“We’re going to fix that.”

November 4, 2014

In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama brought national attention to ongoing problems in election administration and most notably long lines at polling places on Election Day with the quote above. What came next was the creation of the temporary Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA).

A year later, the PCEA released a report that recommended policies addressing some of the bigger problems in election administration. Since the release of the report, members of the PCEA have traveled the country speaking to audiences of election officials, lawmakers, and the public, hoping that its recommendations would catch on and find willing agents for implementing its changes.

In states and localities where election officials took the lead on implementing some of the recommendations, today’s midterm elections will be the first time voters experience new policies. The election community will be watching closely as the effects of three big recommendations—new online voter registration (OVR) systems, interstate exchanges of voter information, and mandated adoption of PCEA’s resource allocation tools for use at the local level—are tested.

The PCEA made it clear that the value of OVR cannot be overstated. At the time of the report, states with OVR experienced a reduction in voter information errors, which led to an increase in the accuracy of voter rolls and reduced wait times for voters. States also experienced a decrease in the number of provisional ballots issued, which can indicate problems with voter rolls. And now, with the addition of Illinois, Delaware, and Georgia, 20 states have OVR. Will these states see the same improvements, what else will they encounter?

Beyond the OVR benefits for voters who traditionally show up to vote, there are broad higher-level questions of how OVR affects voter confidence and turnout overall. Does the experience of registering to vote online translate to showing up to vote on Election Day, voting early, or casting an absentee ballot? Do online registration services such as provided by TurboVote or Rock the Vote employ other mechanisms for informing and engaging voters? These and other questions will be answered over the months and years to come.

The PCEA also recommended states participate in an interstate exchange of voter registration information. The Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) allows member states to check voter rolls against lists from other member states, in addition to state DMV records, the National Change of Address list, and the Social Security Administration. ERIC’s data matching program helps state election officials more confidently determine which voters should be removed due to a move out of the state, or death. All voters benefit from accurate rolls, and the goal of ERIC is to ensure that no voters are removed improperly.

ERIC also identifies potentially eligible individuals who have not yet registered to vote. ERIC member states are required to mail registration information to these individuals. The question to be answered: how many will register as a result and show up for this midterm? Pew’s initial responses show great promise for the ERIC system, but the impact and effectiveness will grow as the number of participants grow.

Long lines on Election Day 2013 were a major catalyst for the PCEA, but now there are several practical tools that local election officials can use to give voters a better, faster experience and do so with limited resources. A new toolkit includes a series of calculators that help estimate the appropriate ratios of volunteers, check-in stations, voting booths, and machines so that voters do not experience long waits.

In 2014, the Ohio Secretary of State’s office issued a directive requiring local Boards of Elections to create a plan for election administration. As part of this plan, administrators are strongly encouraged use the Election Toolkit to make resource allocation calculations.

Many in the election community are especially interested in the data and experience this will generate in Ohio because of the potential broad use of the tools. Will the tools effectively account for all of the variables of voter behavior and the environment of all varieties of polling places? Will other variables outside of an administrators control (length of the ballot, voter confusion, etc.) still cause long lines on Election Day? The answers will be here soon enough.

Finally, perhaps the greatest experiment occurring this Election Day in thousands of jurisdictions may answer the question that so many have been afraid to ask: will aging election equipment function properly through yet another election? Some jurisdictions are using Diebold Equipment even though Diebold is well out of the business of manufacturing voting systems. When will the threat of an election technology meltdown prompt a better way of voting?

If there was one warning that the PCEA issued, it is that election equipment purchased in the early 2000s is now nearing the end of its life cycle and yet, jurisdictions are still relying on it to meet high voter demands. It’s unclear how much longer these systems can be maintained by local election offices. It’s clear that there are innovative start-ups and that leading jurisdictions (LA County, CA and Travis County, TX) are working with their voters to imagine next-generation voting equipment. Where will elections look like in 2016? 2020?

In many ways, these questions are not going to be answered today, but will be determined by state & local election officials, advocates, voters and politicians who all share the goal of quality elections. We hope to work in collaboration with those who want to improve the process of making elections something worthy of our country’s history, encourages a process the gives every eligible voter a chance to cast that vote, and have that vote counted correctly.