From its inception, Democracy Fund has invested in organizations supporting election administration. We believe that well-functioning election operations are a core component of a healthy election system. At the end of 2021, we commissioned an independent evaluation of the Elections & Voting Program’s Voter Centric Election Administration portfolio to review how our theory of change was executed and how the election system has shifted. Here, we reflect on the findings from that evaluation and invite you to read the full report.
Voter Centric Election Administration Portfolio History
The landscape of election administration in 2014 is a far cry from what we experience today. At that time, the findings of the Bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration were widely praised and pointed the way toward evidence-based solutions to election challenges – such as long lines at the polls and errors on voter lists – that made use of developments in technology. Election administration has always been complicated, especially in the highly-decentralized U.S. system. However from 2014-2016, the field experienced clarity of purpose and a relatively-uncontentious bipartisan consensus on best practices to move the field forward.
In this context, Democracy Fund developed a theory of change that focused on two needs of the field:
- Strong networks of election administrators for knowledge-sharing across and within states
- Innovative practices and technology designed for election administrators to use.
To meet the first need, we identified the leaders of state election administrator associations and hosted convenings with them twice a year in a “train the trainer” model, whereby they would learn best-in-class practices to take back to their state associations of election officials. For the second need, we invested in a wide range of civic technology tools, research, and guides developed by civil society organizations that could be used by administrators to better serve voters. Our goal was to scale and spread practices that would improve the voting experience nationwide.
Evaluation of the Portfolio’s Impact
An evaluation of the portfolio’s impact, conducted by Fernandez Advisors, focused on the ways that election officials at the state and local level have engaged in Democracy Fund’s network convenings and used tools, training, and resources in which we have invested. The report found that investing in tools and resources for election administrators helped the field adapt to shifts in voter expectations for online services and new voting methods. Our grantees’ programs helped to improve the design of election websites and ballots, helped administrators adapt to early voting and mail voting policies, and helped voters learn where to find a polling place or ballot drop box easily and accurately. These are just a few examples of the ways our grantees supported administrators’ efforts to serve voters.
This portfolio was especially well-timed to meet the unusual needs of the 2020 election when many states rapidly adjusted their voting policies and practices to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many states offered voters more flexibility to vote early at home or at voter centers in order to avoid crowds at Election Day polling places. These states could not have rapidly adopted new voting methods without following the examples of states that had spent years innovating and experimenting with flexible voting practices. Democracy Fund grantees were instrumental in helping states learn quickly from these examples because they had documented implementation processes and offered technical assistance.
While network-building, tools, and research have been instrumental in improving election administration, the failure of local and state governments to adequately resource election offices remains a significant problem. Significant and ongoing technology changes (such as online voter registration and ballot tracking) present adoption challenges for many election administrators and their staff due to both the lack of funding for technology investments and maintenance and the difficulty covering the range of expertise needed with the very small staffs that manage elections in all but the largest jurisdictions. For example, election officials interviewed for the evaluation report that they do not have the capacity to counter growing mis- and disinformation targeted toward voters.
The job of managing elections has grown increasing complex as the field faces new challenges. Local election officials must be experts in many areas: human resources, information technology, direct mail processing, public relations, cybersecurity, and more. Most election officials are managing this load with little staff capacity. In the 2020 Democracy Fund/Reed College Survey of Local Election Officials, over half of respondents said they work in an office with just one or two staff members who may not even be full-time. Participants in Democracy Fund’s state association convenings praised the information and opportunity to share knowledge and resources with peers from other states and bring ideas back to their colleagues. However, limited staff capacity and urgent demands makes it difficult for many officials to spend time adopting new practices.
Summary of Findings & Key Takeaways
When Democracy Fund began investing in civil society organizations focused on election administration, it was still a young field, with limited philanthropic investments supporting the work. We used a systems and complexity approach to analyze the needs of the field and identify the gaps and leverage points that could improve the health of election administration. We played a role in catalyzing new nonprofit organizations that support election officials and in funding emerging election sciences research. The COVID-19 pandemic upended the 2020 primary elections and made evident the importance of well-resourced and well-functioning election administration. In response, the field of organizations supporting election administration scaled up as more donors began funding this work. Even as the context shifts over time and the field adapts, strong election administration is essential to the health of a just and equitable election system.