Looking forward to the Good, the Bad, or the Ugly in election reform?

Many years ago at a college hockey tournament my roommates, friends, and I had rink side seats. We talked to one of the refs several times as he stood on the ice directly in front of us. His worst fear was a tie, to be followed by sudden death overtime – the outcome would depend on every call. Candidates, supporters, and everyone can be pretty sure that Obama won both the Electoral College and the popular vote, neither were very close. What us worry? – but only for this election.

There were many problems! Will we learn anything? Will be do anything? Will we help or aggravate the situation? As they say some you win, some you lose, and some are rained out. (At least Sandy did not rain this one out, but it could have been different. Next time it could be different…for better or for worse.)

Problems

Pre-election there were charges and law suits over suppression and illegal registration activities: Voter ID laws, registration database purges, along with reduction and selective reduction in early voting.

Hurricane Sandy left many challenged to vote, with NJ allowing risky email and fax voting, along with a lack of planning, notice and guidance to officials, with lack of information for voters.

There were long lines around the country for early voting on election day. Many of these were caused by the shortened hours, and  higher volume for for touch screen voting machines. Even optical scan areas had problems largely due to slow check-in lines, and at least in Florida, due to long complex ballots: My sister in Sarasota had a nine-page ballot, while Miami had a twenty-four page ballot! How long would it take you to read and fill out a twenty-four page ballot with many complex resolutions? How long would it take you to feed in that ballot? How many privacy booths would be necessary? How would you like to be ballot clerk responsible for voiding a full ballot or just spoiling and reissuing single pages? How long would it take on a touch screen?

Here in Connecticut we had long lines in several towns. As far as we know, all were caused by slow check-in – not enough lines provided – and for the Presidential ballot offered in town halls to voters who register on election day.

It took Florida several days to count enough to declare a winner. As of this writing at least Washington State and Arizona still have hundreds of thousands of regular votes to count. Presumably there are many states with provisional ballots awaiting adjudication.

An Opportunity for Things to Change
(Yes, Mr. O’Reilly many of us want things! Like election integrity.)

Be careful what you wish for. With opportunity for improvement comes at least an equal opportunity to make things worse.

We should recognize the great danger of another round of knee-jerk reactions and solutions. 911 was used to justify the hastily passed Patriot Act that had reforms that many in law enforcement had wanted for years – some of those may well be good things but others not so good. Same with HAVA which may also have been hijacked by vendor and partisan interests. The trick is some kind of balance between haste and reasonable, deliberate action as the end result.

As an IT Manager, I occasionally got a lot of attention to problems and solutions when there were crises that caused higher levels to ask “How can we prevent this from happening again, and recover faster”. Those were useful opportunities, but they can be misused.

Next Time It Could Be Worse

If it were a bit closer election we could be waiting for several states to finish counting, other states dependent on provisional ballots with information available on how critical those votes might be. We could have screams from a region, like the Northeast, about the disenfranchisement of an new natural disaster. Legitimate and illegitimate charges of fraud, miscounting, and suppression.

Imagine this election as a National Popular Vote Agreement election. Then lots more people would be worried about NJ, both pushing for more to vote by any means possible, charging officials with not complying, and others charging all sorts of irregularities. The Voter-ID and early voting changes would not be limited to the swing states. Today we would be facing arguments over fraud and suppression everywhere, some legitimate. Partisan state officials would be pressured not to accept results from other states based on such charges.

Some Possible National Solutions

Even the winner noticed the problems, referring to elections, in his acceptance speech, President Obama said “we need to fix that,”

The New York Times has a Room for Debate covering possible changes with eight opinions:  A Better Way to Vote <read>

Like most political debates this is not much of a debate, with single short statements,  little financial analysis, and high-level statements without much detail. Not blaming the authors or the Times, yet it is hardly a start. For now, let me provide some comments to extend the “debate”:

Richard Hasen makes the case for nationalizing our elections with nonpartisan administration like other successful democracies along with a national voter ID. I generally agree. Both centralized and decentralized elections can be done well or poorly. The equality, uniformity, and potential improvement are worth moving it that direction. I am skeptical of his suggesting a 75% confirmation is possible. For those, like CTVotersCount, that would like to see a national popular vote, but realize it as too risky under the current system, this would be a good first step in that direction.

R. Doug Lewis makes the case for local control. Actually he does not make the case. He references the Founders. Claims voters love their current systems – ask those in line in Florida, others with unverifiable votes, others purged, and many just barely escaping draconian ID requirements. There is a case that decentralized administration can protect a process, but it is not a single “the process” as Doug states. We could have a uniform process, with decentralized administration, with both centralized and decentralized oversight.

Cleta Mitchell asks to stop the name calling and work on improving the system now, while there is no election imminent. At a high level we agree with her suggestions to cleanup the voter rolls, protect the secret ballot, and enforce election laws. But her details and arguments coincide almost uniformly with the claims and biases of her party. She is correct when she says “Four years pass quickly. We should get busy”.

Larry Norden reviews many  of the self caused problems of real or de facto suppression in the recent election. His point is that our system should be “free, fair, and accessible”. He points to the critical problem of voter registration and on-gong problems with voting machines. One simple step he recommends is actually using and appointing directors to the Election Assistance Commission to produce election best practices. The EAC should be ractivated, yet we are skeptical how much it alone can accomplish.

Basil Smikle also argues for “national uniformity in voting and registration with technologies and systems w use in our everyday lives.” He supports online and same day registration, :ATM (touch screen) voting, compulsory voting, and national voter registration databases. Nobody has made a case or a touch screen that is convincingly safe and they are expensive and lead to long lines. Compulsory voting does not sound like a good idea. But maybe it is time to consider a national ID and database – he makes a good point that lots of information is available on each of us already.

Esther Fuchs makes the case for more information available to voters. Not just where to vote but information about candidates to help make voters aware of what and who they are voting for. She gives the example from New York of WhosOnTheBallot.org “users find polling place information, a sample ballot tailored to their district…For each candidate at every level of government,the site provides links to nonpartisan information and the candidate’s Web site and social media” Good idea, maybe the candidate information would be best left to multiple “nonpartisan” sources rather than the government.

Paul Gronke makes the case for uniformity in early voting and reform of the election calendar. We agree that early voting periods should be relatively short and close to uniform nationwide. He correctly identifies the higher risks of mail-in/absentee voting including a higher risk of fraud and disenfranchisement. We believe that early voting can be safe, fair, and convenient, if we are willing to pay for it.

Joseph Lorenzo Hall makes the case for paper based voting as safer, more reliable, and economical. When scanners fail the paper ballots are ready. For touch screens there should be paper backup, but that is seldom the case and such redundancy adds to costs. Touch screens are expensive and lead to long lines when machines fail or we have a very popular elections. He also argues for government support of systems using a multisteakholder design process – sounds good, yet we need to see the resulting system, multiple evaluations of it, and who is and is not at the table.

We add the words of presidential election law expert Edwin B. Foley quoting President Obama for the title “By the way, we have to fix that”<read>

Are we looking forward to the Good, the Bad, or the Ugly in election reform? At this point we cannot tell. The most likely scenario is more of the same, little change, or expensive half steps forward or back. Lets hope and work for better than that.

Soon we will continue the “debate” with our top suggestions nationwide and for Connecticut.

 

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