I. In Focus This Week
Director’s Note: The “new normal” in election administration
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.
II. Election News This Week
- As the clock was running down on 2010, the Indiana Democratic Party filed a court challenge to Republican Charlie White's election as secretary of state, contending that the state's recount board improperly dismissed a prior challenge that argued White committed voter fraud and was thus ineligible to run. According to The Associated Press, state Democratic Chairman Dan Parker filed a petition asking a Marion County judge to decide whether the Indiana Recount Commission improperly rejected the party's challenge. The Indiana Recount Commission voted 2-1 along party lines on Dec. 12 to dismiss a petition challenging White's Nov. 2 election over Democrat Vop Osili. Outgoing secretary of state Todd Rokita, a Republican, and former Indiana GOP Chairman Gordon Durnil voted for a motion to end the challenge, while former Democratic Rep. Bob Kuzman opposed it. The petition argues that due process wasn't followed because Rokita had formed an opinion before the panel's vote, and alleges that Rokita had a conflict of interest because he had politically supported White.
- A New Year brings new voting machines for Oklahoma. Bids are being sought to replace the optical scanner devices, which have been used since 1992. They’ve lasted nearly twice as long as expected, Paul Ziriax, state Election Board secretary told The Oklahoman. “State law requires Oklahoma to use voting devices that are scanners, meaning that we have a paper ballot that is hand-marked by the voter and it is tabulated by scanner when the voter puts that ballot into the voting device,” Ziriax told the paper. “That is not going to change even with the new system. My hope is that the average voter doesn’t notice much of any difference at all.” The OPTECH-III Eagle machines most recently used in the Nov. 2 general election were designed to last 10 years. The state has about $26 million remaining from a $33 million federal grant it received in 2005 to buy a new voting system.
- Morgantown became the only municipality in West Virginia to adopt a pilot vote-by-mail program for local elections. The decision wasn’t without controversy and the motion was only approved on a 4 to 3 vote. Opponents of the proposal expressed concerns about voter fraud, voter confidentiality and possible misinformation. However those in support of the program, including Mayor Bill Byrne, cited the potential cost savings of the vote-by-mail and increased turnout—turnout was 10 percent for the city’s last municipal election. The secretary of state’s office wanted five localities to participate in the pilot program, but Morgantown was the only one to do so.
- Crime Updates: A third person was arrested this week in connection with the Election Day slaying of a Bridgeport, Conn. poll worker. Forty-eight year old Arnaldo Gonzalez was beaten to death as he walked to his assigned polling station on Election Day. And in Tennessee, 27-year old Jessica Kennedy Powers has been indicted in the death of Monroe County Election Commission Chairman Jim Miller. Miller’s charred body was found inside his car in July. He had been shot three times and beaten. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said this was not a random crime and that Powers knew Miller.
- The U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s website received a nod from Congress.org for being one of the five best government websites. One aspect that helped get the site this honor is its availability in five languages.
- Personnel News: The end of the year brought with it a handful of significant departures in the world of election administration. Beverly Kaufman, Harris County, Texas clerk did not leave her job of 17-years quietly as she helped the county recover from the devastating loss of all 10,000 of its voting machines and successfully conduct an election with new, borrowed and leased equipment. After more than two decades working for the Richland County, Ohio board of elections, Deputy Director Jeff Wilkinson retired at the end of 2010. Fran Hanhardt recently retired after 20 years as the chief deputy clerk for San Juan County, N.M. Long-time Calaveras County, Calif. clerk-recorder Karen Varni ended her 20-year tenure. Varni had worked in the office for 16 years before heading it up. After more 10 years as Portland, Maine’s clerk (preceded by 12 years at South Portland’s clerk, Linda Cohen is set to retire on Friday. Santa Rosa County, Fla. Supervisor of Elections Ann Bodenstein announced this week that she will not seek a third term in office. Bodenstein first came to the Santa Rosa elections office in 1968 as an Election Day precinct worker. She continued working elections until 1993, when she became a full-time elections office employee.
- And of course the New Year also brings new (and some old) faces to elections offices across the country. In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott appointed former Secretary of State Kurt Browning to that position again. Also in Florida, Assistant Supervisor of Elections Leslie Swan took the helm of the Indian River County elections department this week but only because outgoing Gov. Charlie Crist didn't make a permanent appointment to the second half of Kay Clem's four-year term before he left office. Swan will remain a deputy, but with the responsibilities of the elections supervisor until the new governor can appoint someone. Bobbi Shearer has gotten the nod as new elections director under New Mexico Secretary of State Dianna Duran. Nathan Burd has been appointed the new deputy director of the Franklin County, Ohio board of elections. Burd will succeed Matthew M. Damschroder, who is leaving to become deputy assistant to the new secretary of state, Jon Husted. Damschroder served the board for about 6 1/2 years. Valerie Dornberger was sworn in as the new Marion County, Mo. clerk this week.
Editor’s Note: As we noted in previous electionlineWeeklies, the New Year marked the end of the career for two long-time election officials: Warren Slocum from San Mateo County, Calif. and Beverly Kaufman in Harris County, Texas. I began writing about elections more than seven years ago while at the National Association of Counties and since then Slocum and Kaufman have been two of the most accessible and patient election administrators that I have worked with; they will be missed and I wish them well on future endeavors.
III. Research and Report Summaries
United States of America Mid-Term Congressional Elections, 2 November 2010, OSCE/ODIHR Election Assessment Mission Final Report - OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Dec. 23, 2010: The Mission of the United States to the OSCE in Vienna, Austria invited the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights to observe the November 2010 mid-term congressional elections. The mission found that the elections were administered in a professional manner and that most election stakeholders were confident in the process. They also found some reoccurring deficiencies in the electoral framework mostly due to the highly decentralized and complex system of conducting federal elections.
The Canvass: States and Election Reform - National Conference of State Legislature, January 2011: This issue examines state voter verification requirements for voters, Colorado’s bipartisan commission that reviews elections-based proposals and provides an analysis of how election reform has changed over the last ten years.
Alaska: Write-in laws
California: Instant-runoff voting
Georgia: Election reform
Louisiana: Voter rolls
New York: Election outcomes
North Carolina: Instant-runoff voting
Oklahoma: Voting machines
Texas: Beverly Kaufman
Wisconsin: Same-day registration
V. Job Openings