Preparing Today to Meet and Manage the Challenges of Elections in 2016

Paul DeGregorio
October 14, 2015

This post is authored by Paul DeGregorio and Adam Ambrogi.

It’s 2015, months away from the first presidential primary and more than a year away from the presidential election. Election officials often hear, “Must be easy right now between elections, with nothing to do.” Guess again. This “off year” of 2015 will instead be a busy time for the more than 8,000 election officials across the US. Experience shows election officials that the more they prepare, the fewer problems they will encounter in the presidential election year. What happens when there’s failure to adequately prepare? Imagine the chaotic scene in Hartford, Connecticut, where hundreds of voters were turned away because election officials didn’t have registration rolls at polling places in time. Planning ahead to plan and reduce the likelihood of these preventable mistakes must happen now.

A presidential election with no incumbent may increase participation in the 2016 primaries, especially when there are a record number of active candidates. It was the 2012 presidential election that exposed some of the continuing problems in our election processes. The bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA), which heard significant testimony from across the country in 2013, issued excellent recommendations for improving election administration by borrowing from nationwide best practices. If you’re an election official we recommend that you read, reference and use, the website where the PCEA report and other corresponding information is available.

The important questions are: Will election administrators take heed in preparation for 2016? Will they be prepared? Will they take advantage of all the resources available to them to prevent problems?

In recent years, many states have instituted new laws and changes, as recommended by the PCEA. New innovations like online voter registration, electronic pollbooks and improved processes to serve military and overseas voters, voters who require language assistance and voters with disabilities, should work to enhance the voting experience. Beyond big reforms, we have assembled a handful of practical tips to help election officials better prepare, so that the voter’s Election Day experience is seamless.

We’ll start with five basics: details matter, anticipate the unanticipated, use data, learn from others, and the medium is the message.

Details Matter. When details are overlooked it is often not without consequences. It takes careful effort to ensure that a voter’s registration is processed correctly or that the software installed in ballot tabulation equipment is the right version. In elections, it is actually very difficult to get it exactly right all the time. There are too many human and technical missteps that can produce flaws in the system. So, election officials should have written processes allowing staff members to see quality control steps. Never take for granted that staff will do a task without specific instruction. In fact, you should review your training procedures, cross-train, and incorporate lessons from the most common mistakes from past elections.

Details also matter to your stakeholders. Ensure the political parties, candidates and the media understand the plan for Election Day and early voting. If you’re implementing new laws, get legal clarification on all changes since the last election. The heat of an election is not the time to interpret statutes.

Anticipate the Unanticipated. It may be that you haven’t experienced it before—but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. One way to expect the unexpected is to keep tabs on your peer jurisdictions. (a Democracy Fund grantee), is a website filled with daily news stories—particularly the day after elections—on things that go wrong on election day. “How could that have happened?” is a frequent reaction by readers. Check it daily (and sign up for email dispatches) to see how one little mistake can lead to one big headline—and headache. Unfortunately, election officials are seeing more problems with aging voting equipment, particularly technology and devices that are over ten years old. We urge you to ask and address these questions:

  • Have you tested new computers or websites under the right conditions? What about older equipment?
  • Does your service supplier have a backup plan with extra hardware and technicians available to address breakdowns?
  • What happens if your website or system is hacked days before the election?
  • What if your electronic pollbooks fail on Election Day?

Start answering these questions now and you’ll be glad you took the time to scenario plan.

Use Data. So many election officials are collecting data every election cycle, but aren’t sure how to use it. The Voting Technology Project’s tools are part of an Election Management Tool Kit, a joint program of Caltech/MIT. The Tool Kit was put together with the practical help of election administrators, business managers and other management experts.

Don’t have good data? You can plan ahead now to capture information you’d like to have:

  • Plan to have volunteers chart and document line-wait times at both your early voting sites and your polling places.
  • Use mock elections with sample ballots to determine how long it will take to serve voters. Then scenario plan for large turnout to make sure you have the right layout, number of poll workers and voting equipment to keep wait times under 30 minutes. Don’t forget to check your ballot processing and counting times.

Learn from Others. This is the quintessential “best practice.” Check out the websites of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, the Election Center, the International Association of Clerks, Recorders, Election Officials and Treasurers, and your state election office. You should also call or email a fellow election official in another county or state when embarking on something new (like writing a Request for Proposals to buy new technology). In fact, the EAC provides resources on how other states are procuring voting technology. There are plenty of other examples of important information sharing:

  • Chronic poll worker shortage for presidential elections? Find out why some election officials have more than enough and leverage the same opportunities they do.
  • Worried about funding? Ask around your local associations to find those who get what they ask for when submitting their election budget.

The Medium is the Message. Social media can be your friend —and also your worst nightmare. Social media is a great way to inform your voters, especially to those casual voters who only cast a ballot in presidential elections. Explore modern methods to get into their world to get them the information they need. They might read or see a text or SMS communications, a Tweet, Facebook post, or Instagram or some other medium they use every day. And don’t shy away from appropriately correcting wrong or misleading information when it makes its way into social media, tagging local press in the social media communication. But there are important things to consider whenever you communicate with the public:

  • What about language barriers? Have you had an influx of new voters with English language challenges who may need changes to your website, materials and poll workers to help them navigate the voting process in their native language? Many community groups can work to aid or vet translated elections materials, to ensure the meaning is conveyed loud and clear. The Department of Justice has some basic guidelines on how to support language translation and outreach for elections.
  • Also pay attention to plain language. Voters will respond better to simple instructions that avoid administrative jargon. Usability of election or ballot language is important for a population as broad and diverse as ours. Check out the Center for Civic Design for ideas on how to make election materials easy for voters to understand.

In short: Now is the time and may be the only time that you have to plan and innovate on your efforts to run elections in advance of the 2016 rush. Much has changed over the last few cycles, and it is more important than ever to be thinking critically about how you can put yourself in the best position to serve your voters for the 2016 elections. We wish election officials nothing but success in their efforts to serve voters professionally in 2016—and beyond.

Paul DeGregorio serves as a Senior Fellow for the Democracy Fund. He currently serves as Senior Advisor to the Association of World Election Bodies (A-WEB).

Adam Ambrogi serves as the Program Director for the Responsive Politics program at the Democracy Fund. Prior to joining the Democracy Fund he served as Chief Counsel for the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration.

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