I. In Focus This Week
Baby, not bathwater – Don’t toss the EAC’s Election Day Survey
The future of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) is very much in doubt.
After suffering budget cuts in a recent continuing resolution, the EAC now faces skepticism about its very existence (as my colleague Andreas Westgaard noted last week) from the new U.S. House Elections Subcommittee Chairman, Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.)
Harper has already introduced H.R.672, a bill which would terminate the EAC 60 days after enactment and transfer some of its functions to other agencies. Under the Harper bill, voting machine testing and certification would move from the EAC to the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
Similarly, the EAC’s mandated reports under the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) and the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) would revert to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), as would responsibility for pilot studies of voting technology for military and overseas voters.
While its prospects for enactment are uncertain given the current divided partisan control on Capitol Hill, the Harper bill presents a welcome opportunity for Congress and the larger election community to reassess the costs and benefits of the election administration infrastructure that was enacted as part of the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA).
In making that assessment, there will be lots of attention on EAC programs that aren’t working well – or at all – and can thus be transferred or jettisoned entirely. Yet it will also be crucial to identify those programs which are working and thus should be retained and even strengthened.
In other words, when it comes to the EAC we need to decide what is bathwater – and what is baby.
One “baby” that must not be overlooked is the Election Administration and Voting Survey (EAVS), or “Election Day Survey” – a biennial collection of state and local election administration data and information, mandated by section 241 of HAVA and conducted by the EAC since 2004.
Like many of the EAC’s programs - indeed, like any baby - the Election Day Survey has had its growing pains. First of all, while the EAC is required to conduct the entire Survey, state and local election offices are only required to respond to the NVRA/UOCAVA sections. Second, the decentralized nature of American election administration has created considerable variation in the quality of the data submitted. Third, state and local officials have complained that the EAC has released survey questions too late for them to have the proper data collection procedures in place. Finally, the process of collecting and cleaning the data can delay public release of the results enough to hinder their use by anyone as a policymaking or evaluation tool.
Yet over time, as the EAC and election officials alike have become more familiar with the Survey, its timeliness, response rates and data quality have improved dramatically. This creates new and exciting opportunities to use the data to evaluate the performance of American elections. Indeed, the primary beneficiary of this explosion of quality data is not the federal government (given the EAC’s nearly non-existent regulatory authority) but rather the larger community of state and local election officials who – now more than ever – are able to use the data to benchmark and assess themselves against their peers across the nation.
Full disclosure: my colleagues and I at Pew are knee-deep in this process as we work to create a way to use election administration data – much of it drawn directly from the Survey – that would allow states and localities to gauge the accuracy, security, convenience (and even cost) of their election systems in an effort to serve citizens not just as voters but also as taxpayers.
Quite simply, the Election Day Survey is the only source of regular (and increasingly reliable) information about election administration nationwide. Whatever the decision about the EAC’s future, it would be a huge step backward for the election community to lose the Survey just as it is finally hitting its stride.
The Great Recession and its accompanying “new normal” have triggered many difficult but necessary conversations about the size, scope and cost of government. Current discussions about the EAC demonstrate that no agency is exempt from the need to justify the investment of scarce taxpayer funds. Yet in all of these debates we need to be sure that we are not blindly eliminating programs whose value exceeds their cost.
There may indeed be, as Chairman Harper suspects, lots of bathwater at the EAC. But the Election Day Survey is a valuable baby (with a bright future) that should not be thrown out.
II. Election News This Week
- Elections officials in West Virginia are working on a new maintenance contract for the state’s voting machines, but not everyone is happy with the process. According to The Charleston Gazette, in 2005, under the direction of Secretary of State Betty Ireland, election officials entered a single-source contract with Omaha, Neb.-based Election Systems & Software to provide touch-screen and optical-scan voting machines. The deal gave ES&S a virtual monopoly on voting systems in West Virginia. The deal also gave ES&S exclusive maintenance contracts to take care of the voting machines. The maintenance contract is set to expire in September. Under the proposed contract, maintenance will cost Kanawha County (one of the largest) $60-$70,000 per year. "It's preposterous," Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper, who has been critical of giving ES&S exclusive rights to West Virginia's election machines since the company first won the contract told the paper. Carper said the company's monopoly on voting machines allows ES&S to charge whatever they want to service their machines. "I've jumped up and down and sideways about this all along," Carper said. "What if the company goes out of business? What will [the state] do then?"
- In a case that has drawn strong criticism from Republican conservatives, the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) has found no evidence that politics played a role when department attorneys dismissed three defendants from a voting rights lawsuit against the New Black Panther Party. "We found no evidence to support allegations — which were raised during the course of our investigation — that the decision-makers, either in bringing or dismissing the claims, were influenced by the race of the defendants," said a letter from OPR addressed to chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Lamar Smith (R-Texas). The lawsuit stemmed from complaints that New Black Panther Party leaders intimidated white voters at a Philadelphia polling place on Election Day in 2008.
- In other Department of Justice news, this week several jurisdictions continued their pursuit to opt-out of the Voting Rights Act. Bedford County, Va. received approval this week to opt out of the 1965 legislation. The county’s attorney had argued that pre-clearance requirements were too costly and time-consuming. Also in Virginia, debate continued over whether or not Fredericksburg should be allowed to opt-out of the law. Proponents have argued that opting out will save the city $1500 per year in administrative costs where as opponents have pointed out that it will cost the city at least $3500 in legal fees just to pursue the option. Across the country in California, Merced County officials are seeking to opt-out of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act claiming that the county’s inclusion makes it appear racist.
- Voter ID Update: It was an up and down week for voter ID this week. After being approved by the House last week, voter ID was expected to come before the full Senate this week in Alabama. A Senate committee in Arkansas voted down legislation that would have required a photo ID at the polls after poll workers spoke out in opposition to the legislation. Auditors in Iowa continue to speak out about legislation that would require a photo ID at the polls. In Kansas, the much-debated voter photo ID bill introduced by Secretary of State Kris Kobach was approved by the Senate and is now on the way to the governor’s desk. Gov. Sam Brownback has said that he will sign the legislation. More than 100 Minnesotans showed up for an early Saturday morning debate on the state’s proposed voter ID legislation. Although the debate continues over voter ID in North Carolina, lawmakers agreed to a bit of a compromise this week by removing the photo ID requirement. The Pennsylvania State Government Committee is reviewing two House bills calling for voters to show photo identifications before they can cast their ballots. Photo ID legislation in Rhode Island apparently has support from both sides of the aisle as it makes its way through the legislative process. A coalition of groups opposing voter photo ID in South Carolina spoke out this week saying that the measure would prove too costly for the residents of the Palmetto State.
- Personnel News: Rockford, Ill. Board of Elections Director Nancy Strain is preparing to retire after 32 years with the board including 14 has director. Another elections official stepping down after 32 years is Morton County, N.D. Auditor Paul Trauger Also stepping down after 24 years on the job is Whatcom County, Wash. Auditor Shirley Forslof. Stabile Harwood was named to the Trumbull County Board of Elections. It was announced this week that LaVera Scott and Kelly Mettler will run the Lucas County, Ohio board of elections while a search is conducted to replace the staff fired last week. Rob McNutt was elected to join the Knox County, Tenn. election commission. California Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani announced this week that she will run for secretary of state in 2014.
- In Memoriam: Things are a little less special this week at the Summit County (Ohio) Board of Elections after the cat the staff had adopted and named Special died suddenly during surgery. Staff took her to the vet after they noticed she was having difficulties breathing and the vet surmised that at some point before being adopted by the BOE, Special had been hit by a car and was suffering ongoing complications. The staff at the BOE requested her ashes.
Technology: Voting machines for sale
California: Instant runoff voting
Delaware: Motor Voter
Hawaii: Instant runoff voting
Illinois: Special election
Indiana: Voter registration
Missouri: Voter ID
Nevada: Election-day registration
Texas: Voter ID
V. Job Openings