Director’s Note: The “new normal” in election administration
By Doug Chapin, Election Initiatives
Welcome to “the new normal.”
That’s the phrase that’s rapidly gaining currency in popular conversation as a way to describe the aftermath of the Great Recession of the last two years. The idea of a “new normal” stems from a growing realization that the Recession represents not merely a temporary setback for the American economy but a more lasting and fundamental alteration of America generally.
As federal, state and local governments reconvene across the nation, this “new normal” will challenge policymakers new and old – regardless of their partisan affiliation or political views – and will serve as a constant reminder that familiar arguments and solutions are no longer as reliable as they were during the “old” normal.
This concept is equally important in the area of elections, where “the new normal” – specifically, the steep drop in already limited funds for election administration – will be the dominant theme in election policy debates in 2011 and beyond.
As my colleague Mindy Moretti noted last November, we have already seen mounting evidence of this phenomenon in decisions about special elections: in 2010, West Virginia debated whether and how to incur the costs of an election to replace the late U.S. Senator Robert Byrd and is now engaged in a similar debate about the vacancy created when Gov. Joe Manchin was elected to take Byrd’s seat; Louisiana’s Jay Dardenne postponed his swearing-in as Lt. Governor in order to avoid the need for a special election to replace him as Secretary of State; and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom will wait until January to take the oath as California’s new Lt. Governor in order to spare city voters the cost of a special election to replace him.
Subtle yet significant changes like this – shifting the discussion about special elections from “when” to “if and when” – are likely to become more common as we adjust to the “new normal”. I would be very surprised if similar shifts don’t occur in other familiar debates like voter ID, electronic and Internet voting, and early/absentee voting and vote-by-mail. Sometimes the changes aren’t so subtle; for example, consider the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC), which reportedly came very close to extinction during the final days of the 111th Congress. As the 112th Congress comes to town, the EAC’s “new normal” may not be a change in outlook as much as an outright fight for survival.
As difficult as the “new normal” may be for many policymakers, I actually think it is a healthy -- and overdue – development in the field of elections.
Oscar Wilde once said that a cynic is someone “who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” In some ways, election reform – especially in the decade since the disputed 2000 election -- has had exactly the opposite problem.
Traditionally, reformers have focused on citizens as voters by seeking to maximize turnout and access to the franchise while minimizing dilution of the vote due to fraud. This “anything for the voter” approach has led to the proposal and enactment of changes often with little regard for their budgetary impact on states and localities. In other words, election reformers have often focused on the “value of everything and the price of nothing.”
This approach is a non-starter in the “new normal”. Given the limitations on government budgets, reformers and policymakers alike will need to look beyond election returns and make smart, cost-effective investments on machines, laws and approaches that work efficiently and effectively. Thus, under the “new normal” election officials and reformers will have to view (and serve) citizens not only as potential voters who use the election system but also as taxpayers who will foot the bill.
The “new normal” is changing lots of things, but it hasn’t changed everything: our nation’s democratic system of government is as special and important as it ever was. What has changed, though, is the growing realization that America’s election system isn’t so special that it can’t be asked to meet the same standards of accuracy, cost-efficiency and effectiveness that Americans expect from other public (and publicly-funded) services.