Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton has called for mandatory voter registration and early voting. True change will require more resources for local elections offices.
Yesterday, presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton visited Texas Southern University, a historically black college in Houston, where she called for stronger election administration practices to protect voters. Along with asking Congress to reboot the Voting Rights Act—which had “its heart … ripped out” by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013, Clinton said—she called for mandatory voter registration and at least 20 days of early voting.
As the public-policy think tank Demos pointed out in its “Millions to the Polls” report, automatically registering people to vote at 18 years old could improve voter turnout. And as University of Florida’s Daniel “Electionsmith” Smith has shown, allowing people more days to cast their ballots before election day could help mitigate problematic long voting lines, especially for people of color. It’s also important to note that it’s local governments, mainly counties, that are on the front lines of election administration, which means they’ll need a ton of support should those reforms ever happen. Clinton nodded to this at TSU when she said:
And while high-profile state laws like those in Texas and North Carolina get most of the attention, many of the worst offenses against the right to vote actually happen below the radar. … Without the pre-clearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act, no one outside the local community is likely to ever hear about these abuses, let alone have a chance to challenge them and end them.
Clinton acknowledged in her speech that it is voters of color who are more likely to face longer voting-line waits than white voters. While a lack of early voting is often cited as a cause for those long waits, an equally important factor is that local election administration often do not having enough polling booths to accomodate huge flows of voters. Lack of booths could mean that election administrators have underestimated voter turnout in their jurisdictions—but it also can mean they didn’t have enough funds and resources for extra booths.
After President Obama said that “we have to fix” the long voting-line problem in his 2013 State of the Union address, he created a bipartisan task force to examine how to do that. That task force released its recommendations a year later on how to fix long lines and a a number of other problems with election administration. But a lot of their report dealt with how to support local election officials. From the report:
The most universal complaint of election administrators in testimony before the Commission concerned a lack of resources. Election administrators have described themselves as the least powerful lobby in state legislatures and often the last constituency to receive scarce funds at the local level. … Elected representatives who control the purse strings may appreciate what election officials want, but are less sure of what they truly need. As a result, legislators are often disinclined to spend marginal tax dollars on administering elections, as opposed to other areas of local government.
Meaning that when state legislators weigh election funding concerns with other priorities like education, public safety, and healthcare access, it’s often elections that lose out. Trying to forecast voter turnout in order to ask for a large enough budget to cover all needed resources is an imprecise science for local election officials, especially when voter registration currently happens on antiquated, poorly updated systems.
To alleviate this problem, Obama’s election administration task force recommended that local election officials should have better access to innovative, voter calculator tools that would help provide more precise voter estimates. It points to the Caltech-MIT Voting Technology Project, which hosts a number of election these tools to assist jurisdictions with determining what their needs are for elections.
These calculator tools are not perfect solutions, though, warns the task force. However:
They are tools that, prior to the election, allow the administrator to allocate limited voting resources most effectively based upon predicted turnout and expected time required for voting. Together with other sound polling place management practices, these tools can help ensure that a polling place quickly processes the volume of voters who will pass through on Election Day. They are guides, not answers, but indispensable guides nonetheless.
Creating paths for automatic and more modernized voter registration systems would go a long way toward freeing up capacity for local election officials to deal with resource allocation. Oregon is leading the way in this, as Clinton noted, through its law passed in March that would instantly register anyone with a drivers license. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, Oregon’s move triggered similar proposals in 14 other states and the District of Columbia.
These election administration problems have been with us for decades—nothing new to local election officials who’ve been offering ideas on how to resolve them. Given they’re the ones who make first contact with voters, their voices should get a closer listen.