State of Elections

William & Mary Law School | Election Law Society

Are Election Day Precincts an Anachronism?

By Jim Ogorzalek

William & Mary’s recent Election Law Symposium played host to several of the leading luminaries in election administration, focusing upon issues of election delays, including but not limited to long lines.  On more than one occasion, participants discussed Election Day vote centers—large voting “big boxes” of sorts at which voters from multiple different precincts may vote—as a potential instrument to combat Election Day delays (see here for a brief discussion of voting at non-precinct polling places).  The subject was particularly appropriate for the panel assembled at W&M, as it included Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler, a lightning rod for controversy in election administration, whose state has had valuable experience with Election Day vote centers.

A recent study by political scientists Robert Stein of Rice University and Greg Vonnahme of the University of Alabama has shown that use of such vote centers can increase voter turnout. Some at the conference expressed concerns about vote centers.   Panelists referred to the logistical difficulties of operating voting centers—notably that the centers must have the capacity to provide several different ballots for different precincts, including situations in which different ballots require different paper sizes (a problem rendered moot where sophisticated voting machines are used, as they can easily be programmed to contain multiple electronic ballots).

Voting centers supplement or even operate in place of the local precinct.  Implicit in the conception of the voting center, then, is the sentiment that use of the traditional precinct is not a necessary ingredient for successful election administration.  Is the precinct an anachronism in Twenty-first Century election administration?

Perhaps the chief virtue of the precinct model is that it allows local citizens to verify the identity of potential electors.  Neighbors could vouch for each other as residents of the locale who ought to be voting at that particular precinct.  Precincts were also a reasonable means to organize Election Day activities in a world in which voters lived, worked, and socialized within a small geographic radius; voters could be expected to go to a convenient location near to their home.  Finally, to the extent to which Election Day is a social exercise in which communities gather together, the local precinct served an important function in providing a physical space for neighbors to gather and exercise their franchise.

In contemporary society, does the local precinct model of election administrations serve these values?  Or, more precisely, does it serve these values more so than would another model (perhaps one that embraces Election Day vote centers)?  With sophisticated identification cards, election administrators now have the ability to instantly verify a voter’s identity.  The advent of the automobile and expansion of suburban America guaranteed that many—if not most—voters no longer live and work and socialize in the geographic area where their precinct might be located.  And the rapid growth of social media has shifted the locus of community participation from the physical space to the world wide web.  The modern community—and the place where voters are increasingly putting their “I voted” stickers—is now Facebook and Twitter.

The precinct model decentralizes the election administration process.  Decentralization is not a virtue in and of itself.  It may serve other virtues, such as accuracy and efficiency in the voting process.  But the changing nature of modern society calls into question the efficacy of precincts in serving those virtues.  When concentrating the election administration processes into more flexible centers (additionally, dare states experiment with internet voting or voter registration reforms that capture the myriad technological advances since the current systems were broadly constructed?) may serve our values most, ought we desist from digging in our heels in defense of the precinct model?  Politicians and election administrators might reflect upon whether we are operating on a fundamentally outdated method of election administration and whether election administration reforms might best be served not by simply buying newer and more expensive voting machines and poll books but by revolutionizing the basic contours of Election Day administration.


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  1. Re Internet voting, computer experts warn that even pilots in live elections are not ready for prime time:

    In 2010, D.C. election officials planned an Internet voting pilot did an impressive thing: they invited white hat hackers to do their worst to the system. The result:

    “Within 36 hours of the [pilot] system going live, our team had found and exploited a vulnerability that gave us almost total control of the server software, including the ability to change votes and reveal voters’ secret ballot.”

  2. Turnout is not, in and of itself, a high priority election system objective.

    To evaluate an election system:

    (1) Identify and define election system attributes including — transparency, independent verifiability, cost, convenience, security, accuracy, etc.

    (2) Prioritize each attribute.

    (3) Measure the performance of the election system against each attribute.

    Serious scientists are making final determinations without first setting the criteria. Not a good planl.

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