May 6, 2013

For Innovative Legislation on the Front End, States Need Reliable People and Processes on the Backend

Well, folks, the TurboVote and Reboot local elections research roadshow has come to close.

We’ve got gobs and gobs of data, which we’ll look forward to parsing through over the coming week to develop clarity around our findings (more on that soon!). But for now, we’d like to our musings from our final research stop: the City and County of Denver Elections Division in Colorado.

In the “Centennial State,” (named so for its admission into the nation 100 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence), 72 percent of the voting population statewide votes by mail. If things go as expected, new legislation will make Colorado an all mail-ballot state, in time for next year’s midterm elections.

For those of you unfamiliar with voting by mail, this means that voters in Colorado can request a ballot be sent to them via the post, to be completed in the convenience of their own home. If you like to track your mail, you can sign up for Ballot TRACE in Denver, which uses intelligent mail barcodes to inform you where your ballot is in the postal delivery chain. Once marked, the ballot can be returned by mail, or dropped off at Voter Service Centers, the local clerk’s office, or at secure drop-off boxes distributed throughout the county.

If you’re thinking “Hmm, that sounds about as easy as the drive-through window at McDonalds,” you wouldn’t be far off the mark.

If the new Colorado bill is signed into law by the Governor, Colorado voters will receive a mail ballot by default. Vote Service and Polling Centers will still be available for those who prefer the in-person voting experience though. Additionally, voters will be allowed to register and vote on Election Day, known as “same-day registration”.

Eleven other states have passed same-day registration, so Colorado is not a pioneer in this respect. Still, these are pretty big steps toward a more convenient voting experience.

Some opponents fear that voter fraud could become more prevalent under the new system, or that people who should be ineligible to vote might slip onto the rolls on Election Day. The Colorado County Clerks Association, which had a strong hand in drafting the bill, is in full support of its implementation. The counties are expected to see somewhere between $10-15 million of cost savings, and the state will incur a one-time fee of approximately $1.5 million to implement the switch.

In our conversations with state-level representatives this week, we were curious to learn how legislation that makes voting easier for citizens affects the backend administrative processes.

In a place where so many votes are already cast by mail, the state is not so concerned about its ability to absorb additional vote-by-mail ballots. In order to do same-day registration for those individuals who choose to vote in person on Election Day, however, the state will need to enhance its technical processes for registering and signing in voters.

One example of how this will play out concerns staffing at poll sites. While individual counties will require fewer poll workers (a general election in Denver is now likely to require about 750 workers, instead of the previous 2,000, if the bill is signed into law), those workers will need to be selected based on slightly different capabilities. The counties and the  state will need people who feel comfortable using new technology and can troubleshoot without fear of the machinery. The counties will have to train them using new materials and for a different set of tasks, and they will have to provide day-of internal support to these workers that also takes into account the new technical processes.

This week’s visit provided some interesting insights not only into the process of state-level innovations in elections, but also into the implications of those legislative changes. When new laws are passed, new systems must be developed. For voting, that means coordinating the backend technical and human processes that the voter never sees.

As we rounded out our research tour, we were reminded of how deeply our democracy depends on the public servants who manage all of these behind-the-scenes challenges. As so many of our research respondents have said over the course of the past few weeks, elections work is always changing, with every election offering an opportunity to test something new or different. These elections teams operate within an ever-adaptive environment. Although the media only reports when things go off-track, the reality is that most elections benefit from the care and attention that these officials pay to solid process implementation.

We look forward to seeing what happens in Colorado, as the state moves into a new chapter of the voter experience!

*   *   *

If you’re eager to hear in greater detail about our findings, be sure to register for Personal Democracy Forum 2013, happening on June 6th and 7th in New York City. Katy Peters, co-founder of TurboVote, and Kate Krontiris of Reboot will be presenting our conjectures about the future of elections in America, based on what we learned by speaking with some of the 8,000 people who deliver the voter experience in this country.

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