Why is the U.S. voting infrastructure so fractured?

I see you have questions about how elections work in the United States. Up until now, you probably haven’t thought much about how elections work and why someone’s experience in Massachusetts could be so different from yours in Alabama, or Florida, or Georgia, or Arkansas, or Montana, or Michigan, or Nevada, or California.

You want to know why we’re not all doing the same things the same way. You want to know why there is no federal standard for ballot design or a national  voting system. You want to fix things.

Welcome. I’m glad you’re here. Let’s lift the curtain a bit on how U.S. elections get done. That should help you be involved in the right way at the right time to make elections better.

From place to place, elections are the same but different

From the 40,000-foot level, elections look roughly the same from state to state. This might lead you to think that because we end up with one result that the way elections are administered is pretty much the same across the country. But it’s not. If you move from Washington State to New York State, your experience and the process for registering, getting access to a ballot, and actually marking the ballot will be different, from one to the other.

Let’s start with registering to vote. In most states, you have to fill out a form with your personal information to register to vote. But if you live in Minnesota and Wisconsin, for example, you have same-day voter registration, where you can register and vote on Election Day. In Oregon, you have automatic voter registration — that is, if  the state can tell by information it already has about you that you are age 18 or older, have established residency, and are a U.S. citizen, you’re automatically registered without having to do anything. If you live in North Dakota, you never had to register at all. In 1951, North Dakota decided to abolish voter registration and instead rely on neighbors to know who should and shouldn’t be voting.

Next, there’s voter ID. As of the presidential election in November 2016, 31 states required voters to show ID when they voted at a polling place. Sometimes, that’s a strict requirement – meaning you need a photo ID like a driver’s license; sometimes, it’s a little looser, requiring a voter card or even just a utility bill. But in 19 states and the District of Columbia, voters simply approach the registration table and declare their name and address to show they’ve registered, and then get a ballot.

What if you can’t get to the polling place on Election Day?Big variation here, too.  For example, if you are registered to vote in Virginia but you can’t make it to the polls on Election Day, you must meet at least one of the 19 excuses that are codified in statute, and include evidence along with your application for an absentee ballot. (Yup! 19! Not 18! Not 20! 19 officially legislated excuses!)

In California, you can opt in to being a permanent vote-by-mail voter, and your ballot just gets sent to you automatically for every election. Any registered voter can do it. About 50% of voters in California vote by mail.

Where do poll workers come from? They are paid volunteers, but rules vary here, too. In many states, poll worker teams must be balanced in each precinct by party. This usually means the team must have an equal number of Republicans and Democrats. Other parties don’t count in the balancing.

Contrast these practices with how it works in Texas and Illinois.  There, political parties are in charge of finding and selecting poll workers.

But in Pennsylvania, lead poll workers are elected. They are responsible for finding others to staff their precincts (usually with the help of the elections office).

In many other states, poll workers simply volunteer, regardless of political party affiliation.

Finally, we get to the voting systems. Pennsylvania has a couple dozen different voting systems certified for use in elections. California has 6 that were certified in 2008, and 4 that were certified in 2005. (LA County is currently designing their own. We’re excited about it, especially since people on my team at the Center for Civic Design did some of the underlying research for it.) There are 254 counties in Texas, and 5 or 6 different voting systems certified for use in elections there.

Because we are a federation of states

How did this happen? Because history. Because revolution.  Because the founders didn’t want a central government entity telling the states what to do. Because the United States Constitution.

Though the founders probably did not envision the wide range of election rules and systems we have today, they were intentional about leaving control of elections to the states.

Article 1, Section 4 of the Constitution says that states can govern the time, place and manner of elections for senators and representatives. That makes sense. But the federal government reserves the right to control federal elections.  Article 2, among other things, establishes how the president gets elected. There’s nothing else about elections until we get to the 12th Amendment, which refines the Electoral College.

But in the meantime, we have the 10th Amendment, which basically says, Anything we haven’t covered here is up to the states.

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

This has far-reaching implications for how business gets done in the U.S., but for our purposes, let’s talk about how this affects elections.

As there was nothing else in the Constitution that defined how elections should be conducted, each state created its own system of voting and elections. Though states generally set the rules on voting systems, counties and towns actually run elections. This means that a combination of states, counties, and towns make decisions about what voting systems they’re going to use. So each jurisdiction — somewhere between 3,000 and 8,000, depending on how you count them — has different rules about what voting systems need to do, how they should behave, how they’re secured, and how to check that they’re doing what they should be doing and nothing else.

Because there are other, local constraints

One of the effects of all this local control is that election administration is like the rest of government: full of constraints. Election officials — usually the county or town clerk, recorder, or assessor who is sometimes appointed and sometimes elected — somehow manage to pull off legal, fair elections mostly on their own  even with all the constraints.

For example, every place has its own history and local culture. There’s legislation — every state has laws that determine how voting systems can be procured and how ballots must be designed.

And, of course, we can’t talk about government without talking about money. States and counties have ever-tightening budgets, and elections compete with basic services like roads, local courts, and other services. Elections are also expensive to run because they are massive undertakings conducted in a short time that each require a small army of poll workers, spaces to be polling places, and printing or programming of ballots.

One of the biggest problems is that they have to do all this with little (or no) modern technology. The technology is generally lacking, if not outright terrible. And there’s just no money to fix it or replace it.

What can you do?

Election officials are amazingly resourceful and admirably dogged in their determination to conduct the best possible elections. Every election official who I have ever met is a government version of MacGyver. But they can use some help.

Now that you have a glimpse behind the curtain of elections, here are some thoughts about how you can learn about elections, about civics, and be of great use:

  • Sign up as a poll worker and help run an election in your town. There are more elections than you  may realize, so there are plenty of opportunities.
  • Call up your local election office and ask how you can help. They need translators, proofreaders, and even volunteers to help answer the backlog of emails after an Election Day.
  • Join the League of Women Voters (yes, everyone is welcome), who work to protect voters, to engage and educate voters, and to reform campaign finance.
  • Help work to get out the vote by helping with voter registration drives or giving people rides to the polls on Election Day.
  • Work with open source voting system projects  to help them test and improve their products.
  • Show up at public hearings.
  • Call your elected officials about things you care about.
  • Get yourself on a county or state commission or advisory committee.
  • Run for office.

So why are we talking about this now? Because you have questions about how we got to the result of the presidential election, and you want to know whether there is some human or technology or security factor that is broken. It’s not broken. It was designed that way on purpose. The variety is a feature, not a bug.

But the way elections work is complex, too. Your local government can use all the help it can get it to make it easier for eligible voters to vote the way they intend — and to have their votes counted as cast.

Welcome. I’m glad you’re on the team.

 

Originally published on Medium.com/civicdesigning

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