Testimony of Susan Urahn to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government

Source Organization: The Pew Charitable Trusts

Speaker: Susan Urahn, Managing Director, The Pew Center on the States

Venue: House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government

02/27/2008 - Thank you Chairman Serrano, Ranking Member Regula and other members of the committee for holding this important hearing and inviting me to address the many challenges facing U.S. elections.

As managing director of the Pew Center on the States, a project of The Pew Charitable Trusts, I oversee an initiative called Make Voting Work which seeks to significantly improve the accuracy, convenience, efficiency and security of U.S. elections. 

Make Voting Work was launched last year and builds on Pew’s long-standing support for electionline.org.  Started in 2001, electionline is the nation’s premier source for news and analysis on issues of election administration. 

Make no mistake—the field of election administration has changed dramatically in the last eight years. 

Still, the fundamental questions asked by voters—How do I register to vote?  Where is my polling place?—have not changed. 

Even the current debate about the accuracy of voting technologies rings familiar.  The machines being examined may look different, but voters are rightly asking, as they have in other times, “Is my vote being counted?”  And, “Are election outcomes trustworthy?”

The challenge for state and local election officials—not to mention for the councils, boards and administrators that control their budgets as well as for policy makers in state legislatures and in Congress, is to ensure that:

  1. the policies and practices that govern elections reflect our modern times, and
  2. the answers to fundamental questions about the performance of elections can be answered with clarity.
No one before your committee today can credibly argue that any system of elections in any state fully meets either of these requirements.  

Elections today exhibit a troubling failure to reflect the convenience and efficiency that characterize other interactions that define our lives.

If you move, your registration doesn’t follow you.

If you want to register online, unless you live in Arizona or Washington, you cannot.

If you want to vote early, in over a third of the states you still need an excuse.

If you want to vote at a polling place near your office rather than one near your home, in all but a handful of states you can’t.

If you are one of the approximately six million military and overseas citizens, you are faced with a labyrinth of complex and conflicting state rules and regulations when it comes to requesting, receiving and returning ballots.

If you want to find out information about any of this—how to register, where to vote, what’s on the ballot or if your vote was counted—it either isn’t available online or if it is, it’s not very easy to find.

There is no reason that these simple improvements can’t be made, so long as the challenges to the operations and integrity of elections they present can be overcome. 

Unfortunately, the field of election administration has too often been unable to muster both the resources and expertise necessary to meet these challenges. 

State and local election officials certainly show a willingness to experiment and desire to improve, but without research and evidence about how to make these changes and rest assured of their success, improvements are waylaid by the status quo.

Changing this dynamic requires producing a body of evidence that tests desired improvements in how we run elections and shares the results broadly to inform state and local policies.

Make Voting Work, with support from the JEHT Foundation, is proud to be working in partnership with election officials, major private-sector partners, academics and others, to test current practices and some of the most promising innovations.  Through our initial investment of $3 million, we are supporting a range of pilot projects in four key areas:

  1. Voter registration
  2. Election Day vote centers (large, centralized polling places that replace neighborhood-based precincts)
  3. Post-election audits of the election process
  4. Online poll worker training
This is only the initial stage of a multi-year, multi-million dollar commitment that Pew’s board has made to Make Voting Work to build the evidence-base so desperately needed and to tap multi-disciplinary expertise from outside the elections arena.

Given our limited time, I’ll highlight just one example for the committee, and if the committee will allow, we’ll put the full announcement of our first $2.5 million in awards into the record.

The project I’d like to highlight involves voter registration, which seems appropriate since voter registration rolls are the primary building blocks of a reliable election system.  Successful voter registration systems enable eligible citizens to vote without undue burden, secure our elections from those ineligible to participate and facilitate communication with voters.  Yet, registration rolls are created from piecemeal data collected by local election officials, state motor vehicle agencies and other nonpartisan and partisan get-out-the-vote campaigns.  As a result, rolls fail to keep pace with a mobile society and are often inaccurate and costly to maintain. 

In Ohio, a project being led by Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, in partnership with the U.S. Postal Service, the Secretary of State in Indiana, Todd Rokita, and the Secretary of State in Kentucky, Trey Grayson, is testing the use of the change of address form to improve the registration process, offering voters a convenient way to update their registration, promoting the integrity of voter rolls, and hopefully, reducing costs to state and local governments.  Recognizing that 40 million Americans move every year, the National Association of Secretaries of State adopted a resolution at their national conference this month calling for an expansion of this approach.

Make Voting Work offers those running our elections an opportunity to field-test innovations and learn what works and what doesn’t.  The creativity exhibited by leading election officials and lessons from the private sector and other established democracies also provide an opening to take an entirely new look at conventional practices.  Rather than applying band-aids, it may be time to create a registration system where states would have a comprehensive list of all their voters, registration would seamlessly follow those who move, ineligible names could not be added to the list and information would be managed reliably.  With insights from pilot programs and case studies, Pew plans to host forums that would allow us to break through current constraints and modernize the most out-dated facets of U.S. elections. 

Whatever new policies and practices are adopted, we must collect authenticated information from those running our elections in order to analyze their impact.  We don’t expect election officials to be omniscient but we also should not be reliant on their guesses.  Sound policymaking and effective management practices for elections is built on data—data that provides the foundation to assess the performance of our election systems.

Unfortunately, we are far from this goal.  Consistent data collection is essentially non-existent.  Instead this field is driven by anecdotes that can be too easily manipulated for impassioned arguments and partisan self-interest.

Federal surveys cataloging voters registered, errant ballots, poll workers used, and other data go unanswered entirely or are left incomplete.  The quality of the data that is reported is also suspect.

The act of collecting data beyond vote totals may seem a pointless exercise until you consider the possibilities.

With good data—that reaches down to the precinct-level, the unit of analysis necessary for meaningful comparison—one could determine:

  • The impact of a new voting system on accuracy.
  • Whether a new early voting policy reduces Election Day stress.
  • How the number, age and training of poll workers relates to election performance.
  • What voters take advantage of new registration methods such as online registration applications or change of address forms.
  • How a new voter identification law affects an election.
Imagine for a moment if such systems had been in place after passage of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA).  Today, Congress would know to what degree the over $3 billion in federal dollars appropriated to modernize and improve elections actually worked.  And Congress would know which states used these resources most effectively and what policies and practices resulted in the greatest improvements.  Instead, little is known about the impact of HAVA.

This committee has taken a positive first step by funding $10 million in new state data collection efforts to be administered through the Election Assistance Commission (EAC).  Thank you Chairman Serrano for your bold leadership in securing this funding.  Collecting information on the state of our elections is a critical element of the EAC’s mandate to serve as “clearinghouse” of information about elections in the states (HAVA Section 202). 

We firmly believe that the five states who will receive funding under this new program will set the gold-standard for how to assess election performance and we hope the request for proposals receives the attention it deserves from Secretaries of State and State Election Directors.

It is certainly time for all state and local officials to step up—to undertake greater analysis of how well they conduct elections and take steps to improve the transparency and quality of their election data.

The success of this pilot program is not only dependent on states however—it is also dependent on the EAC.

The data collection program should receive their highest priority, with a focus on ensuring that states receive the support needed to submit competitive applications and that participating states set aggressive data collection goals, including the goal of collecting high-quality precinct-level data. 

In addition, the EAC should require that each state undertake an independent evaluation of their work, to be supported by a national evaluation that pools and examines the results of all the states’ work.

The EAC can send a strong signal to the field about the importance of this program with the pending release of the questions that will comprise the 2008 Election Day survey—a voluntary data collection survey that has been sent to states during each federal election cycle since 2004. 

Currently, gaps in the data collection effort are so severe that it is nearly impossible to monitor state compliance with key provisions of the NVRA and UOCAVA.  We don’t even have a good handle on how many Americans are registered to vote, how many have been moved to inactive lists, or how many show up at the polling place in each Federal election.  The EAC must not only assure that the Election Day survey meets the highest standards of high quality data collection, but they need to take a leadership role in setting standards for the kinds of data we’ll need to collect over the next decade.

Finally, I urge the committee to hold an oversight hearing this summer on the data collection program following the awarding of grants for the data collection program and the release of the 2008 Election Day survey.  At that point, the committee will be able to hear from the selected states about their plans and from the EAC on how they have refined the survey to ensure it collects the information critical for any assessment of the performance of state election systems.

Thank you again for the opportunity to testify today.  I look forward to future opportunities to talk about Make Voting Work and I welcome any questions you may have.

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