The Road to Change: The Federal Perspective
Elections Administration is at an interesting moment in time. Some of you already know that President Obama comes to the White House with a keen understanding of on-the-ground elections issues. In 1992, Barack Obama was a key player behind Project Vote's non-partisan voter registration effort in Illinois. Years later, as a member of the U.S. Senate, he co-sponsored anti-caging legislation along with his now-chief-of-staff, Rahm Emanuel. In addition to issues that have been pending for several years, the White House may have its own election law priorities. Though given the current economic crisis, these concerns may be on the back burner.
As we look into the future of the election process in America, let us consider some possible headlines from the future:
The New York Times, July 18, 2020, "FEDS ANNOUNCE ELECTIONS TAKEOVER"
Today the FEC Chairwoman announced a takeover of all elections after the last voting machine vendor filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection due to liability over election lawsuits. The result of the Presidential primaries in three states are still in dispute, and because of the lack of paper trails, it is unclear how recounts will be conducted. Several candidates have called for new elections, but it is unclear who would underwrite the cost - the individual states or local counties. Clerks in several large counties are threatening to join the ranks of those who have quit in protest over the last two years.
Sound troubling? Here's another possible headline from the same day:
The Los Angeles Times, July 18, 2020, "JUSTICE DEPARTMENT REPORTS QUIET ELECTION DAY"
While some counting went into the wee hours this morning, yesterday's primaries from coast-to-coast appear to be the smoothest in history in the wake of more federal financial assistance and regulatory controls over private vendors. Grants from the Election Reform Act of 2011, sponsored by forward-thinking Senators meant that few jurisdictions reported long lines and voting rights groups appear pleased with the new standardized provisional balloting rules. The Justice Department and private watchdogs report a drop in complaints due to widespread availability of Early Voting and voting centers (as well as new restrictions on political donations). Observers also praised the new source code registry and said the increased training for elected officials was evident.
Well, two headlines, two possible futures. One thing we know is, the debate is certain to change.
I just have a few comments on legislation. Others may know more, but here are my two cents. There will be lots of talk - even some hearings - but I don't expect a great deal to happen.
One piece of legislation that may see action late this year is a Military and Overseas Voting Act. When 1 in 5 military/overseas voters never got their ballot for the Presidential Election, according to the Overseas Voting Foundation, there is certainly room for improvement. There's bipartisan agreement that something should be done to speed up the process of sending ballots back and forth. Proposals include requiring express shipping and tracking of ballots - which could cost $500,000 or more in jurisdictions my size - or making the entire process electronic. This isn't really a problem in some parts of Illinois, where we already fax or email blank ballots at the front end and allow 14 days post-election for ballots to arrive. But there should be uniformity across the states and a wider implementation of modern technology to help those overseas voters. I do believe the Senate and House want to see some action on this.
The Holt Bill. This proposal would essentially ban electronic voting equipment, regardless of whether it is equipped with a paper trail and with no guaranteed financial backing to purchase new machines. Transmission from the polls would be obsolete, along with the quick returns our media driven society has come to expect. And it would overhaul perfectly good audit systems in place in Illinois and elsewhere. I don't believe there will be any action on this until 2011 and I don't think it will become law. The Senate Rules Committee will jealously guard its authority over election issues and several of its members are not on board for Holt's legislation. That's especially true of those who worked so hard on HAVA to guarantee the disabled have a clear mechanism to vote independently.
Early Voting has proven extremely popular in Illinois and some 30 other states. Nearly a quarter of all voters in my jurisdiction cast ballots for the Presidential Election during Early Voting. While there's nothing pending federally, it may come up in the next year or so.
Also, there's plenty of talk about Universal Voter Registration if there isn't a proposal. It's known by a variety of names: Universal, Government-Initiated, and Automatic. The point is, it's a push to improve upon a system that's fast becoming archaic. Should our reliance on paper voter registration cards - and the millions it costs to input that information - be abolished? As the Brennan Center said in a recent report: "Voter Registration is a bureaucratic obstacle to voting ... prone to error, which can lead to disenfranchisement." 21st century information systems are composed of enormous citizen databases drawn from the social security system, driver's licenses, naturalization rolls, utility bills and passports. In countries where data-sharing between government agencies contributes to compiling voter rolls -Canada, Australia, France - registration is significantly higher. In Canada, 93 percent of voters are registered, according to the Brennan Center, compared with just 68 percent here in America. We can and should do better. Think of the reduction in provisional balloting, in money and time.