The United States’ electoral system has always been imperfect — a work in progress. And yet the health of our democracy depends on the quality of our elections. All over the country, we entrust local officials to run elections as smoothly as possible. In fact, we depend on these officials to oversee more than 8,000 election jurisdictions nationwide — verifying the eligibility of voters, designing the ballots, and counting the votes.
The decentralized administration of elections means there are always new challenges to be addressed and new opportunities for improvement. It is for this reason that the Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA) was established by an Executive Order on March 28, 2013, with the goal of confronting problems and institutionalizing processes that allow for improvement.
After an extensive six-month inquiry, the bipartisan PCEA, comprised of experts and practitioners, issued The American Voting Experience report, which stated: “the problems hindering efficient administration of elections are both identifiable and solvable.” In the report, members of the PCEA unanimously agreed on a set of best practices and recommendations they hoped would focus institutional energy on a select number of important policy changes, while spawning experimentation among the thousands of local officials who shared similar concerns.
Our new report highlights the progress made in several areas since the PCEA recommendations were released, notably in the areas of voter registration, access to voting, polling place management, and voting technology.
MORE from the press release:
A bipartisan effort to shorten voting lines and improve how elections are administered has yielded major progress in both red and blue states, according to a report released today by the Democracy Fund. The Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA) was established by Executive Order in 2013 to identify best practices in election administration and improve the voting experience. President Obama named his former White House Counsel Bob Bauer, and Ben Ginsberg, National Counsel to Mitt Romney’s Presidential Campaign, to identify problems and present potential solutions for future elections.
“The work being done around the country to implement the bipartisan recommendations of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration are a true sign of what is possible when people work together to solve problems,” said Adam Ambrogi, the Director of the Democracy Fund’s Elections Program. “We applaud the election administrators from both political parties who have adopted these recommendations to reduce lines at the polls, expand early voting, and make it easier to register to vote.”
The PCEA first released a report on best practices and recommendations to modernize the American electoral system over two years ago—including recommendations to increase access to online voter registration, expand early and absentee voting, modernize voting machines, and promote best practices for election administrators and states to follow. The Democracy Fund believes there is value in continuing to measure its progress and promote bipartisan reforms in the future.
After interviewing dozens of state and national election officials, the Democracy Fund uncovered the following progress on the PCEA’s recommendations. Officials say the PCEA has helped:
- Double the number of states that have approved online voter registration to 38, plus the District of Columbia.
- Expand the number of states that share information with each other and perform outreach to eligible but unregistered voters, such as the ERIC program, to 21 states, plus the District of Columbia.
- Introduce or increase early voting in five states—including a new ten-day early vote program in Massachusetts and a new two-week early vote program in Rhode Island. There are still 13 states in which early voting is not available. As more information becomes available, early voting is likely to take root in these remaining states.
- Spur recommendations for improving the voting process for military and Americans abroad that are now being considered by multiple states.
- Reveal factors contributing to lengthy polling place wait times for voters in over a dozen jurisdictions.
Innovative state programs that have come out of the PCEA report include:
- In Ohio, Secretary of State Jon Husted is tackling wait times to vote, and now requires that counties provide detailed plans for mitigating wait times in any polling place that did not meet the PCEA 30-minute wait time standard in the 2012 general election.
- In Chicago, the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Chicago Board of Elections partnered to recruit and manage a corps of community and four-year college students from Cook County schools to work the polls on Election Day. The wildly successful program increased bilingual support for voters, reduced transmission times, and resulted in higher civic participation among students. Similar programs have now been adopted in Rhode Island and California.
- Alabama passed a bill allowing officials to use ePollbooks in polling places, incorporating new technology to make the check-in process easy for voters and for poll workers. Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill expressed the usefulness of the PCEA report in informing legislators on the value of this type of technology in the polling place.
- New Mexico appropriated $12 million for the purchase of new voting equipment for each of New Mexico’s 33 counties. Voters began casting ballots on the new equipment in the November 2014 election. The improvement was essential—before the switch, Bernalillo County Clerk Maggie Toulouse Oliver reported a high failure rate for memory cards.
“At a time when the issue of cyber security is all over the news, it’s important to note that across the country election administrators are doing the work to make our voting easy, secure, and effective for eligible voters,” saidJoe Goldman, President of the Democracy Fund. “Electronic voting machines aren’t run via the internet—they’re run by our hardworking election officials. So much of this fear mongering we’ve seen in recent weeks is more about headlines than reality.”
Both elections officials and advocates interviewed by the Democracy Fund report that the PCEA was very useful in defining policy agendas and advancing pro-voter initiatives. While we know that there will be hitches in the 2016 election process, the right question to ask in those places is: Did they take PCEA seriously? As the 2016 presidential election fast approaches, the Democracy Fund recommends further action as a result of this report—including a challenge to all jurisdictions to quickly adopt PCEA recommendations that have increased voting access in so many states.