Responsive Politics: Bipartisan Approaches to Stronger Elections

On Election Day in 2012, images of voters waiting for hours to cast their ballots captured Americans’ attention and made election administration a national concern. Shortly thereafter, President Obama declared, “We have to fix that,” and brought the top lawyers from the Romney and Obama campaigns together to co-chair the Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA).

The Commission’s first task was to consult with experts, election administrators, and political leaders from both sides of the aisle to develop a shared reform agenda that would make voting more efficient, fair, and representative. The added challenge was to identify realistic and timely solutions that could be implemented without national legislation or new federal interventions. With this framework in hand, the PCEA then collaborated with a team of researchers, led by scholars from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, the University of Texas, and other election administration-focused institutions instrumental in constructing the final report, especially the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Democracy Project.

With support from the Democracy Fund, these researchers ensured that the PCEA’s recommendations were grounded in best practices and the best available data. As a result, the team’s testimony and research were heavily cited by the PCEA and played an instrumental role in shaping its final report.

In January 2014, the PCEA unanimously agreed to 19 recommendations that address the major problems driving long lines on Election Day. The PCEA recommendations have been widely praised by policy leaders and experts and have gained significant traction in shaping state election procedures. The “top priority” recommendations include four separate and distinct areas: voter registration modernization, the impending voting machine crisis, long lines at the polls, and improving opportunities for early voting. Within each area, the Commission recommends a range of policies and practices likely to improve Americans’ overall voting experience from registration to the ballot booth.

As a limited executive initiative, the PCEA officially closed its doors in early 2014 upon the release of the report, and the Democracy Fund was eager to ensure there would be continued efforts to see the PCEA’s recommendations come into reality. Collaborating with peer funders, we have worked to support a number of organizations focused on raising awareness of the recommendations and achieving the positive impacts of improved election administration:

  • At the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), former PCEA commissioners and election experts continue to promote the Commission’s recommendations among policy experts, state leaders, and election officials. BPC works to coordinate the work of the PCEA co-chairs and to regularly convene interested partners to identify opportunities and pursue adoption of the recommendations. They also serve election officials by providing technical support on how to adopt PCEA recommendations.
  • The Pew Charitable Trusts’ election initiatives continue to provide strong leadership in the effort toward modernizing voter registration. Pew has been instrumental in educating state election officials about the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), which assists states in keeping voter registration rolls accurate as well as identifying potentially eligible citizens who are not registered to vote. As a result of Pew’s work, ERIC has grown to include 11 member states, plus the District of Columbia, with more states expected to join in 2015. Furthermore, Pew’s Voting Information Project has provided critical information to millions of voters on how to find and access their polling place and other important voting information. They have also worked to advance comprehensive performance assessments of state election systems through their Elections Performance Index.
  • Comprehensive research from Demos supports the PCEA’s finding that state motor vehicle agencies are not doing enough to support voter registration and that there is significant potential for increased voter registration if states improve their performance. Through a detailed assessment of how states comply (or not) with the National Voter Registration Act – based on public record requests, state and federal data, and legal and policy research regarding every state not exempt from the Act – Demos has provided a roadmap of the problems and potential of NVRA compliance.
  • At the request of the PCEA, the Caltech-MIT Voting Technology Project developed a website that collected together in one place free tech tools to improve polling place management, reduce inefficiency, and streamline the voting process. With partnerships supported by BPC, the Voting Technology Project continues to engage in research and development to improve its polling place management tools through its the “Polling Place of the Future” project.
  • Thanks in part to the hard work of the grantees above as well as Common Cause Education Fund, TurboVote, and Rock the Vote, nearly half of the nation’s eligible voters have the option to now register to vote online through statewide adoption of online voter registration.

Congress recently confirmed three nominees to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, making a national conversation on revised voting technology standards possible. The Democracy Fund looks forward to supporting grantees that will help state and local election officials work together to review current policies and best practices, facilitate discussion about the voting machine crisis, and capture momentum on future advances in election technology.

At Pew, we seek to move election reform beyond the partisan debate by identifying data-driven solutions to chronic election administration problems, and by working to implement change that will make the voting process more accurate, cost-effective, and efficient.

David Becker, Director, Election Initiatives, The Pew Charitable Trusts

Now more than ever, it is critical for the field to support dissemination, advocacy, and implementation of the PCEA recommendations. The PCEA’s efforts continue to demonstrate that advocates on both sides of the political aisle can come together to construct unanimous, bipartisan policy solutions to the challenging problems facing our democracy. Through its grantees, the Democracy Fund will continue promote the PCEA’s momentum by sharing and pursuing innovation with others, supporting efforts for statewide adoption of policies, and funding pilots that put administrative theories to test. Americans are passionate about exercising their right to vote, and the work to keep the promise of the PCEA alive will improve the voter experience by applying practical, common sense solutions in election administration.

Voters’ expectations are remarkably uniform and transcend differences of party and political perspective. The electorate seeks above all modern, efficient, and responsive administrative performance in the conduct of elections.

Presidential Commission on Election Administration

  • Bipartisan Policy Center
  • Caltech - MIT Voting Technology Project
  • Common Cause Education Fund
  • Demos
  • MIT - Polling Place of the Future
  • Rock the Vote
  • The Pew Charitable Trusts
  • TurboVote