Report

Many Happy Returns (Spring 2008 Trust Magazine article)

  • April 30, 2008
  • By Pat Loeb

In America, every vote counts. But is every vote counted? No one knows better than electionline.org.

"Potomac Tuesday”—the February 12 primaries in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia—brought the leading Republican candidate closer to nomination and tightened the race on the Democratic side. For Dan Seligson, project manager for publications at electionline.org, it brought home just how committed to impartiality his job has made him.

Seligson took the day off to do his civic duty: working the polls in the District of Columbia's 1st Ward and loading ballot cards into the electronic voting machine set up near the stage of the cavernous elementary school auditorium where 40th Precinct voters cast their ballots. A woman, toddler in tow, approached to cast her vote.

“Paper or electronic?” he asked. Like many jurisdictions, the District of Columbia offers both kinds of machines.

“Electronic, I guess,” she answered, then looked worried. “Is it safe?” she asked Seligson.

And there was a pregnant pause.

Seligson has researched the question exhaustively. If he were at his regular job, at electionline.org, he could not say definitively that the machines are 100 percent trustworthy. He could say that many state and local officials not only trust them but also consider them superior for their accessibility, ease, flexibility, speed and accuracy. He would add, however, that the machines have failed—spectacularly at times—and that advocates, voters and some lawmakers want them replaced or refitted to provide a paper audit trail.

Here, though, was a voter about to cast her ballot, who wanted a simple answer, not a policy analysis, so he offered the best answer he had, given the current state of the field.

He smiled, reassuringly. “It is,” he said. “It is.”

Later, he confided it was difficult to give that reply. And no wonder. A strict dedication to detailed and unbiased fact-finding and reporting is what has helped electionline.org achieve an unusual but invaluable status. In the seven years since its inception, the initiative has become perhaps the most trusted source in the country for information about the administration of elections. It is read regularly by state and local election officials and consulted by journalists looking for the most reliable content.

“It's an odd little niche,” concedes electionline.org director Doug Chapin, “but I love filling it.”

It was November 8, 2000, the day after the presidential election. Instead of the normal victories and concessions, the country was hearing the phrases hanging chad and butterfly ballot. Donald Kimelman, currently managing director of Information Initiatives and the Philadelphia Program at Pew, was running the Venture Fund and, as always, on the lookout for developments in the outside world that Pew might play a role in addressing. As he watched the confusion deepen over the next several days—and read an analysis predicting that more close elections would make voting-process issues even more crucial in the future—he recognized a feeling from his former newsroom career at The Philadelphia Inquirer.

“It was like reporters who know they have a good story,” he says. “Suddenly, here was [an issue] that just landed in front of us.”

The question was what Pew could contribute. Kimelman discussed the possibilities with colleagues and researched the issue. What he found surprised him. It was easy to say the system was broken but, in fact, the problem seemed more fundamental: There was no system. There was a highly complex, decentralized collection of rules and customs that varied not just from state to state but from voting precinct to voting precinct.

Other funders were seizing the issue, putting out multi-point plans and becoming de facto advocates for their own proposals. A movement was growing for reform.

Kimelman saw a clear role for Pew emerging. “We could make the process better,” he says, “by being a source of timely, reliable information; in other words, inform to reform.”

By March, the Pew board approved a three-year grant for the Election Reform Information Project at the University of Richmond. It quickly became known as its Internet site name—electionline.org—which was rolled out later that year. Chapin, a D.C. lawyer who, curiously, was already wedded to this kind of work, became the director.

“Identifying someone like Doug was key,” Kimelman says. “He lives and breathes this issue. He's enthusiastic about it. Even more, he can explain it in a way that makes a complex, dry topic interesting to people.”

What kind of person finds election administration interesting, even before the 2000 election?

“I'm an election geek,” Chapin, 44, says cheerfully, without a trace of irony, in electionline.org's corner of Pew's D.C. office. And why? “I grew up around here,” he quips, noting that Washingtonians are known to find arcane minutiae fascinating.

He was certainly steeped in the finer points. He formerly served as an associate with a law firm's political law group; he provided legal advice to corporate clients and specialized in campaign finance, lobbying disclosure, and conflict-of-interest and gift laws at all governmental levels. He also served as minority elections counsel for the U.S. Senate Committee on Rules and Administration.

Chapin has a round, boyish face, fringed by longish, moppy hair (his 8-year-old son told him he needed a haircut after watching him on a TV interview show), a tendency to speak in sports metaphors and a weakness for funny circle graphs by blogger Jessica Hagy of “Indexed.” He often posts one next to a big bowl of candy on his desk (both are labeled “Food for Thought”). A sample Hagy scribble: a pie chart purportedly showing recent media coverage; a slice of 25 percent is devoted to the presidential campaign; the rest of the pie, to Britney Spears.

Electionline.org's initial role—as a nonpartisan clearinghouse of information on how, when and where Americans vote—suited him fine. And he is equally at ease with the way the project has developed.

Now, it not only collects information but also researches and analyzes problems in election administration—voter registration lists, provisional ballots, optical-scan vs. direct-recording electronic (DRE) machines—and it takes the next step in identifying and rigorously evaluating proposed solutions, all while remaining strictly impartial and independent. The organization quite specifically does not care about the outcome of any race.

With Pew's change to a public charity, electionline.org has become a project within the Pew Center on the States, which “is emerging as an important national think tank on state policy issues,” said Peter A. Harkness, editor and publisher of Governing magazine in the January issue.

The center also houses Make Voting Work, which fosters “an election system that achieves the highest standards of accuracy, convenience, efficiency and security,” as the center's Web site notes (see Make Voting Work: The First Pilot Projects). This initiative, launched last year, builds on electionline.org.

“Election administration has changed dramatically in the last eight years,” says Susan Urahn, managing director of the Pew Center on the States. “Yet, though voting machines may look different, voters are rightly asking, as they have in other times, ‘Is my vote being counted?' and ‘Are election outcomes trustworthy?' Electionline.org remains the premier source for news and analysis in the field, and it has developed an unparalleled network of relationships with state policy makers, leaders in the election field and reporters.”

Chapin has assembled a staff that shares his passion—a team all the more remarkable for its focus, since the election-administration process is so mundane that most people pay it no attention, yet, as we all know, it stumbled so badly in 2000 that it nearly caused a national crisis.

On his staff is Sean Greene, who came to electionline.org from the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, a project that examines voter turnout. Mindy Moretti writes the newsletter. She was recently asked to leave a Scottsdale, Ariz., polling place after pointedly asking to see the bilingual poll worker that she knew Arizona law required.

Then there is Katharine Zambon, who may out-wonk Chapin. Five years ago, when she was 20, “Kat” won her first elective office as a committee person in Buffalo, N.Y. She acknowledges that election administration is “the least sexy thing in the world,” but she can't help but get excited as she talks about it: “It's how people interact with their government—the only interaction you have with your government outside the line at the DMV.”

And there is Dan Seligson, a redheaded Bostonian, who used to cover the Virginia legislature for the Journal Newspapers, based in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. “Part of me wishes I was covering the Red Sox,” he confesses. “Election reform is a narrower issue. There is a sameness to the work. Over time, I've embraced the fact that it's good to know more about one thing than almost anyone else.”

For this group of people, Super Tuesday was akin to Woodstock for rock critics. They fanned out across the country: Greene to Chicago, Moretti to Phoenix, Zambon to Savannah, Ga., and Seligson to New York City. They blogged on the fly about what they saw.

Seligson navigated his way through the Giants' Super Bowl victory parade to check on the one handicapped-accessible voting center in Manhattan. He was asked for photo identification. New York has no voter ID requirement, and imposing one is no simple matter (the U.S. Supreme Court is now deliberating whether Indiana's voter ID law is constitutional). But building security at the Manhattan location required an ID from anyone entering, meaning that handicapped voters had to clear an extra hurdle to exercise their franchise.

Seligson's observations went up on the Web site, along with reports from the other staff members and from print and electronic reporters in other jurisdictions. Then the highlights were bundled into the newsletter that goes out weekly to more than 2,000 election officials, journalists, policy makers, academics and advocates.

The Web site—a daily clearinghouse of elections news—and the e-newsletter are the tools that keep electionline.org users current.

While producing daily and weekly reports, the staff also work on longer briefings and case studies. For instance, a report in February, the project's 21st major analysis, examines five states that adopted, then rejected, electronic voting machines; the future of voting in the United States is “moving decisively back to paper,” the report notes (see Back to Paper: A Case Study). The project has also reported on poll-worker training, vote auditing and voting progress on the fifth anniversary of the Help America Vote Act.

Electionline.org's output is welcomed and scrutinized, particularly by state and local election officials, who have never before had this kind of access to information about what their colleagues elsewhere were doing.

“It's a valuable resource for us,” says Sterling Ivey, spokesman for Florida's chief election official. “We find it useful, particularly as it relates to what's going on nationally and in other states. It's a good barometer to measure what we're doing in Florida.”

Electionline.org has also drawn criticism. After it issued the report Election Reform: What's Changed, What Hasn't and Why in 2006, Wanda Warren Berry, a board member of New Yorkers for Verified Voting, wrote an extended critique. She noted that the report “provides valuable information” about changes in voting machines and that “the document's history of election reform gives valuable perspective on local efforts.” Then she criticized what she called “its muted biases” that appear as “ignoring negative evidence about DREs, derogatory misinterpretation of [paper ballots], a trivializing perspective on the verifiedvoting movement and a biased overall perspective on progress toward reform.”

To Chapin, the very act of staying free from bias can create critics. “It frequently frustrates people that we don't side with them,” he says. “But we usually get criticism from both sides of the aisle on every issue we cover—which tells me we're doing our job.”

Electionline.org, however, does intend to help set the agenda. Chapin and his colleagues have recently made a big push to reach reporters, expecting that a more informed media will lead to better reporting, which in turn will create pressure for meaningful change. Inaccurate reporting can lead to election-day problems. For example, Seligson recalls, journalistic shortcuts in explaining provisional ballots in Ohio in 2006 led dozens of unregistered people to go to the polls; of course, they were turned away.

Last year, electionline.org held a series of full-day seminars for groups of 35 to 40 reporters in San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta and Washington and published a guide, Covering 2008. The effort earned the project an even higher profile. Newsweek recently ran a Q&A with Chapin, and Clive Thompson consulted him for his New York Times Magazine cover story about voting machines in January.

“I talked to Doug Chapin about his analysis of what were the technical and political challenges facing touchscreen voting machines, the history of how they came to be adopted across the country, as well as the advantages they offered in comparison to other voting technologies,” Thompson writes in an e-mail.

“He was very knowledgeable and, indeed, seemed pretty nonpartisan.”

Interviews beget further interviews, which is good for electionline.org but can be a double-edged sword. Seligson recalls his first television interview, on Fox and Friends in 2004. He knew the show had a political bent, but he was prepared to stick to his usual formula of presenting right-down-themiddle arguments from all perspectives in the election-reform debate. His microphone went on, and the host asked the first question: “Hey, Dan, why are Florida voters so stupid?”

As a nation, we are now in the second presidential cycle since the 2000 mess, and there have been vast changes in the way we vote. The changes have not always been improvements, but the 2008 primary season went smoothly into spring.

Chapin has identified three major areas of concern to watch this year:

  • First and foremost, the machines themselves, as states have ricocheted from the DREs that were supposed to cure hanging chads and improve accuracy, to optical scanopticalscan paper ballots that can be verified in the event of an electronic failure.
  • Voter ID laws.
  • Registration lists, the factor Chapin believes will drive most problems in the November election. “This is your admission ticket—the key to deciding who is or isn't the electorate,” he says.

If the election system gets as close to perfection as humanly possible, will electionline.org go the way of punch-card ballots? Chapin thinks that's unlikely. Though it began because of one disastrous event, new issues crop up all the time. “This is a long conversation about the way we conduct elections,” he says. “Maybe a consensus emerges on the best way to do it, but even things that appear to be working well need a lot of work behind the scenes—the things voters don't see.

“We need to use the same passion for information about elections to look past identifying problems after they have happened to diagnosing and preventing them before they occur,” Chapin points out. “We don't advocate for any specific solution, but we do believe that voters deserve the kind of changes to the American election system that go beyond short-term solutions and quick fixes. The only way to get there is, quite simply, to continue paying attention,” he adds, “and that's what we intend to do.”

Pew is no longer active in this line of work, but for more information, please visit electionline.org.

 

You can access electionline.org on the Web by going to www.pewcenteronthestates.org. There, you can read Back to Paper and other reports, sign up for the project's online newsletter on election reform and retrieve relevant articles state by state.

Philadelphia-based Pat Loeb has covered election campaigns as a reporter for WHYY-FM and KYW1060-AM radio and as a foreign correspondent for National Public Radio. She has also written two books on the work of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism. She has won awards from the Associated Press, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Education Writers Association.

Top