Recently, I attended a conference of the National Association of Secretaries of State. My main interest was in voting processes because Pitney Bowes has a secure, reliable voting-by-mail solution called Relia-Vote™, and because we are conducting a pilot test with the U.S. Postal Service® and the states of Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana to insert voter registration kits into the Move Update and Welcome Kits we prepare for the U.S. Postal Service®.
Several things struck me as I reflected on the conference:
- After the Florida debacle in 2000, and the issues associated with the exceptionally tight Washington state gubernatorial race in 2004 that resulted in the election of Governor Christine Gregoire by about 100 votes out of 3 million cast, election officials and the federal government are more focused than ever on getting the election process right. They want accuracy, security, reliability, and, above all, they want every vote to count in the manner intended by the voter.
- Given the substantial increase in participation in voting as a result of the hotly-contested Democratic and Republican presidential primaries, they have a high degree of interest in securing long-term increases in voter participation. We will have a much healthier democracy if everyone participates not only in voting, but in other ways that result in greater civic engagement.
- There is more interest than ever in continuously upgrading election technology and process. Historically, elections officials would acquire technology and keep it for decades, with little or no improvement. I even heard of communities that had voting machines with levers that were still in operation in the last election that had been in use since 1898. Today, no election official who seriously wants to serve his or her citizens can afford to fall behind that badly. Federal funding through the Help America Vote Act, and supplementary state funding, as well as non-profit voter registration initiatives, and for-profit innovation are all designed to improve voter registration and voting processes continuously. This Law Librarian Blog post cites the first study on voting technology innovations prompted by the Help America Vote Act. Studies such as these should help speed up the adoption and usage of improved voting technology.
- Despite the excitement in the presidential campaign and the obviously greater participation we would expect to see in a 2008 presidential election year, elections officials still want to figure out how to increase voter participation in state and local elections, particularly when there is a referendum, as opposed to candidates, on the ballot. Even though young people have been energized to participate in the federal part of elections, they have yet to evidence a significant interest in elections that actually affect their lives in more profound ways, the state and local elections. This Rock the Vote blog reviews some myths and facts about the impact of the youth vote.
- Related to the participation issue with respect to state and local elections is the “undervote” issue, that is, the tendency of many voters who complete their ballot relative to federal election candidates, but fail to vote on state and local issues. We need to understand why undervoting occurs and to figure out a way to address it.
- Beyond participation, the next frontier is how to upgrade people’s knowledge about candidates and issues relative to more obscure elections. Many tools exist to educate voters relative to presidential and congressional candidates. State and local elections are still lagging behind, although the use of cable TV channels like C-Span and the analogous channels for state and local government have the potential to bring voters up to speed on issues closer to home. We also need to develop web and paper-based tools to help voters. This Freedom to Tinker blog post reviews how the Libertarian Party of Arizona has gone so far as to execute online voting for its primary election.
- I am particularly impressed with the League of Women Voters site Vote411.org as an informational and educational tool. It answers many basic questions for voters, such as polling place identification, who is on the ballot, and where candidates stand on issues. It is a wonderful tool, and more people should use it.
As a citizen, I came away from the meetings feeling very good about the dedication of our election officials, but also appreciating the complexity of their jobs and the thanklessness with which they perform those jobs. Election processes are like light-switches. No one marvels at the technology that enables them to work when they are functioning normally, but a huge amount of criticism gets directed at them when they fail to work. We need to appreciate what we have in America and continue to make it better.