Americans will go to the polls in every jurisdiction in every state only 300 days from today. In the 14 months since the last federal election, election officials have intensified efforts to secure the election system while also improving the voting experience for all Americans. These local, state, and federal initiatives reveal tangible progress, but there is much to be done before November.
The United States Election Assistance Commission (EAC) this week hosted a summit on preparedness for the 2018 federal elections. Election administrators, state and federal policymakers, and advocates focused on short-term fixes to the polling place itself and on the long-term, multiyear effort to overhaul the security of registration and voting systems, including those for overseas citizens and the military.
Doug Chapin from the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota succinctly summed up the current state of affairs. He believes that 2018 is likely to be a high-energy, high turnout election and there very well may be more close elections like what we saw play out in Virginia in 2017. Budgets are still tight, and election officials’ jobs come with a requirement to do more with less. The legal landscape may shift before November in ways we cannot yet predict, and voters are choosing more and more to cast ballots outside the traditional polling place. And after 2016, cyber security concerns are at the forefront.
The Bipartisan Policy Center has been involved in election administration policy research for 5 years, and we host the continuing work of the 2013-2014 bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration, the gold-standard for how states should frame policy and run elections. We are proud members of a nonprofit community that aims to improve democracy for all Americans.
The next election may seem far away. But if our recommendations and best practices are going to be implemented before you head to the polls in November, time is short.
The steps election officials take today affect how you cast your ballot tomorrow. First, states perennially face problems locating sufficient sites for early voting and Election Day polling. Voters expect convenient and fully staffed locations to cast ballots, but it isn’t easy. To do so, there will be 1 million poll workers at work on Election Day 2018. At the EAC Summit, MIT professor Charles Stewart noted that many Americans are not even aware of election officials’ challenge to orchestrate such a gigantic mobilization. Still, once we have enough poll workers, the average polling place isn’t fully accessible to voters with disabilities. Only about one-third of polling places were accessible in 2016, however, even that marks a big improvement over 2008.
One fix PCEA recommends is the use of schools as polling places. These facilities are publicly owned and often the most likely places to be ADA-accessible for voters with disabilities. But in 2018, more and more jurisdictions seem to be moving in the wrong direction, limiting the usage of schools due to security concerns. We believe that instead of ruling out the best options, school districts should schedule in-service teacher workdays on Election Days so that security concerns are resolved. These commonsense policies are not yet commonplace.
Second, BPC works on the largest polling place-level data collection project in American history to finally determine those features associated with long lines at polling places. Our project included nearly 100 jurisdictions in 2016 and will expand to more than 200 in 2018. The data allow for evidence-based policy decisions such as how to deploy poll workers and technology to meet demand where it exists. Data collection improves business practices across many fields, and elections are no different. But we need buy-in from state and local election officials to make it a reality.
Finally, BPC recommends that jurisdictions consider adoption of electronic poll books and works with those that have already done so. Electronic poll books offer many benefits over traditional paper-based poll rosters including that they provide richer data about when voters are casting ballots and by what method. The electronic poll books can tell us much about check-in times, which are a key determinant for voter wait times at the polling places. Jurisdictions incorporating this technology will have much more information to improve the voting experience moving forward.
The next election may seem far away. But if our recommendations and best practices are going to be implemented before you head to the polls in November, time is short. It will be another exciting year for the election administration community and we look forward to doing our part.