I. In Focus This Week
Voters want information online, but will they find it?
New Pew study, “Being Online Is Still Not Enough”, assesses state election websites
“Am I registered to vote?” “Where is my polling place?” “What’s on my ballot?”
These are common questions voters routinely ask before heading to the polls and casting their ballots. But easily finding answers to these questions depends, to a large extent, on whether their state election agencies are providing information and tools on their websites.
To determine how well states are helping voters prepare to vote, in 2010 the Pew Center on the States launched a nationwide assessment of the 50 states and the District of Columbia’s election websites.
The assessment was conducted by the California Voter Foundation and the Center for Governmental Studies, two nonprofits with decades of online voter education experience, and the Nielsen Norman Group, evaluating more than 100 detailed criteria based on three categories: content, look-up tools, and usability.
The new report shows that while many states have made significant improvements, there are still major gaps in providing easily accessible, comprehensive information and tools to voters.
If you live in Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, North Carolina, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Utah, Virginia, or Wisconsin, you are in luck. These states’ election websites offer all of the recommended look-up tools applicable to voters in their states: polling place location, registration status, ballot information, absentee ballot status and provisional ballot status.
Voters in these 10 states literally have some of the most important election information at their fingertips – they can go online 24-hours a day, access personalized ballot information, verify they are registered to vote at their current address, find their polling place, and check to see if their absentee ballot has been received or if a provisional ballot has been counted.
But if you live in California or Vermont, getting ready to vote can be much more of a challenge. These two states offer none of the five look-up tools the project assessed.
Overall, the most common look-up tool helps voters locate their polling places – all but two states offer this online service. In fact, the number of states providing this tool rose dramatically between 2008 and 2010, increasing from 34 to 49, with almost universal, nationwide access to this tool going into the 2012 election season.
The second most popular tool allows voters to verify their registration status, with 41 states offering this tool, up from just over half – 27 – in 2008. Nationwide, 82 percent of states provide this online convenience to voters, helping them determine before Election Day whether they are registered to vote at their current address.
In addition, researchers found:
- 22 states offer voters a personalized, online ballot information look-up tool;
- 29 states allow voters to check their absentee ballot status online; and
- 19 states allow voters to check their provisional ballot status online.
The growing availability of such look-up tools is welcome news to voters, who are increasingly turning to the Internet to help them prepare for elections.
- A majority (57 percent) of voters said they looked up what was on their ballot before voting most recently;
- Almost half (45 percent) sought out where to vote and voting hours (44 percent); and
- About a third (30 percent) verified that they were officially registered, while 29 percent looked up rules regarding photo ID requirements.
“Being Online Is Still Not Enough” highlights key findings of the assessment, recommends best practices, provides an interactive map and includes a fact sheet for each state featuring its overall score, strengths, recommended improvements, noteworthy features, and suggestions for an initial “quick fix.”
In addition to evaluating whether each state had the five recommended look-up tools, project researchers also conducted a comprehensive review of content, assessing whether each site provided essential information on voting basics, such as registration, items on the ballot, absentee and early voting, assistance for voters with disabilities, and resources for military and overseas voters. This content assessment comprised half of each state’s score, while lookup tools and usability each made up 25 percent.
States’ overall scores were grouped into three categories: Good, Average, and Needs Improvement. Ten states received the top scores of 79 or higher (out of a possible 100). More than half the states – 29 – rated as “Average,” scoring between 65-78, and 12 states received scores of 64 or lower.
While states have made significant progress in providing more look-up tools to voters, the assessment results show there is much room for improvement. A number of recommendations and state election website best practices were identified by project researchers:
- Identify voter registration requirements with phrases such as “you must” or “you are required by law,” rather than “you should” or “you may wish to.” Provide clear, direct information about all the circumstances that would require voters to update their registration records;
- Clearly state whether voters must show ID when voting at the polls;
- Explain which early and absentee voting options are available. Tell voters what to do if an absentee ballot is lost, damaged, or does not arrive in the mail;
- Provide sections for military and overseas voters that include, or connect to, all relevant content and tools, such as lookup tools for ballot information and registration status;
- When providing voter look-up tools, avoid returning more personal information than was entered by the user;
- Make sure voter registration status search return screens include instructions for updating or correcting the data displayed;
- Allow users to access polling place and ballot information by street address, and provide a sample address that can be used to try out these tools;
- Include polling place hours on search return screens for polling place look-up tools;
- Present a site search tool as an empty field at top of every page;
- Implement website navigation that is logical, persistent, and consistent;
- Write voting information at or below the eighth-grade level so that it is understandable to most users;
- Limit using PDFs to print-and-fill-out forms, not for basic information;
- Make visited links change color. Most users expect links to change color once they have visited them so they won’t waste time visiting them again; and
- Ensure that the homepage is easy to scan, and light on prose-style content. Make links easily identifiable. Content should be concise and presented in a brief format.
The benefits of providing election information and tools to voters online in a user-friendly format are clear. For voters, it means they can easily research their voting choices—where they are already looking for it—and prepare to vote with confidence.
As the Mellman Group poll found, the most popular way for voters to check if they had a new polling place was to go online. For election officials, it means election agency staff can work more efficiently, spending less time answering routine questions and focus instead on providing excellent public service.
Indeed, in the course of conducting the assessment, project researchers found many state election agencies were eager to receive feedback and find ways to improve their websites.
The 2012 election season provides an excellent opportunity for states to expand election content, implement new voter tools and enhance website usability to meet the growing demand for online access to election information.
(electionline.org is funded by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts.)
II. Election News This Week
- This week the U.S. Postal Service announced plans to eliminate next-day service for first class mail meaning that most mail, which is typically delivered in one to three days would now be delivered in three to five days. With the popularity of vote-by mail and absentee voting growing with each election, how this could impact the delivery of ballots remains to be seen. Oregon, one of two mail-only states has already weighed-in on the issue. Secretary of State Kate Brown said that moving forward, voters should mail their ballots on the Thursday prior to a Tuesday election to ensure timely delivery. Brown said that she will work with state lawmakers to approve an earlier date for county elections office to mail out ballots to give voters ample time.
- Although a St. Bernard Parish, La. judge called the state’s election code “a legal quagmire,” he ruled against a request to hold a new election for a parish council seat that was ultimately won by just 16 votes. Losing candidate Peter Rupp contended that at least 40 voters had residences that did not qualify them to vote. According to the Times-Picayune, Judge Manny Fernandez determined that Rupp did not properly file his voter challenges and therefore the court could not act. In his ruling, Fernandez wrote at length about the state’s complex voting laws that became even more complex after Hurricane Katrina.
The Missouri auditor this week released a review of the St. Louis board of elections and gave the board an overall rating of “fair”. In his report, Auditor Tom Schweich said the board has seen vast improvements since voters were turned away from the polls in 2000. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the report did however note that concerns persist including duplicate registrations.
- Primary Problems: With military and overseas voters in New Hampshire already casting their ballots in the first-in-the-nation primary, some states are still trying to figure what to do with their primaries. In Ohio, Republicans in the state legislature are working on a plan to consolidate the state’s primaries into a single date. Currently Ohio’s primaries are scheduled for March and late June because of issues surrounding the state’s redistricting. But with concerns over the $15 million price tag for a second primary, lawmakers are looking to combine the primaries to one day, possibly in late April. And in Massachusetts, officials are figuring out what to do with the state’s primary which in order to accommodate Jewish holidays was moved from Tuesday Sept. 6 to Thursday Sept. 16. Problem is, the new date coincides with the Democratic National Convention. This of course presents a problem because many of the state’s delegates are elected officials.
- Personnel News: Long-time Hernando County, Fla. Supervisor of Elections Annie Williams announced that she will not seek re-election in 2012 ending a 38 year career in the elections office. Term-limited State Rep. Rich Glorioso has filed paperwork to run for supervisor of elections in Hillsborough County; current supervisor Earl Lennard had previously announced his retirement. Also in Florida, Collier County Supervisor of Elections Jennifer Edwards has filed to run for re-election. Cass County, Ind. Clerk Beth Liming announced she will seek a second term as clerk. Liming was heavily involved in the implementation of vote centers in the Hoosier State. Outgoing Kentucky Secretary of State Elaine Walker will be the new commissioner of the state Department of Parks upon completion of her term. Nathan Burd is stepping down from the Franklin County Board of Elections to run for the Ohio House of Representatives.
- Get Well: Pike County, Ky. Clerk Lillian Pearl Elliot was injured in a head-on collision on Dec. 4. Although not life-threatening, Elliot’s injuries are said to be serious. Electionline.org wishes Elliot a speedy and complete recovery.
III. Research and Report Summaries
Design Deficiencies and Lost Votes – Lawrence Norden and Sundeep Iyer, Brennan Center for Justice at New York University of Law, December 2011: Research by the Brennan Center finds that in the 2010 election in New York, when optical scan voting technology was used for the first time, approximately 20,000 votes did not count due to overvotes — the invalid selection of more than one candidate. The report points to the state’s lack of overvote protections and suggests changes that could help address this problem.
Defending Democracy: Confronting Modern Barriers to Voting Rights in America
A report by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. & the NAACP, December 2011: A new report by the NAACP examines recent state election laws and their impact on communities of color, the poor, the elderly, the disabled, and the young.
Arizona: Special election cost
California: Ranked-choice voting
Georgia: Voter ID
Indiana: Vote centers
Maine: Voter ID
Massachusetts: Primary date
New Jersey: National popular vote
New York: Lever-voting machines
North Dakota: National popular vote
South Carolina: Voter ID
South Dakota: Secretary of state
West Virginia: Vote fraud
Washington: U.S. Postal Service
West Virginia: National popular vote
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V. Job Openings
Election Program Specialist, D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics — assists with implementation, evaluation and interpretation of department policies, projects and procedures. Provide customer service by responding to information request, conducting research, providing solutions to problems and correcting errors. Analyzes, organizes and present program and application policy options and recommends positions to the general Counsel and Executive Director for decisions. Salary: $62,499-$79,959. Application: Visit dchr.dc.gov, click on "Career Opportunities" and search for keyword "election" or apply in person at the D.C. Department of Human Resources Job Center located in the South Lobby at 441 4th Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20001. Deadline: Dec. 12.
Election Training Coordinator, D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics — coordinates recruitment of polling officials. Maintains and manage the list of potential polling officials received from the voter information postcards, civic groups, volunteers, and related sources. Communicates with potential polling officials and conducts orientation meetings. Assists in the development of an election worker information, education and outreach program as a means of maintaining and monitoring the election work force. Salary: $62,499-$79,959. Application: Visit dchr.dc.gov, click on "Career Opportunities" and search for keyword "election" or apply in person at the D.C. Department of Human Resources Job Center located in the South Lobby at 441 4th Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20001. Deadline: Open until filled.
Executive Director & General Counsel, Connecticut State Elections Enforcement Commission. Need considerable knowledge of and ability to apply management principles and techniques; knowledge of and ability to apply state campaign financing and election laws; knowledge of criminal, constitutional, and administrative law and rules of evidence; knowledge of legislative process; considerable interpersonal skills; considerable oral and written communication skills; considerable ability in advocacy and negotiation techniques; considerable ability to interpret complex legislation. Preferred Knowledge, Skills and Ability: Excellent management skills and ability to function effectively in nonpartisan capacity. Strong ability to lead management team. Excellent decision making skills, management of elections and/or campaign finance agency desirable. Some IT knowledge desirable. Considerable public speaking and media skills. Knowledge of election law and public financing program preferred. General Experience: Five (5) years experience in the practice of law including some experience with the legislative process, administrative law and state election laws. Special Experience: Two (2) years of the General Experience must have been in a managerial capacity. Must be admitted to practice law in the State of Connecticut or be lawfully engaged in the practice of law as a principal means of livelihood for five out of the last seven years in a reciprocal jurisdiction in accordance with Section 2‐13 of the Connecticut Practice Book and obtain membership in the Connecticut Bar within one year of appointment. Salary: $103,539.00 to $132,804.00. Deadline: Dec. 15.