Note: Due to the Thanksgiving holiday, electionlineweekly will not publish on Thursday November 22. We will return on Thursday November 29. Enjoy your holiday.
Ten Things I Learned On (and Around) Election Day 2012
With apologies to David Letterman, here are 10 things I picked up shortly before, during, and after Election Day:
1. At its simplest, election administration is a throughput business. We spend lots of time in our world discussing issues of equity, transparency, security and accuracy in elections, but on Election Day it’s all about turning voters into votes. Long lines in many communities across the country had a variety of causes – late openings, machine breakdowns/shortages. l-e-n-g-t-h-y ballots, etc. – but the effect in each place was the same: a reduction in throughput that resulted in lines that grew at the back faster than they shortened at the front.
2. Video of a malfunctioning voting machine is guaranteed to go viral. On Election Day, nothing – not even an adorable little girl weeping her frustration with the presidential campaign – can compete with a video of a voting machine that won’t honor a voter’s choice. The video by YouTube user centralpavote was shared liberally on Election Day. I lost count of how many times the video (which I think was of just one machine in Pennsylvania) was re-Tweeted or shared with me on Election Day.
3. Voters and experts don’t necessarily agree about voting machines. Voting technology experts are almost unanimous in their disdain for touchscreen (DRE) voting machines – and yet in my precinct (and many others) voters were willing to wait in line to use such machines even though paper ballots (which experts prefer) were available right away. I’m guessing that both voters and the experts should listen a little more closely to one another.
4. The words “may” and “could” are overplayed before and during Election Day. By midday on Election Day, the overwhelming number of conditional catastrophe headlines – where one or more election problems “may” or “could” lead to chaos, controversy, Constitutional crisis or all of the above – was making me a little nuts. There are always things that can go wrong, but the hyperventilating got very old by November 6.
5. When in doubt, don’t irritate a federal judge. Lost in the various controversies across the nation is the increasingly contentious relationship between Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted and U.S. District Judges Peter Economus and Algenon Marbley. First on early voting and now on provisional ballots, Husted’s (non)responses to the two judges drew sharp reactions. Husted and his lawyers may be confident they’ll prevail on appeal, but if they’re wrong their next visit to either courtroom has the potential to be even more uncomfortable than the usual “day in court”.
6. Poll worker problems aren’t caused by what they know – but what they think they know. The reports of poll workers requesting ID despite the absence of laws requiring it in places like Pennsylvania, Texas and California are a continuing reminder that the biggest obstacle to successful poll work isn’t ignorance but misguided confidence; in other words, the trick isn’t so much learning new material but un-learning the old.
7. Poll watchers can’t cause problems if they never show up. The pre-election coverage (see #4 above) focused heavily on the prospect of poll watchers from organizations like True the Vote creating problems on Election Day. Those fears may have been overblown, but we’ll never know for sure since (like challengers in Ohio in 2004) those challengers stayed away in droves.
8. Voters don’t like lines, but they’ll stand in them anyway. Experts, advocates – and even the president – commented on the unacceptability of long Election Day lines, but the fact is that voters were willing to stand in them. Indeed, it’s important to note that in many ways voters are the most durable part of the American election system. While I fully agree that we need to do what we can to keep lines manageable, we should do so because voters shouldn’t have to stand in excessive lines – not because they won’t (because they will).
9. Partisan control of secretary of state offices is something else that didn’t change in 2012. One of the jokes you saw time and again after Election Day was that despite the billions spent on the election, precisely nothing had changed – at least not at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Interestingly enough, the same principle held in the states, where all three incumbent Democratic Secretaries (Oregon’s Kate Brown, Montana’s Linda McCulloch and West Virginia’s Natalie Tennant) were all re-elected while control remained unchanged in Missouri and Washington with the election of Jason Kander (D) and Kim Wyman (R), respectively. This could mean that despite the debate of the last two years, neither side has gained much ground on election policy.
10. You never know. A car crashed into a polling place. A spider web delayed tabulation of ballots. A woman voted while in active labor and another passed out in line. A man – literally – came back from the dead to make sure he’d cast his ballot. All of this is what makes elections so much fun for me - and validates my belief in Andujar’s Law, named for MLB pitcher Joaquin Andujar, who once said “There is one word in America that says it all, and that one word is, 'You never know’.”