Did We Fix That? Evaluating Implementation of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration’s Recommendations in Ten Swing States
The stories flowing into Election Protection’s headquarters on Election Day 2012 were as familiar as they were unfortunate. There were tales of voters waiting in line for as long as seven hours, resources improperly distributed (with thousands of voting machines in storage), poorly trained poll workers, demands for particular forms of government photo identification that many voters lacked, and poll watchers interfering with voters. Some of the longest lines were in precincts in African-American and Latino neighborhoods, with major shortages of voting machines and trained poll workers.
When President Barack Obama took the stage late that night to claim victory, he acknowledged the problems suffered by so many voters across the country. “Whether you voted for the very first time or waited in line for a very long time – by the way, we have to fix that – … you made a difference,” he said.
A little more than two months later, in the first State of the Union message of his second term, the president announced plans for a nonpartisan commission “to improve the voting experience in America.” Desiline Victor, a 102-year-old woman from Florida who waited three hours to cast her ballot, looked on from the First Lady’s guest box in the House gallery.
The Presidential Commission on Election Administration (“the Commission”) was co-chaired by Robert Bauer and Benjamin Ginsberg, the top attorneys from President Obama’s re-election campaign and that of his opponent, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Members of the commission included a diverse set of leaders from around the country with election administration expertise and/or customer service-oriented business expertise. The commission’s charge was limited: to identify best practices in election administration and make recommendations to improve the voting experience. This would include examining methods to lower obstacles to voting for, among others, military and overseas voters, voters with disabilities, and those with limited English proficiency. The commission was not designed to propose any new federal or state legislation.
In a six-month stretch, the commission conducted four public hearings in different cities and states, taking testimony from the general public, experts, and academics. Commissioners also attended meetings of community interest groups, and spoke with academics, election administrators, and others at public forums hosted by think tanks and advocacy organizations.
The commission’s report, delivered in January 2014, concluded that election administration problems vary from state-to-state and locality-to-locality and that some groups of citizens are more affected than others. The commission made a series of broad-based recommendations to better the experience for American voters. Noting the particular challenges inherent in a system of 8,000 local jurisdictions that administer elections, the commission targeted its recommendations “at common problems shared by all or most jurisdictions. For the most part, they are of a size that should fit all.”
The commission’s recommendations are comprehensive, but not exhaustive. There are numerous reforms supported by the voting rights community that the commission left unaddressed because they were outside of the Commission’s limited purview. For example, the commission did not discuss partisan efforts to force voters to show the restrictive types of government-issued photo IDs at the polls that many underrepresented populations lack. Particularly, after the Supreme Court struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, careful vigilance and proactive reform is required to protect our democracy from racial discrimination at the ballot box. Many states have since imposed harsh restrictions and/or cut back on progressive reforms that specifically affect low-income voters–often people of color, students, and seniors. Much needs to be done across the country to correct these wrongs.
Still, adoption of the commission’s recommendations will greatly improve the voting experience for millions of Americans. The recommendations are written with election administrators in mind. Many of these suggestions do not require large budgets to implement.
This report examines the commission’s core recommendations, reminds election administrators of their importance, and evaluates their implementation (to the extent possible) in states where the 2014 elections are expected to be close, and so might produce a large turnout.
Our findings are mixed, at best. Some states have adopted policies that address the commission’s recommendations. Others have a long way to go.
None of the covered states has fully adopted all of the commission’s recommendations; there is significant room for improvement. However, not a single state has entirely ignored all of the recommendations, either. Of all of the states examined in this report, Colorado’s election administration practices include the highest number of commission recommendations.
- States across the country–included in this report and beyond–are failing to give voters as many options as possible when it comes to voting before Election Day. This could suppress turnout and lead to long lines for those that vote;
- States that are not covered by Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act are failing to adopt the commission’s recommendation to provide sufficient bilingual support for limited English-proficient populations. This means that our democracy is not as inclusive and participatory as its promise;
- A majority of states have adopted electronic systems to seamlessly integrate voter data acquired through Departments of Motor Vehicles with statewide voter registration lists; although not specifically recommended by the commission, we urge states to replicate this success by ensuring seamless integration of data acquired through all voter registration agencies, including public assistance agencies and healthcare exchanges;
- When it comes to poll-worker training, most states take a jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction approach; this lack of uniformity could easily cause confusion for workers and voters alike, thereby keeping lines long;
- Six states conduct post-election audits as the commission recommends; however none of these states has fully auditable elections because at least some of the voting systems do not produce a voter-verifiable paper record.
We hope this report will lift up the important work of the president’s nonpartisan election commission and its common-sense recommendations. In conducting outreach to state election administrators when preparing this report, we were pleased to see some states quickly implementing recommendations that we brought to their attention. For example, some states immediately made improvements to webpages with information pertaining to military and overseas voters and improved website language concerning bilingual poll-worker outreach.
With these recommendations in place, the American voter in 2014 will be in a better place than 2012.