Journalism in the service of society

America’s decentralised system of elections very messy and very confusing – Don

Dr. Lisa Bryant is the chair of the Department of Political Science at the California State University, Fresno. She has worked with several nonpartisan organisations to better understand voter behaviour and increase voter registration and turnout. Her work has been published in several journals, including American Politics Research, Political Behavior, Electoral Studies, and Publius: The Journal of Federalism. Dr. Bryant also serves on the National Research Advisory Board for the Electronic Registration Information Centre. Speaking at a briefing by the Foreign Press Centers, Dr. Bryant explored voting rights and the ways in which people will cast their ballots in the 2022 midterms. Excerpts:

The current state of our election system and the electoral landscape in the United States

An important thing, I think, that – it’s true worldwide, right, that election landscapes – no two elections are the same, that the context surrounding the election, the candidates, the current events going on happen all the time. One thing that is maybe a little bit more unique about the American election landscape is that our policies and processes are also constantly evolving. So there are hundreds of state-level changes in policy about election code between every election cycle. The United States also has an extraordinarily high number of elections that go on. So, we’re going into the federal midterm elections, and some states, like California, do a model of what is called consolidated elections where we put all of our state and local and federal elections on the same ballot to try and reduce the number of elections that run at any time. But many states don’t do that. So, for example, Louisiana will vote in the federal midterm election in November and then they have a state election in December, not even a month later. And so, voters can experience different processes and different rules in different elections – even in the same state, even in the same jurisdiction.

So, our very decentralised system of elections where the states have control over how elections are run – not the federal government – and then to some degree even local jurisdictions can choose to run different voting models makes it very messy and very confusing.

So, for example, like here in California, we have – counties have the option to adopt what is called the Voter Choice Act, which makes voting very accessible to people; it sends everybody a vote-by-mail ballot, we have vote centers that are open for 11 days, right. Some counties can opt out of that. They don’t have to adopt it. It’s not mandated by the state. So, a neighboring county could have voting only on Election Day in person, and then your family or friends across the county line have 11 days to be able to go vote. So those very different processes make for very different election experiences and make for a very messy and confusing system.

It’s widely accepted in the United States now that Election Day is a misnomer. We don’t think about elections as being Election Day anymore. There’s still that buildup and excitement thinking about Election Day and going and getting your “I Voted” sticker, which is very popular in the U.S., right. But really, most places are – run elections as an election week, and for some places even election months.

16 states in the United States are already casting ballots for the November election

So, 16 states in the United States right now are already casting ballots for the November election. People are casting those ballots by mail, and soon in some of those places early in-person voting will take place. But there’s already been over half a million ballots cast for the upcoming November election even though we’re still a month out, right. And that makes our election process and election administration interesting, I think, and exciting, and opens the door for lots of challenges to election code because voters all experience a very different type of election experience, right.

In terms of, like, federal oversight for U.S. elections – and I think because some of you are probably from places where their elections are run federally and there are more consistent rules and more consistent code across all jurisdictions across a country – we have very little federal oversight over elections. We have a Federal Elections Commission, but they primarily really only look at campaign finance. They don’t really look at election code or the process of how elections are run. And then we have an Election Assistance Commission, and the Election Assistance Commission was created primarily to distribute federal funds that will help jurisdictions update their equipment, provide some guidance on what are good policy, best practices. They really don’t have any enforcement mechanisms. They don’t have any way to make jurisdictions adopt best practices or to adopt certain policies.

The one area where they have gained some traction is in the voting equipment that we use. So, there are federally certified vendors that the federal government has tested the voting equipment, made sure that that voting equipment is secure. And so, states have to use equipment that meets federal requirements. States can then have their own stricter requirements and they can put vendors on the list. They can reduce the number of vendors on the list that meet state requirements, but they have to at least meet the federal requirements. Otherwise, they won’t qualify for any federal assistance in their equipment and the certification of that equipment. And so that is one place where the Election Assistance Commission has gained some traction in enforcement.

American election landscape has really changed a lot since 2000

Most of the changes – the American election landscape has really changed a lot since 2000. So, most of you probably know the 2000 election was George W. Bush, was very contentious in the United States, and many people believe that it was decided by the Supreme Court because the Supreme Court ordered the state of Florida to stop counting the ballots and that whoever was the victor at that time would become the president. That really, for the first time in U.S. history, put a lot of focus on how elections are run in the country.

Prior to 2000, Americans pretty much believed that our elections were fair, that they – I mean, let me back up. Civil rights and voting rights aside, right, talking about the actual process of counting the ballots, election – people pretty much believed that our elections were run pretty well, that they – there was no reason to lack confidence that your votes were being counted correctly. But the spectacle of seeing the counts and the recounts with the hanging chads and the butterfly ballots in Florida made people start to question the way that our elections are run, the type of equipment that we were using.

And so, a commission was formed, a bipartisan commission was formed to try and look at our elections closely and see where there were areas that needed to be improved. So, starting in 2000, we started updating our voting equipment, outlawing old, like, lever machines that we knew malfunctioned, getting rid of the butterfly ballots that caused the problems in Florida and things like that. But we also saw the introduction of more election reforms to try and make voting more accessible to voters. So, we saw more of the states adopt no-excuse absentee ballots. And that term can be confusing.

So, no-excuse absentee ballot and vote by mail are nearly but not perfectly synonymous. So, a no-excuse absentee ballot means you don’t have to provide your state a reason that you want to vote by mail. In some states still today in the United States, you have to provide an affidavit to the state stating why you can’t vote in person. Some people view this as intrusive by the state because you might have to disclose medical reasons, you might have to disclose reasons – a death of a family member or that maybe you’re a caretaker for a family member. That in sort of the American individualism landscape, it’s seen as more information than the state really needs, right. You should be able to request a ballot from the state saying, “I can’t make it on Election Day, I want to exercise my right to vote, and so why do I have to provide you all of this very personal information?” But some states really feel that you need to justify why you can’t be there to do your civic duty and vote on Election Day.

States against voting by mail

We also still have five states that don’t allow vote by mail. And so, some people say that that – in a time where all of our time is pretty constrained and it’s difficult to get to the polling place sometimes on Election Day – we vote on a weekday in the United States. We vote on Tuesdays. And so, people are working, especially if you’re an hourly worker – maybe you have small children, maybe you’re working and in school – it can be difficult to get to the polls during those working hours. So absentee ballots or vote by mail is seen as a way to expand the franchise and invite more people into the system and to be able to vote at a time that’s convenient for them and that works for them in their schedule, and there are some states that still don’t allow that. And so that’s one place where we’ve seen a push and say this is a voting rights expansion, right? This is a way to increase the opportunities for more people to participate by offering absentee voting or vote by mail, as most places call it today. But we saw a move away from requiring a reason to do that and towards just allowing people that option without having to provide some justification for it.

We’ve also seen a move towards what we call early in-person voting, which is the fact that vote centers are not just open – or precincts; some places still call them precincts, some call them vote centers – we can talk about that in Q&A if you want. But the Western part of the United States, which is very expansive and things are very far apart from each other, has really led the way on creating what are called vote centers. And a vote center is a place where you can vote at any location within your county, so as long as you’re registered to vote in that county, you can go to any location you want. You’re not assigned geographically to one in your neighbourhood. Whereas a precinct model of voting is based on the idea that you live at 123 Main Street and you have to go to the precinct at the school down the block from you where the 600 of your closest neighbors also vote, right? And you’re not allowed to go to a different location in your city. You have to go to that one because that’s where they have your ballots with all of the people for your district, right? Your school board member, your city councilor.

A vote center model uses what’s called a ballot-on-demand system, where you can give them your information, they can pull up your address, and they can print the ballot in real time that matches your jurisdiction. So, the West, because it is so large and we travel further distances than in the East, has been really at the forefront of adopting vote centers and moving towards that model and away from the precinct model that’s very – that’s still pretty popular in the Eastern United States. So, we even see, like, regional differences in how people vote in the U.S., which is kind of interesting to think about.

But we saw a big push towards early voting, allow more – the motto is sort of more days and more ways, right, so you can vote early in person, you can vote absentee, you have a longer election period. And these I think are really popular reforms and the narrative behind them is almost always a voting rights narrative. It’s almost always about expanding access to voting and including more people, providing more opportunity, reducing barriers, reducing costs, right – not monetary costs, but the cost of time. And so those are all sort of things we think about as voting rights.

Foreign observers

The United States does invite foreign election observers to come and watch U.S. elections. Just as we go to other countries, we do have people come here and watch them. Generally speaking, they usually observe in large metropolitan areas, so places like New York, D.C., Los Angeles. Interestingly, those places tend to be, for the most part, very good on election registration and following policies.

They often don’t go to very rural areas like, say, the upper peninsula of Michigan, right, where you have what we would call unprofessional election administrators or nonprofessional election administrators. That’s not a judgment on how – when I say unprofessional, I mean there’s not necessarily any official training or certification required to be the election official in these small jurisdictions. And so, the rate of professionalisation of the people is very small. And that’s where you’re more likely to see errors or misapplication of the rules and policies. And often election observers don’t get to those areas. So, there is some observation, but I would say that maybe not always in the right places.

Domestically, the Carter Center has a very long history of foreign election observations and foreign election research, and going to Africa and South America and Asia to study elections and how elections are run. And after the 2016 election, they had never done work in the United States even though they’re a U.S.-based organisation, but they started an American elections project. And so now they are actually observing elections in the United States.

They’re starting with three states this year, Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, because all three of those states had big challenges in 2020, not only mishandling of ballots – I mean accusations of mishandling of ballots, right? All of the audits showed that things were processed correctly. All of the lawsuits essentially were rejected and thrown out. But they got a lot of media attention as there being issues in all three of those states, and you may recall, right, Arizona had the full audit; Michigan had several audits; and Pennsylvania had absentee ballots backed up for days, and so – and then they had audits after that. And so that’s where they’re starting their three observations. So that’s sort of the current state of who’s watching elections officially in the U.S.

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