machinery. Bureaucrats with relatively little experience buying advanced technology rushed to purchase machines developed to satisfy the sudden demand. Those devices, designed in the years when Palm and Nokia owned the smartphone market, are mostly outdated. There’s no new money on the horizon, and even if local governments had the budgets for upgrades, they wouldn’t want the standard products currently available. Now, Los Angeles County, the largest voting jurisdiction in the U.S., has hired IDEO, a design company with roots in Silicon Valley, to overhaul how it serves up democracy. IDEO has developed a touchscreen system that incorporates features familiar to voters used to scrolling and tapping. Election administrators across the country are closely watching the experiment. They want to know if L.A. can solve the problem of American voting. “For a long time people muttered that somebody should do something about this,” says Doug Chapin, who runs the University of Minnesota’s Program for Excellence in Election Administration. “What Los Angeles County is doing is just that.”
It’s Oct. 17, three days before early voting commences in Texas, and about 20 election judges—the folks who oversee polling sites—are spread out around an oblong training room in the Travis County clerk’s building in Austin, listening to an hour-long, rapid-fire lecture by a trainer named Alexa Buxkemper. The walls are lined with paraphernalia that most Americans see just once every two or four years—stacks of ballots, voting machines, old-model laptops that still process voter information. “Pick the correct voter,” Buxkemper says, rattling off the basics. “Collect 100 percent of statements of residence. Fill out all the forms completely, legibly. Give every voter the right ballot style.” And then, more pointedly: “Always follow the steps in the manual—don’t wing it. I hate to say, ‘Don’t think, just follow the manual,’ but we have sat around and done the thinking. So follow these steps.” The election judges nod solemnly and scribble notes. Most are over 60, and they’ve been through similar trainings before. They’ve run the polls during tough elections before, too. But they are nervous. Finally, interrupting the trainer’s staccato marching orders, a woman raises her hand and asks what’s on everyone’s mind: “Can they change the law on us again after we start?” “Don’t even ask that question!” Buxkemper says, only half-joking. “I would just say be ready for anything.” This fall, “be ready for anything” has become the credo of local election offices in Texas and several states like it, where legal challenges to new voting laws have resulted in a steady stream of court rulings that have confused voters and forced elections administrators to invent new procedures on the fly. In recent weeks, as the election judges know, Texas’s voter-ID law was ruled discriminatory and unconstitutional by a federal District judge—and then abruptly reinstated by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit. With fewer than 72 hours before polls open, the Supreme Court still hasn’t made a final call. The steps the election judges are being instructed to follow still could change by the time voters show up.
California: Public database of county by county elections costs in the works for California | California Forward
Dwindling turnout at the polls demonstrates a clear need for additional electoral reforms aimed at increasing California’s chronically low voter participation rate. Identifying which policies deliver the biggest bang for the buck is the hard part. But it’s about to get a lot easier. The California Association of Clerks and Election Officials (CACEO) is building a public online database of elections costs to better inform policies and procedures and to identify and share best practices with a grant awarded from the James Irvine Foundation. This is a big deal! Here’s why. A slew of election reforms are proposed each year. When reviewing a measure, one of the first things legislators want to know is: What’s the cost? “We’ve never been able to answer that question statewide,” said Neal Kelley, Orange County Registrar of Voters and CACEO President. “Now we’re going to be at that point where we can, and I think it’s really important to be able to be part of the discussion when it comes to new legislation.” For years, Doug Chapin, Director of the Future of California Elections, has referred to election costs as the “big white whale” of election administration. California’s diversity and sheer size has hindered any quest to capture the elusive and valuable data.
In a state that that takes pride in being on the technological cutting edge, most California voters will mark paper ballots with ink by Nov. 4, whether they vote at their polling place or by mail. The state’s reliance on paper would have seemed unlikely 15 years ago. California’s then-Secretary of State Bill Jones floated a radical idea in 1999: let people vote online. He convened task force to look into the possibility. “Here we are in the dot com boom,” said David Jefferson, a computer scientist who chaired the task force’s Technology Committee. “It’s an exciting thing. Of course we would all like to vote online. Let’s just figure out how to deliver it to the people of California.” Jefferson now works on one of the world’s fastest computers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. He recalls when the online voting project started to fall apart. “In the course of that study, which took place over several months, doubts began to creep in,” he said. “And then we began to find more and more flaws.”
Minnesota Representative Steve Simon (D) always greets an elections bill with the same question: What impact will the proposed law have on both urban and rural communities? The query comes from an understanding that every jurisdiction in his state has different needs and conditions for running elections, from Hennepin County and its 712,151 registered voters in and around Minneapolis to the 2,075 voters in Traverse County. “I think most states have what Minnesota has: at least one densely populated metropolitan area and large swaths of rural communities,” he said. “The voting environment is very different in each of those communities.” In this article, The Canvass will examine some key variations between urban and rural jurisdictions, learn how some legislators have balanced a desire for statewide uniformity while still providing local flexibility, consider why innovations tend to take shape in communities with large numbers of voters and peek at a forecast for how such differences in jurisdiction sizes could further impact elections policy.
Nearly 1,500 Minnesotans used Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie’s new online voter registration system last month, but the program’s legitimacy is under question. Four Republican state legislators and two conservative interest groups filed a lawsuit last Monday against Ritchie, claiming the program was created illegally without legislative input. The registration program, which debuted Sept. 26, allows voters to register or update their information through an online form instead of a paper application. During the site’s initial debut, which lasted about three weeks, the system registered 323 new voters statewide for the 2013 elections, and about 900 Minnesotans used the site to update their information. The plaintiffs are requesting the program end completely and its users re-register before casting a ballot. Until the case is heard, nothing will change for voters who have used the site, according to a report by the Star Tribune. Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, that supports Ritchie’s program, said in a Nov. 1 statement the system “makes the process of registering to vote easier and more streamlined. Republicans are simply being obstructionist in opposing online voter registration … I commend Mark Ritchie for a job well done to move Minnesota’s voting systems into the future,” he said in the statement.
A commission named by President Barack Obama to address the problem of long lines on Election Day had its first meeting last week — but few observers held out hope for major reform. Its first session Friday lasted less than an hour and drew fewer than 50 people. And even its co-chair downplayed expectations. “We will not be providing legislative recommendations,” said Ben Ginsberg, an attorney for the Mitt Romney campaign tapped by Obama to co-chair the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration. Instead, Ginsberg said the 10-member panel would be devising “best practices” to help states improve the efficiency of elections and registration while reducing wait times at the ballot box.
Local election officials are moving polling places out of schools as the shootings in Newtown, Conn., have intensified concern about opening school doors on Election Day. In New York, Rockland County officials will relocate polls this year away from 10 schools at the request of the local school district in Clarkstown and Nyack. “In the wake of what happened in Connecticut, it’s definitely taken on more urgency,” says Kristen Stavisky, a county election commissioner. “Voters in these schools will have to move. They won’t be going to the polling sites that they’ve been going to — for some of them, since they were eligible and registered to vote.” In Baraboo, Wis., three polling sites will be located in the town civic center to avoid using schools, due to security concerns, says Cheryl Giese, Baraboo’s city clerk and finance director. At Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School, 26 students and staff were killed by a gunman on Dec. 14.
The idea of a photo ID requirement for voters sounds simple and does well in polling, but the fine print of Minnesota’s proposed constitutional amendment suggests that the impact on the state’s election system could be complex and significant. Questions lurk behind the snappy title: What exactly is a “valid government-issued ID”? How will a new system of “provisional voting” work? What is the impact of “substantially equivalent identity and eligibility” standards on the state’s popular system of Election Day registration? None of the questions is unsolvable, and supporters say any changes will be for the good. But the complexity behind the “photo ID” catchphrase creates plenty of room to vigorously debate what the change will mean.
The fight over photo ID requirements for voters is once again finding its way into courts – but this time the issue isn’t about the merits of ID but rather about ballot language putting the question to voters. In Minnesota, voter ID is supposed to be on the November 2012 ballot. After DFL Governor Mark Dayton vetoed ID legislation in 2011, GOP majorities in the Legislature agreed earlier this year to put the question to voters – action that does not require the Governor’s approval. Given that public opinion polls suggest that voters favor ID, supporters are hopeful that voters can provide the energy to push ID past the opposition of the Governor and DFL legislators. As it has in virtually every state, the dispute has sharply – and fiercely – divided the state’s political establishment. Groups across the spectrum have lined up to support and oppose the amendment. There is a chance, however, that voters may not get the chance to have their say. The Minnesota Supreme Court has agreed to hear oral arguments about whether or not the ballot language describing the amendment is sufficient. As the language currently stands, voters will be asked if the state constitution should be amended “to require all voters to present valid photo identification to vote and to require the state to provide free identification to eligible voters”.
A high-stakes political struggle over requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls is erupting in Minnesota, conjuring up emotional precedents from the notorious Jim Crow poll taxes to the old Chicago admonition to “vote early and often.” The determined Republican drive to pass a photo ID constitutional amendment as a needed deterrent to fraud — and the equally strong DFL effort to oppose it as a partisan ploy to suppress votes — has turned the ordinary driver’s license into a symbol of our national divide. “It’s like we’re back in slavery, only it’s all of us this time,” said Antoinette Oloko, an African-American woman at one of several protests against photo ID and news conferences at the Capitol in recent days. “We’ve had cases of ineligible voters, convicted felons, voting when they shouldn’t be,” said Dan McGrath of the pro-ID group Minnesota Majority, who has collected pictures of voters’ given “addresses” that turn out to be empty lots.
The Justice Department’s rejection of South Carolina’s voter ID law probably won’t prevent other states from adopting similar measures, analysts say. “Unfortunately, I don’t think this is going to have a significant chilling effect,” said Wendy Weiser, a voter ID opponent and lawyer at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University law school.
The South Carolina law would have required voters to show one of five government-issued IDs — such as a drivers license or passport — before casting a ballot. Justice officials said the state didn’t show the law complied with the 1965 Voter Rights Act and didn’t justify the need for the law or prove widespread voter impersonation, which tougher ID laws are designed to prevent. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has promised to appeal.
Voting Blogs: It’s Not Just Who You Are, It’s Where You Live: Domicile and the Elections Stained Glass Window | Doug Chapin/PEEA
The past week’s headlines have a number of stories about the importance of political geography:
+ In Indiana, the state Supreme Court refused (for the time being) to take a case challenging the eligibility of Secretary of State Charlie White to serve, given allegations that he had registered to vote at an address where he did not live;
+ In New Jersey, the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated former Olympian and current state Senate candidate Carl Lewis to the ballot after a trial court removed him because of the state’s “durational residency” requirement for candidates; and
+ Maine’s GOP chair cited evidence that 19 medical students registered to vote in 2004 from a South Portland Holiday Inn Express in arguing that the repeal of the state’s same-day registration law should stand.
The September 15, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone features an article by Ari Berman that takes a look at recent election legislation in the states and concludes that the Republican Party is engaged in a “war on voting.”
Here’s how it begins:
As the nation gears up for the 2012 presidential election, Republican officials have launched an unprecedented, centrally coordinated campaign to suppress the elements of the Democratic vote that elected Barack Obama in 2008. Just as Dixiecrats once used poll taxes and literacy tests to bar black Southerners from voting, a new crop of GOP governors and state legislators has passed a series of seemingly disconnected measures that could prevent millions of students, minorities, immigrants, ex-convicts and the elderly from casting ballots.
I beg to differ.
Quite simply, the current state of play in election policy can be explained by three factors that don’t require belief in some nefarious partisan conspiracy to alter the outcome of the next election.
Doug Chapin’s post today on his blog digs down into the Department of Justice’s data request from South Carolina, seeking more detailed data concerning who does, and who doesn’t, have the identification required to vote in that state, as a consequence of their new voter ID law. I agree entirely with Doug’s top-line reaction — At last! Some real data.
At the same time, the request seems to miss an opportunity to find out more about whether voter identification laws will have a disenfranchising effect, and in particular, a disproportional effect on minority voters. The reason is that the disproportional effect may not be so much on whether whites and blacks have drivers licenses, but whether they have drivers licenses with the voter’s current address.
With Republicans taking control of most U.S. capitols this year and a presidential race looming, states have passed the most election-related laws since 2003 in a push to tighten voting rules. Forty-seven states have enacted 285 election-related laws this year, and 60 percent were in states with Republican governors, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Democrats are pushing back by vetoing photo- identification laws in five states and trying to repeal other voting laws in Maine and Ohio, where President Barack Obama’s campaign is promoting the effort.
It’s the “battle before the battle” as both parties fight for what they think are the most advantageous and fairest rules, said Doug Chapin, director of an elections-administration program at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
“We’re at a level of activity that I don’t think I’ve ever seen,” Chapin said in a telephone interview. “You’ve got the combination of a fiercely divided nation, uncertainty about what the rules are and a belief that every single vote counts.”
Voting Blogs: As Minority Language Assistance Becomes More Common, A More Common Approach Makes Sense | PEEA
The Denver Post had a story this weekend about the likelihood that 16 counties in Colorado will soon be required to make ballots and other election materials available in Spanish.
These requirements will be driven by 2010 Census data and required by Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 203 uses the Census data to identify jurisdictions in which the citizens voting age population in a single language group within the jurisdiction 1) is more than 10,000, OR 2) is more than five percent of all voting age citizens, OR 3) on an Indian reservation, exceeds five percent of all reservation residents AND the illiteracy rate of the group is higher than the national illiteracy rate.