Election Reform Q&A

Mar 11, 2008

Michael Caudell-Feagan and Doug Chapin
Make Voting Work and electionline.org
Pew Center on the States

In the most wide-open race for the White House in a generation, public attention has mostly focused on the leading Democratic and Republican contenders and their around-the-clock drive for votes.

But on a second front, a different sort of war is being waged: to make sure that as many voters as possible are able to take part, and that everyone’s vote is counted. In this effort, two Pew initiatives are leading the way: Make Voting Work, which seeks to bring the highest standards of accuracy, convenience, efficiency and security to American elections, and electionline.org, which provides nonpartisan, non-advocacy information and analysis on election reform.

Recently, we spoke with Michael Caudell-Feagan, director of Make Voting Work, and Doug Chapin, director of electionline.org, to find out what they hope to accomplish this year, and down the road, their objectives for election reform.

Questions and Answers

    From your vantage point, what are the most pressing issues facing election administrators this year?

    Michael Caudell-Feagan: We are at a unique moment in our nation’s electoral history. Because of the changes brought about by the confusion following the 2000 presidential election and federal Help America Vote Act that aimed to resolve those problems, elections have changed more in the last eight years than possibly at any other time in  many decades.

    The two things that will pop up in headlines again and again are voting technology and voter identification.  We’re seeing real concerns about voting machines that are used at the state and local level.  Some states are retreating from the technology choices they’ve made and other states are looking at their choices very carefully. We’ll be watching all of these.

    On voter ID, the Supreme Count currently has under consideration a challenge to Indiana’s new photo ID law, which will likely lead to one of the most contentious rulings this term.  Voter identification and the interface with immigrants are likely to be hot-button issues this year.

    While those two issues will grab the headlines, there are other important areas that don’t get the attention they deserve. One issue that often gets overlooked is voter registration – the means by which individual voters are included in or excluded from elections. And not only are the rules for those changing, but the technology is changing as well. States have developed these huge databases that are supposed to help them manage their voting rolls. In some places they work well and other places they don’t.

    Doug Chapin: We see the same litany of problems again and again every election cycle. Basically, what it comes down to is that our voting system is very fragmented and underfunded, and there’s no strong national will to subject the election process to the scrutiny it needs. While we’ve taken action on several fronts, in many ways elections in American operate much as they did at the turn of the 20th century.

    At Make Voting Work, what are you doing to address these problems?

    Caudell-Feagan: The first thing we’re doing is simply to ground the field of election administration in research, collecting the data that’s needed to diagnose and prioritize the problems. That’s not been done in the past. Over the next year or two, Make Voting Work will be bringing together various leading academics, experts from the private sector and those who are in the field—state and local election officials—so that they can identify the problems. They’ll do that through surveying voters and conducting audits of registration rolls.

    We’ll also be road-testing some innovative initiatives and studying whether they improve the situation or have unintended consequences. Through Make Voting Work and our partnership with the JEHT Foundation, we put out more than $3 million in grants for this effort.  In addition, Make Voting Work has successfully advocated for a $10 million Congressional appropriation so that five states can test the most effective ways to collect the core information that’s needed to understand how well their electoral systems are performing. This grant program will be announced in a matter of weeks.

    Which states are you watching most closely this election year?

    Caudell-Feagan:  Florida, due to its role as a poster child for election reform, both good and bad since 2000 – but also because of the level and pace of change. As a result of a disputed 2006 election in Sarasota, Florida has abandoned its touch-screen voting system and is going back to the optical scan for the 2008 presidential election.  That will mean its third voting technology in three successive presidential elections. That degree of change is worth watching.

    The other state of high interest is Ohio. But there, you’ve got a new secretary of state, Jennifer Brunner, who is very aggressively moving to have the state rethink its voter technology and clarify the registration process.

    Chapin:  Ohio is trying to move toward a more portable registration system, so that the many, many Americans who move every year can have their registration follow them, rather than having to re-register time and time again.  Ohio is now looking at vote “centers.”  This moves us beyond the neighborhood-based precinct model of voting by allowing voters to cast their ballots anywhere within their jurisdiction — closer to their work, closer to their school, where they’re shopping—so they can vote anytime during the course of a day and don’t have to battle lines first thing in the morning or at night. Ohio is also experimenting with online training for poll workers.

    Is the current primary system, with its compressed schedule and front-loaded calendar, broken beyond repair?

    Chapin: We’ll know soon enough. Many have criticized the nominating calendar, which extends months upon months in advance of the conventions. Then states make it worse by trying to leapfrog over each other to get to the front of the line. It has serious ramifications for the candidates, the campaigns and the public. The best way is to have parties step in and enforce a primary and caucuses calendar that allows the presidential nominating process to move at a pace that would allow candidates to build momentum and move resources among an array of well-paced election events in the states.

    The other casualty of this compressed calendar has been election administration itself. Some states like New Jersey, which had a statewide general election in November 2007, had to turn around and do a presidential primary in early February. They face a lot of technological and legal pressures. This has consequences for the way in which we conduct the elections at the state, local and even the precinct level.

    Only a fraction of the 6 million Americans living abroad now successfully cast ballots. What is Make Voting Work doing to address that?

    Caudell-Feagan: The Overseas Vote Foundation — with assistance from Make Voting Work — is putting information in the hands of overseas voters so they are much better informed and savvier consumers. The American system is decentralized, and so what the Overseas Vote Foundation and Make Voting Work have done is to standardize this information and make it much more accessible.

    The result is that instead of spending their time trying to figure out how to get a ballot, they can begin the whole process of voting much earlier. With a modest amount of funding, we’ve been able to cut through the complexity and confusion in a way that states and localities and the federal government had failed to do. According to the GAO, the Department of Defense spent $1.6 million over the past two election cycles to develop technology that ultimately served fewer than 30 voters. OVF put up a new Web site that helps voters navigate the complexities in state and local regulations on absentee ballots, and it’s now serving more than 4,000 voters a week.

    You’ve painted a fairly grim picture. Haven’t there been any improvements in the election system?

    Chapin: Actually, we’re just beginning to put the voter front and center in the process. Time and time again, what we find is that the problems the voter faces are really very simple yet we never develop ways to address them – giving them answers to “Where’s my polling place?” “Am I registered to vote?” “What’s on the ballot?” All that’s been missing in too many jurisdictions around the country. Now we’re seeing more states move to online voter registration, to try to improve their Web sites to get information out more broadly.

    For more information about voting reform, see Make Voting Work and electionline.org. 

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