Report

Make Voting Work: The First Pilot Projects (Spring 2008 Trust Magazine briefing)

Here's an ambitious goal: improve the nation's voting systems. Why wouldn't that win in a landslide? Because no partisans would favor reforms that appear to advantage their opponents.

Fair enough. That's why Make Voting Work, an initiative of the Pew Center on the States, approaches its work thoroughly schooled in the center's strategy of moving issues forward based on nonpartisan, rock-solid data and information.

“Elections should be a time to celebrate the strength of our democracy, but the 2008 elections find the rules of the game in flux,” says Michael Caudell-Feagan, director of Make Voting Work. “Policies, practices and technologies, despite good-faith efforts, are being instituted and discarded without an adequate base of evidence. As a result, the integrity of our elections is relentlessly questioned.”

To help fill the knowledge gap, Make Voting Work and the JEHT Foundation have joined to fund projects seeking new ways to measure the health and performance of elections and develop and evaluate pilot projects offering innovative approaches to improve the election process.

State and local election administrators are key to the effort “since they have the knowledge, experience and opportunity to act on the nuts and bolts of voting,” says Rachel Leon, senior manager for fair and participatory elections at the JEHT Foundation.

The projects fall into five areas:

  • Voter registration system assessment. The rationale: Eligible citizens should be able to vote without undue burden, and those ineligible ought to be excluded. Yet registration rolls are created from piecemeal data collected by local election officials, state motorvehicle agencies and get-out-the-vote campaigns, nonpartisan and partisan. As a result, rolls fail to keep pace with a mobile society and are often inaccurate; they are also costly to maintain.
  • Vote centers. The rationale: States are increasingly grappling with the problem of overcrowded, inconveniently located and poorly designed polling places.
    Some states are experimenting with “vote centers” that replace neighborhood precincts and allow voters to cast ballots at large, concentrated polling places anywhere in their city or county—near their work, school, shopping center or other destination. The innovation is in its infancy, and it raises important questions, including how to determine where the centers should be located and what their impact is on voter turnout and the cost of running elections.
  • Audits of elections. The rationale: With the accuracy of voting systems a continuing concern, states seeking to ensure the integrity of the electoral process have adopted post-election audit requirements. Still, the requirements vary dramatically, and there are no generally accepted standards for how to verify an election outcome.  Projects in this category will test multiple techniques for measuring the validity and accuracy of vote counts on various voting systems. And efforts will bemade to broaden the definition of an election audit and identify other elements—beyond vote counts—that should be audited, such as pre-election preparations and poll-worker performance.
  • Online training for poll workers. The rationale: Volunteer poll workers are the foot soldiers of democracy, but, as recently documented by Pew's electionline.org, their enthusiasm needs to be joined with proper training—particularly essential as voting systems and rules take on greater complexity.  Studies show that poor pollworker performance affects elections and reduces voter confidence. More effective and convenient methods of training, especially those using the Internet, hold the promise of better-equipped poll workers and greater voter trust in the system.
  • Election performance assessment. The rationale: to help election officials, policy makers and the public assess the true impact of changes in policies, practices and technologies, especially through means that can be consistently applied to measure accuracy, convenience, efficiency and security.

In each of these areas, and others in which additional pilot projects and case studies will be commissioned over the coming months, Make Voting Work is establishing working groups that unite the research teams with respected election officials, experts from the private sector and other specialists and community representatives. These groups will help oversee the implementation of individual projects, evaluate and refine methodologies, offer a peer review and dissemination forum, and develop strategies to ensure that proven innovations are engrained in the policies and practices of the field.

All of the research will be disseminated through Pew's Web site and directly by the research teams. To inform Pew and JEHT's ongoing contribution, Make Voting Work will also host a series of major public forums on these research initiatives and other challenges facing the field of election administration; these will take place throughout 2008 and 2009.

For further information, visit the center's Web site, www.pewcenteronthestates.org, and that of the JEHT Foundation at www.jehtfoundation.org.