I. In Focus This Week
With clock ticking elections officials faced with known unknowns
Elections officials worry about impacts on voters, poll workers
“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know.” Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, February 2002.
With legal action pending or recently decided, but certainly not settled and with the clock ticking until the November 8 general election — and some primaries yet to happen — elections officials in several states are faced with some looming known unknowns.
For example, in Texas and Wisconsin, it’s voter ID. In Virginia it’s voting rights restoration. In Ohio it’s voter purges. In Kansas it’s a dual-system for voters with proof-of-citizenship and those without. And in North Carolina, it’s a bit of everything — ID, same-day registration, early voting.
“The nature of our job is to adapt to constant change,” said Sharon Wolters, Smith County, Kansas clerk and current president of the Kansas County Clerks and Elections Officials Association. “We expect it and work together to give ideas that will facilitate the changes in the most efficient way possible.”
While all the elections officials we spoke with are confident in their ability to conduct upcoming elections not matter what the courts throw at them, they all did express concerns about the impact these changes and possibly last minute changes could have on poll workers and the voters.
Recently in Wisconsin, Judge Lynn Adelman ruled that the state must allow voters without the proper ID to submit an affidavit testifying to their identity. Attorney General Brad Schimel has filed an appeal with U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.
“We are awaiting the legal process and hope that it is quick,” said Scott McDonnel, Dane County, Wisconsin Clerk Scott McDonnell. “The Wisconsin Elections Commission is working on the affidavit form now with advice for clerks. I think it will be pretty easy to implement. There may be some scenarios we way need to work through.”
That being said, McDonnell, who is already fairly famous for his voter education videos, isn’t sitting idly by.
“I am very worried about voter confusion,” McDonnel said. I am working on some more PSA's so stay tuned!”
Sandy Juno, Brown County clerk is worried about the impacts the ongoing legal battles may have on her poll workers.
“My concern is that we will be asking poll workers to take on another duty on a busy election day,” Juno said. “They already are burdened with all of the voting requirements.”
For Kansas elections officials, which face a primary on August 2 and the November 8 General Election, the state’s voting system could change between the time this story is published and the time of the primary on Tuesday and then could potentially change again — maybe even more than once — before the November election.
“Across the country, the courts have become more a part of the whole election administration process,” said Jamie Shew, Douglas County, Kansas clerk.
Shew said, with each new ruling and each new news story his office is inundated with phone calls from concerned voters — people who have been registered for decades — wanting to make sure that they are still registered.
“Part of our job is to try and educate the voters as best as we can, but it creates a lot of anxiety,” Shew said.
He added that the voter anxiety can then lead to issues at the polls because when an angry or confused voter shows up at the polling place, it’s the poll workers who are on the front lines and the poll workers who have to look the voters in the face, not the lawyers or legislators.
“The key part for me has to been to anticipate all the possible rulings and have a plan and be prepared for whatever could happen,” Shew said. “I think most election officials do that really well.”
Because Douglas County is a “cradle to grave” county — meaning the county programs all its own voting machines and prints all its own ballots — Shew has been able to program and plan for every scenario with the staff he has on hand, not all counties can do that.
Earlier this summer, Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed an executive order automatically restoring the voting rights of more than 206,000 ex-felons. Registrars were quickly inundated with applications from those eager to once again — or for the first time — be part of the democratic process.
On July 22, in a 4-3 ruling the state’s Supreme Court ruled that McAuliffe had overstepped the rule of law and that he could not restore the rights en masse, but they had to be done individually.
McAuliffe has vowed to individually reinstate each ex-felons voting rights, but until, the state and registrars are working on complying with the court order.
“We have received many inquiries regarding the steps the Department of Elections is taking to comply with the court order issued late Friday by the Supreme Court of Virginia,” said Edgardo Cortes, commissioner, the Virginia Department of Elections. “The Department is moving expeditiously to comply with the court order while minimizing the impact to local election office operations.”
On Tuesday, the Department of Elections sent out a set of directives to help registrars deal with the change while the state is still sorting out how to comply with the court’s ruling by the August 25 deadline:
- Hold any voter registration applications received in your office that indicates an applicant was previously convicted of a felony until ELECT has completed updating the prohibited voter list. ELECT will provide further guidance at that time.
- Do not process any records in the felon hoppers until directed to do so by ELECT. The various processes running in VERIS are impacting these hoppers, and processing records locally during the update may negatively impact our ability to comply with the Court’s order.
- Do not alter or cancel any records for individuals you believe were registered due to the Governor’s restoration of rights orders issued on or after April 22, 2016. Again, the VERIS processes currently running are working with these specific records and making changes to those records at the local level in the middle of our processes may negatively impact our ability to comply with the Court’s order. Pursuant to the Court’s order, ELECT will be cancelling the registration of all voters the court has ordered be removed from the voter registration rolls, and will send cancellation letters to these voters.
For Kirk Showalter, Richmond registrar, everything on her desk right now is voter-registration related. Currently she is bringing in additional, temporary staff, a bit earlier than previously planned because she doesn’t know how many voters on her rolls will be affected by the decision and it will require sending each one of those voters a letter explaining the situation.
But, she is also thinking ahead to the problems that may arise from this on Election Day.
“This is likely going to increase provisional ballots,” Showalter said. “But we’re setting up solution tables so if a voter is not in the poll book, they will immediately be sent to the solution table so lines don’t form at the poll book table.”
In North Carolina, elections officials are watching to see how the courts will rule on a piece of legislation that created voter ID, shortened early voting and eliminated same-day registration. The law was in place for the March primaries and remains in place for now.
“We are currently preparing for the November 2016 General as we did for the March Primary - Photo ID required and the reduction of days for early voting,” said Michael Dickerson, director of the Mecklenburg County, North Carolina board of elections. “We can only concern ourselves with what we can control and currently that is the implementation of the required changes in the voting laws. Of course we are proceeding cautiously and with contingencies in light of the lawsuits and legal challenges.”
For Gary Sims in Wake County, North Carolina — which is also facing additional litigation over redistricting—this is all just part of the process.
"Attitude is everything. Elections officials are accustomed to changes. This is a unique job that requires not only dedication but commitment. If you cannot adapt to change, then you may be in the wrong career,” Sim said.
Sims said it’s important to stay focused on the voters and that includes training, and training some more, your poll workers.
“We choose to over-train our officials, but we always let them know that things may change. We have to train over 2600 Election Day officials, and 700 Early Voting workers. That means training starts now,” Sims said. “Knowing that things may change, we design things to make sure we teach the basics. Never forget the basics that will never change. We make sure they know uniform concepts. It is easier to spend time teaching complex issues now and say later that it is no longer valid than to teach complex issues later."
So, like hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes, the local elections officials we talked to are pretty much prepared for everything.
“Bring it on. We’re ready for anything. We have to be,” said Showalter. “I know weird things are going to come out of the woodwork I hope it’s not so weird that we’re not ready for it.”
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