I. In Focus This Week
What to watch November 4
From voter ID to lava, variety of issues to watch on Election Day
Well this is it! We are finally less than a week until the 2014 general election.
Voters are busy casting their final early and absentee ballots, candidates are shaking one last hand and kissing one last baby and elections officials are busy dotting I’s and crossing T’s and planning for every possible contingent.
In our final newsletter before the election (but don’t worry, this isn’t our final newsletter!) we’ll take a look at some things to keep on your radar in the final days leading up to November 4, what to watch for on Election Day and what to watch in the days following the election.
If you’re watching something that’s not on our list, please let us know so we can keep an eye on it and report back next week.
Obviously voter ID is going to be one of the most watched issues on Tuesday. Has the last-minute court wrangling confused voters? Are poll workers prepared and trained?
All eyes will be on a handful of states to see how the voters and elections officials deal with it all.
In several states this will be the first general election that voter photo ID has been in place. Alabama and Mississippi had minimal problems during the first widespread implementation during the primaries, but both states also had relatively low turnout. Neither state dealt with last-minute lawsuits.
For Virginia, while the photo ID law has been implemented in smaller, local races, it was not in place for the primary and this will be the first widespread rollout.
Arkansas, Texas and Wisconsin were all embroiled in last-minute lawsuits over their photo ID laws.
For Texas, the state’s photo ID law remains in place Tuesday after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it would remain in effect for the November 4, election. The court did not rule out taking it up at a later date.
Already during early voting there have been mixed reports of the roll out. In Houston, one 93-year-old veteran was denied a vote because he did not have the correct form of ID. Early voting totals are lagging in Bexar County compared to 2010, but officials cannot say if that’s because of the new ID law. Other counties have reported an upswing in early voting and no reported problems.
Wisconsin officials were initially scrambling to implement that state’s voter ID law until the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in and while not striking it down entirely, said that the law could not be implemented for this election. Now the education effort has shifted from making sure voters know about the ID law to making sure poll workers are aware that the law is not in effect.
The Arkansas law did not make it all the way the U.S. Supreme Court. In mid-October, in a unanimous decision the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled that the law was unconstitutional. Following the ruling, attorneys for the state said the state court ruling was clear and that they would not pursue the case at this time.
It’s been fourteen years since the nation spent its holiday season watching officials in Florida haggle over chads — whether they were hanging or not.
Since then voting systems have come and gone, yet whatever system is in use, they still remain the focus of attention and this year is no different. Several jurisdictions will be using new voting systems/machines on Tuesday — including New York, which, for only the second time will be using something other than the beloved lever-voting machines in a federal general election.
There have been reports from several states — Arkansas, Illinoisand Marylandto name a few — during early voting of “vote flipping.” Many of those reports were unsubstantiated—elections officials could not recreate the problem—and in a few instances voting machines were taken out of service due to calibration issues.
What’s hard to determine is how these problems, real or perceived, have impacted the voters’ confidence in the process.
Elections officials always need to be prepared for the unexpected, especially the weather.
This year, in addition to Mother Nature —officials in Hawaii have already had to move polling locations out of the way of a lava flow — officials will be contending with manhunts, deadly diseases and possible protests.
It’s an odd and impressive list of potentially unexpected events, one has to wonder what else could crop up on Election Day.
And not to make light of what can be a very serious situation, odds are that somewhere, someone will drive a car into a polling place. Even though it happens almost very major election, needless to say, it’s still pretty unexpected.
Secretary of State Races
Races for the state’s top elections official are on the ballot in 24 states. Half of those races will produce brand-new head honchos since the incumbents are not seeking re-election for a variety of reasons.
Some of the races have generated more attention than others including the race between Pete Peterson and Alex Padilla to replace Debra Bowen in California, the race between incumbent Dianna Duran and challenger Maggie Toulouse Oliver in New Mexico, the race between challenger Jean Schodorf and incumbent Kris Kobach in Kansas and the race to replace Mark Ritchie in Minnesota.
From marijuana to minimum wage to healthcare, voters in 42 states and the District of Columbia will consider more than 150 constitutional amendments, initiatives, referendums, ballot measures and advisory questions on November 4.
This year, several states will ask voters to decide on the future of how elections are administered in their states.
In Arkansas, voters will cast ballots on petition issues, in Connecticut it’s early voting. In Illinois voters will have their say on a voters' bill of rights and in Maryland voters will decide how to regulate special elections.
Missouri voters will also decide the fate of early voting in that state and in Montana residents will voice their opinion about election-day registration. New Mexico voters will make decisions about school elections and in Oregon, voters will once again weigh in on whether or not to move the state to a top-two primary system.
While we haven’t heard as much this election about mass movements of poll watchers as we did in previous elections, it’s definitely always something to keep an eye on, especially in some of the voter ID states and states with contentious races.
This will be the first general election with Colorado’s statewide system of vote-by-mail or vote centers in place. While there have been some issues in various counties with ballot mistakes, so far the ballots seem to be coming back at a decent clip.
Because mail ballots must be in the clerk’s office by close of business on Election Day and not just post-marked on Election Day, even the U.S. Postal Service has gotten involved by encouraging voters to get their ballots returned.
Instant Runoff Voting
Residents of Oakland will once again choose a mayor using instant runoff voting. Last time out — the first time the system was used — it didn’t go so well and officials are preparing on two fronts to improve the process. On one side they are preparing with improved technology to speed up the count and on the other front with voter education campaigns.
Like Colorado, North Carolina voters are faced with a host of changes this election season including the elimination of same-day registration. Although a lower court set aside the new law for this election, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked that ruling and allowed the law to remain in place. The law also means that ballots cast out-of-precinct, something advocates argued that minority voters use more than others. Like voter ID in other states, this is not the final word on the new law.
Both Louisiana and Georgia could see runoffs in closely watched races. If the runoffs occur, especially in federal races that could hold the fate of the Senate or House at stake, expect for there to be a lot of discussion about each state’s runoff system.
Absence of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act
In June of 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated several parts of the Voting Rights Act, specifically the provisions that require some states and local jurisdictions to receive pre-clearance from the U.S. Department of Justice before making any changes to the elections process. How could this impact the election? Will we see last-minute changes to polling locations or election procedures in previously covered states that prove problematic?
We live in a selfie-obsessed world and while some jurisdictions are actively encouraging people to take selfies with their “I Voted” stickers, problems arise when voters try to take pictures inside the polling place. The rules vary from state to state and even in some places from county to county. It will be interesting to see this play out on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and whatever the latest, most popular form of social media is next week.
During the primaries, guns in polling places became an issue in some states leaving state and local officials scrambling to come up with policies that not only protect a voters Second Amendment rights, but also protect the rights and sensibilities of voters and poll workers who object to guns.
Political scientists behaving badly
Last week voters in several states received official-looking mailers — including in Montana, with the state seal — that claimed to assess the political leanings of candidates.
Turns out the mailers were actually part of a research project conducted by Stanford and Dartmouth universities and now the universities are apologizing to officials and voters in California, Montana and New Hampshire.
The mailers did feature a disclaimer in fine print, but the universities have issued an apology and in California, Stanford plans to take out an advertisement in local newspapers explaining the mailing.
"On behalf of Stanford and Dartmouth universities, we sincerely apologize for the confusion and concern caused by an election mailer recently sent as part of an academic research study," said an open letter from the university presidents. "We genuinely regret that it was sent and we ask Montana voters to ignore the mailer."
What, if any impact this may have on elections in these three states remains to be seen, but it does beg the question of “what were they thinking?”
While official numbers are still pending, literally millions of Americans have either voted absentee or cast a vote-by-mail ballot already this election.
How will counting those ballots impact voters and candidates? Will we be waiting for days, weeks and maybe in some cases months to find out who the nominees are?
Will voters be confident their ballot was counted considering the variables that can disqualify a ballot?
Turnout/lines (or lack thereof)
In 2012, some voters stood in line for hours, well past poll closing times, in order to cast their ballots.
The Presidential Commission on Election Administration was created to look at the problem and states and counties took a hard look at what they could do to make a difference.
Will voters face the same problems on Tuesday? Turnout during the primaries was largely abysmal and record-breakingly low in some states and the District of Columbia, ranging from single digits to just under 50 percent in Wyoming.
Although anecdotally early voting seems to be brisk in many places and even up from 2010, will that equate to voters on Election Day?
And if there are no lines and all goes smoothly on Tuesday, will necessary changes to election practices move forward once the spotlight is gone?
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