Common Sense: Tension between Convenience, Confidence, and Cost

Note: This is the sixth post in an occasional series on Common Sense Election Integrity, summarizing, updating, and expanding on many previous posts covering election integrity, focused on Connecticut. <previous> <next>

Elections like many complex activities are subject to many demands and conflicting priorities. Reading Edward B. Foley’s excellent and fascinating paper, The 1792 Election Dispute and Its Continuing Relevance, one of its main themes:

Another lesson to be learned from the Clinton-Jay dispute of 1792 concerns the deep-rooted nature of the jurisprudential debate between strict and lenient enforcement of election statutes. As a review of the 1792 dispute reveals, this basic jurisprudential debate has been with us from the very beginning. The 1792 dispute also demonstrates that this jurisprudential debate involves competing interpretations of our nation’s most elementary commitment to the existence of democratic elections. Proponents of both strict and lenient enforcement appeal to the fundamental value of a free and fair vote among citizens. Yet each side of this jurisprudential debate appeals to this fundamental value in a different way. As a nation, we are essentially stuck in the same place regarding this debate as we were in 1792.

Many of the issues we discuss here and debate in the Legislature revolve around similar tradeoffs between strict and lenient enforcement – tradeoffs in laws set out before close election results, charges, counter charges, and arguments actually occur. At a basic level we find three fundamental values/goals behind every initiative and debate:

  • Convenience – Access for voters, access for candidates, and efficiency for officials
  • Confidence – Integrity and confidence in the process, voter qualifications, and accuracy of the results
  • Cost – What it takes to register voters and  run elections

Convenience suggests capabilities such as: Election day registration; early voting, online registration; universal registration; online voting;  many well staffed and equipped polling places; systems for those with disabilities; school or general holidays on election day; voter friendly ballot design; easy to use web information; low bars for third party candidates; public financing; short hours and increased staffing for officials; technology to save officials work; easy to setup technology; etc.

Confidence suggests requirements such as: Voter verified paper ballots; adequate supplies of pre-printed ballots; strong ballot security; strong equipment testing and security; fully transparent operations; careful, extensive registration checks; careful, effective voter checkin requirements; strong recount and post-election audits; stronger, more uniform, or faster enforcement of election laws;

Costs are usually required to increase confidence or convenience. Sometimes an investment in new equipment and methods can actually save money in the long run. In other cases waste can be eliminated or a more efficient method found. In other cases a well intended initiative can be accomplished in a wasteful, ineffective, even detrimental way.

In general we can tradeoff one of the three goals for one or two of the others, yet it does not always work that way:

  • We can save money and add to convenience at the expense of confidence when we loosen registration checks. Similarly we can add confidence, with costs and  inconvenience by stronger voter ID requirements.
  • We can increase confidence and costs, along with more work by officials when we increase the standards for protecting ballots or camera surveillance of storage and official work areas.
  • We can invest in online registration, which adds to convenience, and confidence, while it reduces costs. (As we used to call it in IT, a “sweet spot” application)
  • We could invest in paperless DRE (touch screens) which increase work for officials, can result in long lines for voters, high risks to confidence, and huge costs over optical scanners – a lose, lose, lose, lose proposition.
  • Better procedures and regulations can provide a huge payoff, only if they are accompanied by effective training and compliance.
  • Also tradeoffs may not be uniform: Costs or additional work can be greater for small towns, or for towns with many small polling places. Voter ID laws can disproportionately greatly inconvenience and cost some voters, while hardly making a difference to others.
  • Finally, some impacts are really, really difficult to determine. In recent years, the Legislature changed to require special elections for U.S. Senate vacancies – each election would cost several million dollars. How many will we have? And when? Some could be very critical and valuable to democracy, others inconsequential. What is the value of ballot security we can all trust vs. questionable security almost impossible to prevent and demonstrate fraud, should it occur?

These tradeoffs and competing goals are the context within which we all constantly evaluate new laws and proposals.

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