Modernizing the Mechanics of American Democracy

The mechanics of American democracy are due for a modernization. Finding out how to vote, when to vote, and where to vote is too often a test of jumping through bureaucratic hoops. On Election Day, long lines, registration obstacles and machine failures further plague the American voting experience.

The Presidential Commission on Election Administration, which convened its first public meeting this past Friday and has a second scheduled for June 28, would do well to recall that in the United States there are no one-size-fits-all solutions to elections administration.

The commission is one of two big federal initiatives seeking to make the American voting experience meet the expectations of 21st century citizens. “Established to identify best practices and make recommendations to the President on the efficient administration of elections,” the commission is exploring poll site management, poll worker training, voting machine technology, voting accessibility and voter education, among a slew of other issues. The Voter Empowerment Act, the second big federal initiative, aims to require that all states offer online voter registration.

These are interesting initiatives. But for all the talk about what may (or may not) come out of Washington, the reality is that elections administration in the United States is an entirely local affair.

Each of the more than 10,000 US election jurisdictions has its own unique systems that define the voting experience locally. While administrators must comply with federal guidelines, elections are ultimately organized, implemented, and assessed according to local regulations. They are locally funded and deeply reflective of local political history. Even during Friday’s briefing, the Commission’s research director noted that while its directive is national in scope, elections administration is famously determined at the local level.

To identify “best practices” and make recommendations on the “efficient administration of elections,” context matters. Earlier this spring, my organization conducted a six-city research investigation into a diverse subset of election offices around the country. Our aim was to understand the human motivations, technological systems and institutional landscapes that define elections administration at the most local levels.

Our research team found that irrespective of what happens in Washington, many election administrators are already troubleshooting their way to providing their residents a better voting experience.

Take Wendy Noren, for example, who is the Boone County Clerk in Columbia, Missouri. Wendy has worked on local elections administration in the clerk’s office since 1978 and remembers the 1980 presidential election well. “We got slammed,” she recalls. “There were thousands of people waiting in line to register to vote. We never recovered from processing all those registrations.”

In the wake of the 1980 election, Wendy taught herself the programming language COBOL to build the tools she knew she needed to improve the Boone County voting experience. To alleviate long lines during the last election cycle, Wendy custom coded a system that redirects voters quickly by sending real-time updates to digital poll books, soon to be stored on a network of iPads across the county’s poll sites.

Other examples abound. In Travis County, Texas, home to the tech savvy city of Austin, voters will soon be able to use a new online tool to select polling locations based on the number of people waiting in line. In Martin County, Florida, a jurisdiction more commonly associated with its “snowbird” retiree population, the Supervisor of Elections has launched a “Pledge to Vote” drive to engage pre-registered teens in the political process. In Jefferson County, Kentucky administrators have custom coded a two-in-one system that allows them to input voter information once and have it automatically uploaded to both the state and local databases.

Granted, not every election office has the tech talent of Austin or the resolve of Wendy Noren. And even these bright spots on the elections administration map are constrained by regulatory friction, budget reductions and political influence, all of which conspire to make improvements difficult and slow.

But there are more successful examples of vision and entrepreneurship than headlines about system failures like 8-hour lines to vote in Miami-Dade or the redeployment of voting technology from the 1890s in New York City would suggest. These ideas have also typically been tested and refined over multiple election cycles. The challenge is that election administration innovations often occur in isolation, preventing good ideas from spreading.

The Presidential Commission can help surface, popularize and remix these ideas to encourage greater uptake across the country. But ultimately, the federal government is far from the sole provenance of elections administration reform. Organizations like Code for America, New Organizing Institute and TurboVote have demonstrated the positive impact a small group of technologists can have working hand-in-hand with local government. Rallying the creative talents of the country to bolster the capabilities of existing innovators like Wendy Noren can make tangible and immediate improvements.

Voting should not be a burden. The future of American elections administration should not be plagued by more long lines and high barriers to participation. Rather, voting should fit the way we live. By focusing energy at the most local levels, helping good ideas grow and spread, reformers can build a future for the American voting experience that is seamless, accessible and completely in sync with the expectations of 21st century citizens.

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This post was originally published in Politico.

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