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State and Local Officials Look to Improve Election Administration Ahead of 2016

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The 2016 presidential election campaign is officially underway. Millions of votes will be cast in the primaries and general election. Both parties will contest these elections vigorously, but both parties can also agree that voters should have a sound and fair process for casting their ballots.

Americans rightly take pride in casting their ballots—that is, unless something goes wrong: they wait in a long line, have a problem with their voter registration, or vote on a less than optimal voting machine. When President Obama appointed us, his campaign attorney and White House Counsel and Governor Mitt Romney’s campaign attorney, to chair a commission on voting, he signaled that there were areas to improve election administration on which both parties could agree. The report subsequently issued by the Presidential Commission on Election Administration is one indication that such agreement is possible. The commission’s recommendations reflected the advice, support and experience of election administration officials and experts, Democrats and Republicans and Independents, across the country.

In just over a year since the commission issued these recommendations, state and local jurisdictions have continued to work with them in making improvements to the voting system. Together with the assistance of the Bipartisan Policy Center, the former commissioners of the PCEA are working in states across the country to address long lines, voter registration, improved state-based early voting opportunities, voting machine technology, and the availability of schools as polling places.

Long lines and wait times at the polls are a serious issue. These lines are not a problem in the vast majority of jurisdictions, but research suggests that over five million of 130 million voters in 2012 experienced wait times exceeding one hour and an additional five million waited between a half hour and an hour. That is unacceptable, and while there is no single fix for all situations, many polling place lines can be mitigated through a combination of planning and efficient allocation of resources by local elections officials so that no voter should wait longer than 30 minutes to cast a ballot. We have been working with large jurisdictions in a handful of states with a history of line problems—including Florida, Virginia, South Carolina, and Maryland—to collect data and make targeted recommendations to improve their polling place efficiency. We will greatly expand that effort ahead of the 2016 election.

Voter registration lists are unfortunately neither as comprehensive nor as accurate as they should be. We recommended that states adopt online voter registration and engage in cross-state data sharing to improve accuracy and integrity and that they better integrate voter lists with driver registration lists. A number of states have moved in this direction, and many more are engaged in discussions to improve their registration processes.

States can also reduce the stress on polling places on Election Day by giving voters more opportunities to vote through expanded early voting opportunities. Early voting adds convenience and flexibility, but it also brings with it complexity, the need for greater connectivity to the statewide voter list, and challenges in determining the number of locations, days, and hours that best serve a state or locality. In this area, we look forward to working with California and Massachusetts as they implement and improve early voting for their citizens in 2016.

Election officials have been warning of an impending crisis in voting technology for years. A large percentage of the voting machines currently in operation was purchased with federal funds appropriated after the 2000 presidential election. Standards are out of date, which has left election officials without all of the technological options they should have to replace their rapidly aging machines. We have been working both to raise these concerns with state and federal officials and working with a national group of election administrators focused on finding workable solutions going forward.

Finally, often for public safety reasons, many states have moved toward moving polling places out of public schools. However, schools are some of the best options for siting polling places on Election Day since they are in virtually every community, have ample physical space and parking, and are more likely to be accessible for people with disabilities. In order to preserve the option of schools as polling places and to alleviate concerns over student safety, we recommended that states consider professional training or “in-service” days on Election Day so that students are not in the building while an election is being conducted. Several states and localities are moving in just that direction and we will do all we can to build momentum.

There are plenty of hot button issues related to voting on which the two parties will disagree. But let’s not let disagreement on some issues prevent us from making measurable, bipartisan progress toward an improved voting process. Over the next twenty months, we stand ready to assist as many other jurisdictions as possible to implement smart and sound best practices for their voters.

Ben Ginsberg and Bob Bauer are the former co-chairs of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration.

KEYWORDS: PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA, 2016, PRESIDENTIAL COMMISSION ON ELECTION ADMINISTRATION, MITT ROMNEY, ELECTION DAY, BOB BAUER, BEN GINSBERG