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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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A look at election websites state by state

by Jim Ogorzalek

The Internet has increasingly become the main source of information for many Americans. Indeed, many errands we once accomplishedwith a car or a postage stamp are now done simply with a few clicks of the mouse. As Americans have grown more dependent upon sites such as Amazon and Netflix, it stands to reason that they are also increasingly more likely to seek out information regarding their civic duties using the Internet.

Because of this ever-growing dependence upon the Web, it is more important than ever that government institutions engage voters online. While analysts, politicians, and many others have been busy discussing online voting for years, few have taken stock of where state governments are right now when it comes to communicating with voters online. If Internet voting ever does become commonplace in the American electoral landscape, it is only logical that it would come after other necessary steps in the voting process like Internet registration and Internet absentee applications. Before any of those technological advances in the voting process, it makes sense that a state must first determine how to properly communicate information online and create logical ways to access the functionality the state already enlists. In the spirit of calls for what Heather Gerken has termed a “Democracy Index” of how well states run elections, this post attempts to survey states’ online voter information sites to assess where things stand. Continue reading

Sending out an SOS: The National Association of Secretaries of State Summer Conference

The National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) held its annual summer conference in Daniels, WV from July 10-13 this past summer. Much of the conference was geared toward preparation for the 2012 Election cycle. A number of prominent speakers, including a number of state secretaries of state, “federal officials, private sector representatives, voter advocacy organizations and leading academics” voiced their views.

Sec. Kris Kobach, the controversial Secretary of State of Kansas who has become a lightning rod of criticism and praise over the past summer for his efforts in leading the charge against alleged voter fraud (see a 2009 Times profile about then-candidate Kobach here), discussed his state’s Secure and Fair Elections Act as part of his presentation on citizenship requirements for voter registration. He noted that his state’s law was drafted to “withstand judicial scrutiny” taking into account challenges to a similar law passed in Arizona (which Kobach also had a hand in drafting). Secretary Kobach defended laws like this, saying “we all want security in the knowledge that an election was fair… [a]nd that the winner of the election was the person who really won the race”.

Host Secretary Nathalie Tennant also spoke about elections, focusing on the use of technology in communicating with voters. She stressed the importance of using social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, and Skype to make sure voters know valuable information about upcoming elections. The use of such media might help to increase voter participation, she reasoned, as they are the “type of tools people are using to communicate.” Tennant’s office  recently launched a campaign to educate and inform voters of West Virginia’s upcoming special election for Governor and the necessary steps to register and vote. The media campaign coincides with the beginning of the NCAA football season and compares the two activities (voting and football, that is), calling both “American traditions.” Continue reading

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