Is the US about to hold another banana republic election? The ghosts of 2000, hanging chads and Bush v. Gore are rapping loudly at the door. For many members of the public, voting has become a confusing ritual, with a president making threats to ignore the results if he loses, and confusion over the safest and most secure way to vote in the middle of a pandemic.
Adding to the confusion, election management amounts to a decentralized hodgepodge spread across three thousand counties and nine thousand townships, with few national standards to guide them. Some states establish their own statewide standards, but imagine if our railways, highways, or airports had no consistent, national regulations, and so travel from state to state was mired in conflicting regulations and varying quality. The US provides more oversight and security for the gaming industry and slot machines than it does for our nation’s election administration.
It doesn’t have to be this way. However this election turns out, a bipartisan effort should be mounted to make voting more efficient and secure. Here are crucial steps toward realizing those goals.
1) A functioning, nonpartisan national election commission. Most established democracies around the world use a nonpartisan national election commission to establish nationwide standards and uniformity and to foster accountability. A national commission in the US would promote “best practices” in the use of mailed/absentee ballots, voter registration, testing and quality of voting equipment, voting equipment deployed per capita, recounts, poll worker training, and many other details.
In New York’s June primary, we saw the mass confusion that led to upwards of 20% of absentee ballots being tossed out. But other election details are similarly problematic. For example, following an election, one of the best safeguards used to detect malfunctioning voting equipment or fraud is a manual hand recount of randomly selected precincts. Yet there is no uniform standard for the number of ballots that need to be hand recounted to provide adequate security. Some states require that 5 percent of precincts be recounted; others require 4 percent; still others require only 1 percent. Which number reflects best practice? Nobody seems to know or is attempting to figure it out.
Just as the National Highway Board is empowered to set standards for highway design and construction, a national elections commission should have the authority to create minimum standards that states must follow to ensure the quality of elections. Following the 2000 meltdown, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) was created and had the potential to play this role. But its funding and authority have been consistently undermined by partisanship and state officials’ parochialism. For most of Donald Trump’s term the EAC has lacked a fully-appointed commission or an executive director. Commissioner Ben Hovland told a House committee that the EACs entire budget is less than what Kansas City spends on pothole repair.
A more robust EAC could partner with the states and counties to establish nationwide standards for high-quality elections. It also could provide rigorous evaluation of what works and propagate best practices. Federal funding should be ongoing to help states pay for their critical needs for maintaining the nation’s electoral infrastructure.
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2) Impartial and competent election officials. We should have learned this lesson in the 2000 presidential election when Katherine Harris oversaw the Florida election as both secretary of state and co-chair of GOP candidate George W. Bush’s election committee. But in 2018 in Georgia, Secretary of State Brian Kemp oversaw the election in which he was running for governor (he won). Not to be outdone, a few years ago the Democratic secretary of state in West Virginia oversaw his gubernatorial election (he also won). The vast majority of chief election officials in two-thirds of states are partisans, as are about half of all local election officials. Election officials should be forbidden from serving as co-chairs of campaigns, and clear regulations and ethical guidelines should restrict their partisan involvement or running their own elections.
In addition to nonpartisanship, election administration should be upgraded to a professional civil service position as a way of ensuring competence and training. Running elections has become increasingly complex, involving multiple ways of voting (early, absentee, mailed, same-day, provisional) and requiring a sophisticated knowledge of software, databases, voting equipment, organizational management, and public relations. Yet, there are no vocational schools or degree programs where one can learn how to administer such a highly complex process. It’s all on-the-job training, or training by the voting equipment companies (that often have conflicts of interest). Election administrators should be highly trained civil servants who demonstrate proficiency in running elections, using technology, and making the electoral process fair, transparent and secure.
3) Automatic voter registration. The US has more problems with voter registration than any other established democracy. Only in the US is registering voters obstructed by ridiculous levels of toxic partisanship. That’s because the US is one of the few democracies that does not practice automatic/universal voter registration. With automatic voter registration, everyone who is eighteen or older and eligible to vote is automatically registered. There are no forms to fill out, no partisan games played. In Iraq a higher share of adult citizens is registered to vote than in the US because the Iraqi government assumes responsibility for registering its voters. If we had automatic voter registration, we would immediately add 70 million more Americans to the voter rolls, nearly one in three eligible voters, disproportionately minority, poor, and young adults.
Automatic voter registration not only leads to more complete voter rolls but also results in greater election security. That’s because registration occurs in an orderly, steady and rolling process, unlike our current practices, in which voter registration drives occur in spurts right before major elections and are often contested by partisan organizations that have incentive to manipulate the voter rolls. Rosemary Rodriguez, former chair of the EAC, said that problems related to partisan voter registration groups and pre-election litigation over voter eligibility would be minimized with automatic voter registration.
Current practice also is a major headache for election administrators, who must deal with a surge of late registrants, which can result in insufficient levels of equipment, polling stations and poll workers. Voters suffer by waiting in long lines. Implementing automatic voter registration would be one of the most important civil rights gains since the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Our nation’s embarrassing problems with something as basic as voter registration, as well as other parts of our creaking election infrastructure, should serve as a wake-up call. Our antiquated practices are inadequate for the twenty-first century. It’s a wonder things run as well as they do. If we Americans cannot trust the integrity of our elections-- whether because of poor administration, lousy technology or partisanship -- it will result in widespread apathy and resignation. That, more than any single candidate, will damage our democracy.