by Shanna Reulbach, Special Contributor
The William & Mary Election Law Society hosted a symposium searching for solutions to the delays that occurred on Election Day 2012—those that President Obama directed national attention to during his acceptance speech that night. The symposium began with small-group sessions that brought scholars, elections officials, and students together to discuss the issues. I was part of the group focusing on election flexibility options, and had the honor of talking with Dr. John Fortier of the Bipartisan Policy Center and two outstanding Virginia general registrars, Barbra Gunter and Donna Patterson.
The group focused first on two of the “hottest” ideas for voter flexibility: early voting and absentee voting. Currently, Virginia offers mail-in absentee ballots to voters who are able to select one of a number of excuses for not being present in their precinct on Election Day. Virginia’s system of in-person absentee voting, which other states may call early voting, also requires an excuse. Ms. Gunter and Ms. Patterson related that Virginia voters passing through their offices express support of having more options for early voting through either method. The registrars agreed that more options for early voting would reduce delays on Election Day because people would likely take advantage of those options, meaning less people coming to the polls on that Tuesday in November.
However, there would be problems with immediately implementing these changes in Virginia. No-excuse early voting, for example, would run up against resource shortages. Some Virginia registrar offices are no bigger than a walk-in closet, and those offices are where in-person absentee voting occurs. Due to the space issue, officials are not able to put out many voting machines, which already can cause delays on the days leading up to the election. Allowing more people to vote early on the same number of machines would exacerbate that problem. The group concurred that simply shifting lines from Election Day to the days before the election was not a good solution. To that end, Ms. Gunter and Ms. Patterson suggested that lengthening the hours of in-person absentee voting could be a viable response. This would let people who work access the polls during the in-person absentee period without opening the offices up to all registered voters. They also suggested making the absentee ballot application form, which voters have to fill out in order to vote in-person absentee, shorter and easier to understand to cut down on existing delays. This would make in-person absentee voting more efficient and allow more people to exercise their option to vote before Election Day.
Similarly, allowing no-excuse mail-in absentee voting would be quite challenging with current levels of funding. Registrar offices do not have enough employees to respond to all the ballot requests that could come in if anyone were allowed to vote by mail. However, the registrars again had a practical alternative that could be implemented now: no-excuse mail-in ballots for people sixty-five and older. In Virginia, people sixty-five and older have the option to come to the polls and do curbside voting. This requires poll workers to bring a voting machine to the voter’s car, taking workers and the machine away from the rest of the voters. It takes about 20-25 minutes to allow one voter to vote at the curb, so this practice is time consuming and can lead to delays for those waiting in line. All agree that curbside voting is a great innovation and allows people who are not easily mobile to participate in the Election Day experience if they choose; but officials believe that some of these people also come to the polls because they do not think they have an excuse to vote by mail and would prefer to do that. Allowing all people sixty-five and older to vote by mail could please some people in that population and minimize delays caused by curbside voting.
The final category of election flexibility reforms the group discussed was modernized voter registration procedures. The registrars told us that the more accurate the voter list is prior to Election Day, the more smoothly the precincts will run. One of the best ways to ensure list accuracy to is to make updating information easier for voters. For this, the group suggested online forms submission. Ms. Patterson and Ms. Gunter also pointed out that a website could be used to register voters for the first time, and that the form could be calibrated so that it could not be submitted unless all the required information was included. They supported this idea because sometimes people send in incomplete forms right before the deadline, leaving registrars with no time to request the missing information and no choice but to deny registration.
Lastly, the group thought more accurate voter rolls could be achieved by regulating third-party voter registration groups. There have been incidences in Virginia in which voter registration groups accidentally gave out wrong information, and as a result people did not fill out the registration form correctly. These groups may not turn in the forms with enough time before the deadline for registrars to correct the problems, either. Therefore, the registrars recommended requiring training and timely transfer of the registration materials to the appropriate official. This would help eliminate the number of people coming to the polls on Election Day thinking they are registered because they turned in an application to a group, only to find out after a delay that there was an error with their form and they cannot vote.
This two-hour session was very fruitful and produced these concrete measures for improving election administration in Virginia. The collaboration between officials and scholars brought different perspectives to the table, and all of the people involved in the discussion learned from one another. I walked away not only feeling that Election Day improvements are within reach, but also that hearing from those on the ground is a crucial part of coming to the right solutions.
Shanna Reulbach was a workshop scribe at the Seventh Annual Election Law Symposium.