JFK’s Contribution to Election Administration Modernization

Americans pause this week to remember the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. While that moment will always be etched in our nation’s collective memory, there is a much less well-known 50th anniversary milestone this month, one that relates to registration and voting, which should be celebrated as one of the sparks of the modernization of election administration.

The trajectory of election administration innovation and change is one of plodding, disjointed reforms capped by a decade of rapid change as a result of the Help America Vote Act of 2002. And while it is hard to argue that our collective system is not as good as it has ever been, there is always room for improvement. President Barack Obama noted the problem of long lines at polling places during the 2012 presidential election and announced during his subsequent State of the Union address a commission to pursue necessary changes. He said:

“When any American, no matter where they live or what their party, are denied that right because they can’t afford to wait for five or six or seven hours just to cast their ballot, we are betraying our ideals.

“So tonight, I’m announcing a nonpartisan commission to improve the voting experience in America. And it definitely needs improvement. I’m asking two long-time experts in the field — who, by the way, recently served as the top attorneys for my campaign and for Governor Romney’s campaign — to lead it. We can fix this, and we will. The American people demand it, and so does our democracy.”

I would not be surprised if today’s commission, formally known as the Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA), releases a set of standards that includes some the following ideals:

  1. Voter registration should be easily accessible to all citizens;
  2. Voter lists should be kept current; and,
  3. Polling places should be equipped as to eliminate long waiting periods.

If, however, the PCEA settles on such bedrock standards for the improvement of our elections, they will not be breaking new ground. Today’s commission will present its report to President Obama nearly fifty years after President John F. Kennedy’s President’s Commission on Registration and Voting Participation delivered its findings to President Lyndon Johnson. That report was made public on December 20, 1963, though, it had been originally scheduled for release on November 26, 1963. An interested election administration or JFK buff can even read the draft remarks JFK was to make at the public event that day as well as the press release to be issued after its conclusion in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum online collections.

Using internal White House memos from the JFK Administration and the final report of the President’s Commission on Registration and Voting Participation, which was charged with studying the reasons for low voter turnout and providing recommendations to remedy the problem, we can compare a little of how far we have come as a country with our electoral practices and where work remains.

Voter Registration

The discussion around voter registration today tends to center on the implementation of an online voter registration system so that eligible citizens can register vote from the convenience of their own homes. As of an August 2013 review of state practices by the National Conference of State Legislatures, 19 states have authorized fully online voter registration systems and five others had some online functionality for their state voter registration lists. Still, a voter must be proactive to get himself or herself on the voting list.

Online functionality was quite far away in 1963, but I think some would have been content just to have a basic list. In fact, at the time, not all states maintained permanent voter registration lists on which eligible voters remained unless they changed residence, failed to vote in a specified number of elections, or died. From a White House memo at the time: “33 States have State-wide permanent registration systems. Eleven States, including New York and Ohio, have permanent registration in some but not all of the jurisdictions within the State….Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota and Wisconsin permit local option in rural areas to determine whether or not permanent registration shall be used. Only six States have no system of permanent registration. In South Carolina, Vermont and Wyoming periodic registration is used” that requires voters to re-register in order to maintain eligibility.

JFK’s Presidential Commission report also includes considerable discussion decrying America’s low turnout in federal elections—turnout nationwide in 1960 was about 63%— as partly the result of most states’ passive registration system that required the voters to register themselves. Only 17 states allowed registration by mail and the others required citizens to appear at designated registration locations during normal business hours. Instead, the commission noted positively that Italy, West Germany, and Canada proactively registered its own system with processes that rivaled our decennial census and were rewarded with significantly higher turnout of eligible electors. While 63% turnout is nothing to be impressed with, the 2012 election saw a sub-60% turnout of age-eligible voters.

Absentee Voting

Three states in 1963 did not allow civilians to vote by absentee ballot. Some states limited absentee ballots exclusively to those voters unable to reach the polls due to illness, while others restricted the ballots to those voters who were physically removed from the jurisdiction on Election Day. States that offered absentee voting during general elections did not necessarily allow the practice during primary elections. Due to federal law, states were required to furnish absentee ballots to members of the military, but it would take additional federal legislation—some as recent as the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act that passed in 2009—to make overseas absentee voting work.

In 28 states and the District of Columbia, voters today are no longer required to provide even an excuse for casting an absentee ballot. The practice is viewed as a convenience option of voting that allows voters to have more time with their ballots to consider their options. In traditionally low turnout elections, no excuse absentee voting or all-mail voting systems have been shown to result in higher voter turnout than would be expected in an election that required voters to come to the polls.

Voting in 1963 and the Way Forward

There are many other differences between voting in 1963 as compared to today. The voting age was 21. Poll taxes and literacy tests still existed (and JFK’s commission did not reach unanimous consensus on the issue of literacy tests). Other aspects such as burdensome residency requirements (that could be as long as two years), early poll closing times (like 5:00pm), and registration deadlines months prior to Election Day further complicated Americans’ efforts to participate in their democracy. By contrast, advocates and policymakers today debate relatively advanced voting technology, early voting hours and locations, and same day registration.

Election officials and policymakers in state legislatures and in Congress should not take the fact that our process is much improved over fifty years ago as a sign that the problems in voting are fixed. Americans rightly demand a voting system that matches the promise of the world’s democratic leader. However, the PCEA need not reinvent the wheel. While America may have a history of slow reform in election administration, many good ideas already exist to move the system forward. Today’s commission and election administrators across the country should remember the work done by groups like JFK’s President’s Commission on Registration and Voting Participation as the field continues to innovate and improve election administration efficiency for the next generation.