I. In Focus This Week
EAC hosts 2016 swing state roundtable
'Elections in battleground states are like elections on steroids’
You’ve planned for it, you’ve dreaded it, and now it’s finally here. 2016. There’s no going back and the U.S. Election Assistance Commission kicked things off this week with a roundtable discussion of elections officials from nine of the battleground states.
“Even though from the public perspective, it may seem like election season is just beginning, for the election officials, we’ve been preparing for a number of months, even a number of years,” said Moderator Merle King of Kennesaw State University. “The election cycle is the apex. The finish line.”
The roundtable was held in the Washington, D.C.-area and streamed live on the Internet. The wide-ranging conversation covered everything from social media to emergency contingency planning to technology to media relations to setting standards.
Participants included: Brian Corley, MPA, supervisor of elections, Pasco County, Florida; Pedro A. Cortés, Pennsylvania secretary of state; Luanne Cutler, registrar of voters, Washoe County, Nevada; Matt Damschroder, assistant secretary of state, Ohio; Robert Dezmelyk, moderator, Town of Newton, New Hampshire; Sandra Juno, clerk, Brown County, Wisconsin; Paul Pate, Iowa secretary of state; J. Kirk Showalter, general registrar, City of Richmond, Virginia; and Wayne Williams, Colorado secretary of state.
You can still watch the whole thing online — and electionline would really encourage you to do so, it was a great conversation and so interesting that we didn’t even check Facebook once while we were watching. Since we think you should watch it, just consider this your Cliffs Notes version of the roundtable.
Procedures in place
If there was one common theme with the entire conversation, no matter the topic, it was be prepared.
“When I started in 1994 we were using brick phones and fax machines. The expectations are higher now,” said Iowa’s Paul Pate. “”We’re focusing more and more on preparing. We spend a lot of time working with our local county auditors. We spent a lot of time on training and training and training to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”
Brian Corley of Pasco County, Florida noted that emotions are high this year, almost a fever pitch among various stakeholders and that there is literally no margin for error as election administrators this year.
“Standards lead to confidence,” said Colorado’s Wayne Williams. “There are a host of different challenges, but the bigger issue is working collaboratively with our 64 counties and ensuring that procedures are the same from county to county.”
Pennsylvania’s Pedro Cortes pointed that there are issues in almost every election in every state and no one, not even Florida wants to be “the next Florida.”
“Everybody expects perfect elections and there is no such thing,” Cortes said. “A good election hinges on a well-informed electorate and properly trained elections officials.
Cortes said it is so important to be consistent with procedures.
“No matter what you do to prepare, plan, test, you need to have a plan B,” said Robert Dezmelyk, moderator, Town of Newton, New Hampshire.
Social and traditional media
The panelists all agreed on the importance of keeping the public informed, not just through the traditional media, but also through the use of social media.
“It doesn’t matter how we get there, if the public perceives we are doing something incorrectly or behind the scenes, if the public perceives it, it is so,” said Luanne Cutler, registrar of voters for Washoe County, Nevada. “Make them [the media] our partners to kind of get the word out. We really do know what we’re doing and we’re trying to do the best we can.”
Williams said that it is vital to establish relationships with political reporters before an election. He said it’s important to speak with them and make sure they understand the processes ahead of time because no one has time on election night to explain the nuances of provisional ballots. Reporters are trying to file stories and elections officials are trying to tally the votes.
“Clear, concise, continuous communications with all of your stakeholders. That means we don’t have a whole lot of issues with people understanding,” Cortes said. “The communications office is probably the center of what we do.”
Ohio’s Matt Damschroder said that one of the interesting things he thinks elections officials are starting to see is that there is no longer the traditional filter of media.
“Voters and elections officials can interact directly,” Damshroder said. “Election officials have a much great duty now to interact directly with the public and its incumbent on the public to get more information directly from the sources to get correct information.”
Aging voting systems is a problem facing many jurisdictions nationwide this year. None of the participants in the panel discussion will be using entirely new voting systems this year, although Colorado’s system is relatively new and in Richmond, Kirk Showalter will be rolling out a new system for the first presidential election.
Listening to the panel discuss how they keep their voting systems up and running reminded us a bit of MacGyver.
“Election officials now have to be sophisticated IT administrators in addition to everything else they have do,” Damschroder said. “Sweat the small stuff because everything is small stuff. All those little things can really add up to make sure their isn’t a larger problem.”
Cutler said her county is fortunate enough to have some extra voting machines so if something happens they can quickly replace a malfunctioning machine.
For Sandra Juno, clerk, Brown County, Wisconsin having everything available that they need right there in the county has been very helpful.
“We chose to do all of our programming and printing of ballots in Brown County so we have the opportunity if something happens, we can fix it,” Juno said. “We do hire our vendor to send in a staff person to be on site for each election.”
Richmond’s Kirk Showalter rolled out a new voting system in 2015 and was able to use that additional time to learn about the quirks of the new system so she and her staff can be prepared should there be any issues in 2016.
“There is a good reason why election administrators avoid putting new equipment out in a presidential election year. There are an amazing number of details that go with changing the systems,” Showalter said.
Cortes noted that so much attention has been placed on the aging equipment, but there are still hiccups with brand new equipment, which is why, circling back to earlier discussions, it is so important to have contingency plans.
None of the panelists anticipated any major problems with voting systems in 2016, but the same could not be said for the future if the aging equipment is not replaced before 2018 and 2020. Pate was pretty blunt on this point.
“I’d like to put out an appeal to state legislatures, governors, maybe even Congress,” Pate said. “Funding would be nice.”
One of the more interesting topics of conversations was the how has the electorate changed since 2012 and what did the officials envision it looking like in 2016. All the participants almost universally agreed that they are not seeing the interest from young people like they were four, even eight years ago. They all agreed that this could change by November, but early indicators don’t show a large participation by young voters.
“In 2008 and 2012, the level of student involvement was unprecedented, but I am not seeing that so far this year” Showalter said.
Showalter did say that she’s seeing an unusually high number of uniformed and overseas voters getting in touch with her office already even though balloting for the March primary has yet to begin.
Cortes noted that when Pennsylvania’s online voter registration system launched in August of 2015 of the first 60,000 people to register to vote, 3,000 of them were 65+.
“This isn’t going to be the youth vote this year,” Pate said. “It’s the Baby Boomers and little younger.”
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