Election officials remain busy even in ‘off-years’
Talks of costs and scheduling often turn to consolidation
By Emily Huston
Don’t let the odd numbers at the end of the calendar year fool you, many election officials across the country are just as busy in 2011 conducting elections as they were in 2010 and will be in 2012.
In addition to juggling her other duties as county clerk, Kara Clark Summers of Cape Girardeau County, Mo. will spend countless hours in 2011 running multiple local elections and making preparations for the big races in 2012.
“Most people don’t realize that the process starts so far in advance with the filing of paperwork,” Clark Summers said. “The work of elections starts months before an election.”
She added there is so much overlap with deadlines for elections that it really does seem, even in the “off-years” that elections are one, ongoing process and not just an election “season.”
It can be easy for voters, the media and other observers to get caught up in high-profile presidential elections or the much-hyped midterm elections like we just experienced in November 2010. These are elections that rally the whole country, electing a president or when more than 6,000 legislative seats throughout the nation are on the line.
And as thousands of legislators settle in to their new roles, many may think that for the most part, the next flurry of elections will not come until the fall of 2012.
However, numerous state, local and municipal elections are slated to take place in 2011 — and that doesn’t include the many special elections filling up the calendar.
A handful of states, including Mississippi, Louisiana, Kentucky, Virginia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin will hold various statewide elections, in addition to local and municipal elections. Mississippi and Louisiana in particular will hold both statewide legislative elections and gubernatorial races on November 8th.
With so many elections scheduled, how do election administrators, particularly those at the local level manage what now-a-days seems less like an election season, but rather an election year?
“To say it bluntly…it’s a challenge” said Louise Stine, county clerk in Berrien County, Michigan.
Stine noted that this is especially difficult for smaller counties that may not have a specific person other than the county clerk who is responsible for administering elections.
In some jurisdictions there has been a push to move these off-year elections to even-numbered years in which other, often times larger races are held as well. And some states and larger counties look to not necessarily move elections to a new year, but rather a new date within the same year on which other countywide, or statewide elections are scheduled to take place.
This practice gives election administrators the opportunity to focus their efforts and resources into fewer days, serving to alleviate some of the stresses that come with a full election calendar.
And counties like Miami-Dade County in Florida, where there are already over 30 elections scheduled this year, the benefits of election consolidation often go beyond stress management.
Carolina Lopez, special projects administrator in Miami-Dade was quick to point out that in many cases where municipalities or other small-scale elections move their dates to coincide with countywide elections they are able to reap benefits such as cost savings, greater media attention and higher turnout.
“Essentially there are many incentives for municipalities to partner with counties when it comes to elections, it comes down to a bigger bang for their buck,” Lopez said.
She did note that these changes do have other effects, with more names and offices on the ballot which can lead to longer lines at the polls, potentially confusing voters on Election Day.
Back in Michigan, Stine noted that in 2003 and 2004 the state legislature approved more than 26 bills which consolidated elections within the state to four specific dates. Stine said those changes were “significant and welcome.”
No matter what changes have been made though, 2011 will undoubtedly prove to be a busy election year for many states, counties and municipalities around the country.
The Future of Elections Scholarship: Policy Challenges and a Research Agenda for Reform - Tobin Project/the American Law Institute: Stemming from a February 2009 conference, these working papers reflect on the major intellectual themes of the field of elections and elections research and establish links between the work of academics and the needs of policymakers.
The Help America Vote Act and Elections Reform: Overview and Issues - Kevin J. Coleman and Eric A. Fischer, Congressional Research Service, January 13, 2011: This report describes the effects of and developments since the passage of the Help America Vote Act in 2002.
Connecticut: Election reform
Montana: Same-day registration
New Jersey: Election overlap
Ohio: Election oversight
Texas: Dallas County
West Virginia: Electronic voting machines