Long lines, delayed counts, broken equipment and partisan infighting are just some of the roadblocks voters face when they cast ballots on Election Day. Even 225 years after the first presidential election, the world’s greatest democracy hasn’t quite figured out how to run a hiccup-free voting day.
Now, a presidential commission is offering dozens of new recommendations for getting elections right. In a report issued Wednesday, the Presidential Commission on Election Administration highlighted best practices that states are already using to reduce lines and wait times, speed counting and end confusion that can lead to delays and disenfranchisement.
The commission’s work was a bipartisan effort. The chairmen are two of the most-respected elections attorneys in America — Robert Bauer of Perkins Coie handled President Barack Obama’s campaign; Benjamin Ginsberg of Patton Boggs was chief counsel to Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign — and the report reflects unanimous votes by the 10-member panel, which includes Democrats and Republicans alike.
Among the recommendations:
1. Expand online voter registration: Fourteen states allow citizens to register to vote online. Another five have passed legislation that will allow online registration before the 2014 elections. The commission thinks every state should move to online registration. It’s not a partisan issue, either: Conservative Utah and South Carolina and liberal Washington and Oregon all allow online registration. And it even helps boost turnout. The ability to register online increased registration rates among voters aged 18-24 from 29 percent to 53 percent in the years after Arizona adopted the practice.
2. States should share voter rolls: Cleaning up voter rolls to make sure no one is registered in two different states is a central aim of two groups of states that share voter lists. The Electronic Registration Information Center, a consortium of seven states, and the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program, a coalition of 28 states, both allow states to cross-check registrations. The commission wants to see more interstate cooperation.
3. Plan resources to cut wait times: No voter should have to wait more than 30 minutes to cast a ballot, the commission said: “Excessive wait times are avoidable if the jurisdiction has undergone proper planning and develops systems to inform the responsible authorities when a breakdown occurs.”
4. Expand early voting: “Early voting is here to stay,” the commission reports. In other words, the Republican National Committee’s 72-hour program is old news; it’s more like a 720-hour program. In 32 states, voters can show up weeks — in some cases a month — before Election Day to cast their ballots. In 27 states, a voter can get an absentee ballot without needing an excuse. “States that have not already done so should expand alternative ways of voting, such as mail balloting and in-person early voting,” the commission concludes. Online tracking of absentee ballots is one way to increase safeguards against fraud as the use of absentee ballots increases.
5. Hold elections in schools: Every community in the country has a public school. They’re usually relatively new, have big spaces, are handicapped accessible, and perfect for making sure even people waiting in long lines can wait indoors. And here’s something the kids will love: To ensure security, the commission wants Election Day to be scheduled as an in-service day — also known, to students at least, as a day off.
6. Get with the 21st century: Six years ago, a subcommittee within the Election Assistance Commission proposed new guidelines for voting machine technology. But the EAC doesn’t have enough commissioners to sustain a quorum, meaning it can’t adopt those new standards. The lack of standards means voting technology companies aren’t bringing new products to market, which means voters are forced to use old machines that break, or are susceptible to hacking or fraud. What’s more, concern about fraud is leading to tensions between election administrators who want to start using computer technology and the tech developers who are nervous about hackers. The commission wants the two sides to get together to work it out.
7. The 21st century, part two: The commission wants to see comprehensive audits of all voting machines after each election, with results disclosed to the public. And if the EAC doesn’t work, states should form a consortium — as many have through shared voter lists — to establish their own technological and security standards. And new technology like iPads can help voters “pre-fill” ballots at home, as they contemplate their voter guides, to cut the time it takes them to fill out a ballot at the polling place.
8. Fix the DMV: Bizarre as it may sound, Departments of Motor Vehicles are integral parts of election administration. They record legal names and, especially in states that require IDs to vote, issue identifications most of us use on a daily basis. They’re also the “weakest link in the system,” the commission reports, either by disregarding the National Voter Registration Act (Better known as the “Motor Voter” law) or by building walls between their data and their local election administrator. Making the transfer of data between government units smoother will lead to better election administration.
9. Go back to school: Katharine Harris made the Florida Secretary of State’s office a partisan office. Pinellas County Supervisor Deborah Clark’s office sent out robo-calls telling voters to cast their ballots the day after Election Day. New York state and King County can take forever to count ballots. (Full disclosure: The author interned at the King County elections department in high school.) Election administration is a specialized field, and the commission wants to see a professional workforce, and graduate-level courses in public administration departments.
10. Help voters before they show up: The commission recommends using “line walkers,” who would patrol lines of waiting voters to make sure they have proper identification and that they’re in the right precincts, in order to help troubleshoot before a voter even gets to the front of the line. Some jurisdictions, such as Orange County, Calif., and Travis County, Texas, publish wait times at certain polling places online, so voters know how much time to block out to go cast their ballots.
11. Go electronic: Dozens of jurisdictions around the country are using, or testing, electronic poll books. It’s a lot easier to use a search function to look up a voter’s information than to page through massive paper-based lists, and they can cut down user error by making sure the right voter gets the right ballot. They can even help security: Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, whose office is experimenting with electronic poll books, told us some victims of domestic violence worry their abusers can surreptitiously look to see if the victim has voted. Using an electronic poll book can eliminate that threat.
12. Go online: Voters who live overseas, especially those in the military, are most susceptible to being disenfranchised thanks to slow international mail. The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act helped by extending the period between primary and general elections, to make sure ballots make it to voters, but online voting would bring down even more barriers. Dozens of states fall short of even offering online absentee ballot request links for UOCAVA voters. Creating ballots with individual bar codes that could be printed out overseas would help more military members vote.
13. Recruit new poll workers: Who has time to sit around for a whole day checking in workers? Retirees, who make up a significant portion of poll workers in the U.S. But in some jurisdictions, there aren’t enough retirees to staff the polls. Recruiting college and high school students, as well as part-time workers and public-sector employees, can diversify the poll worker pool and make the system run more efficiently, the commission said (That works doubly well if those high school students get the day off from school, and if they get credit in class for time worked).
14. Train those poll workers: The average poll worker gets just two and a half hours of training before being asked to serve a 12- to 14-hour day. That’s not always enough time to cover rules regarding voter identification requirements, or provisional ballots, which can lead to disenfranchisement. Only a small handful of jurisdictions evaluate poll worker progress. The commission urges states to adopt rigorous training standards to make poll workers more effective and efficient.
15. Speak the voters’ language: About one in seven voters in the U.S., that is between 35 and 46 million people, have accessibility needs when it comes to the polling place, and an estimated 10 million more don’t speak English as a primary language. Election administrators need to create accessible polling places, and reach out to minority communities in their areas through liaisons to make sure their ballots are accessible to everyone eligible to vote. The commission singles out Wisconsin, which does an admirable job surveying and auditing polling places to judge their accessibility.