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Tackling Challenges in Election Administration and Voting Using an Ecosystem Approach

By Adam Ambrogi / 2017 September 11th

Democracy Fund’s Elections Program is excited to share our Election Administration and Voting systems map! The map, which was a collaboration involving advocates, academics, election officials, and policy experts, informs our thinking about American elections and our strategies for improving them. Below, you’ll read about our mapping journey, about potential leveraging opportunities within the system, and a request for your help as we continue to learn.

Though many aspects of the past election cycle were unique, there are ongoing challenges in election administration that pre-date 2016, as well as emerging opportunities for change. We hope that our work in elections will inform and support election officials, policy experts, advocates, peer funders, and most importantly—the American electorate.

Before diving in, our team would like to recognize all our colleagues who provided valuable feedback, and poured their time, energy, and perspectives into pulling this map together. Our collaboration stretched across the political spectrum, which generated robust conversations that inspired us as we created the map and used it to plan our strategy. We extend special thanks to Professor Paul Gronke, who provided support and academic consultation that was vital to the completion of this map.

Mapping the Election System

In December 2014, we convened a group of elections and voting experts to help us more deeply understand the U.S. election system. We began with the framing question, “to understand the election system in the United States, you need to understand…” A core story and key dynamics that drive the election system emerged through several follow up workshops, small group conversations, and internal research.

Because our initiative focuses on election administration, as well as the difficulty of comprehensively describing every aspect of the system, we predicated map construction on two assumptions—that mistakes in election administration:

  1. Are indicative of actionable problems, for which election officials require strong support to resolve; and
  2. Have serious downstream impacts on voters, who do not always have the time or knowledge needed to address issues before Election Day.

As shown in our core story, when elections are run ineffectively, there’s high potential for decreased public trust in the system, either because a voter heard about or personally experienced a problem. Sometimes those real or perceived barriers to voting have a deterring effect on voter engagement. These factors—“effective election administration,” “public trust in elections,” and “decision to vote”—appear relatively larger on the map because they are the key factors that drive the system and inform our work.

Low public trust in elections and low turnout increase pressure on lawmakers to change election laws and processes. Sometimes, those proposed changes lead to laws that, when well-implemented and voter-centric, improve elections. However, election administration is uniquely prone to election law gamesmanship, i.e., political actors who attempt to manipulate the rules or pressure officials to act in a partisan fashion. If policy changes are either intended or perceived to influence an election outcome or otherwise shift political power, then such changes can be caught up in a vicious cycle of gamesmanship—ultimately leaving election officials stuck with policies and processes that do not lead to better run elections.

The rest of the map illustrates the key dynamics that drive the core story. Key dynamics appear in 11 cyclical loops, which are:

  • Voter Registration
  • Election Official Education
  • Election Management
  • Technology Innovation
  • Voting Equipment
  • Integrity and Security
  • Ease of Voting
  • Voter Engagement
  • Education About Elections
  • Barriers to Voting
  • Election Law Gamesmanship

We binned each of the factors (i.e., dots) within these loops into one of four major categories:

  • Politics, law, and policy (green),
  • Elections process (light blue),
  • Voter engagement (yellow), and
  • “Other” (orange) for any one factor that does not neatly fit into any of the above categories.

We invite you to take a closer look at our map and its narrative, here and in Kumu – the tool we used to visualize the map. While reading the map, please note that pluses (+) and minuses (-) on connections (i.e., arrows) represent an increase and a decrease of that factor, respectively; the direction of the connections provides more information on the relationship between factors. (For example: when looking at the core story—as effective election administration decreases, public trust in elections decreases.)

From Map to Strategy

Our election and voting process can and should be improved; many election officials and voter advocates are already heading in that direction. After consulting with experts in the field and through much deliberation, we found several bright spots and potential points of leverage in the election system that could avoid political gamesmanship through bipartisan appeal and which present a high potential for impact, including:

  • Reducing stress on voter registration systems: States are rapidly adopting online voter registration and are becoming members of the Electronic Registration Information Center. There is also significant momentum around improving registration processes at motor vehicle departments and other state agencies. Improving voter registration systems could potentially result in tens of millions of newly registered, eligible citizens.
  • Improving the quality of election planning and execution: The growing community of civic technologists seeking to improve elections presents new opportunities for collaboration. Cost savings generated by new technology allows election officials to solve complex problems with few funds. Improving election processes has the potential to have positive downstream impacts on the voter experience, increasing the public’s confidence in election outcomes.
  • Increasing election officials’ capacity to adopt and implement new technology: Adoption and evaluation of tech tools that support election officials are gaining momentum. There is increasing interest among election community leaders in using and iterating these tools. Improving support for election officials using technology could have a transformative effect on the way elections are administered and on the way voters interact with the system, and without feeling overwhelming for the election official.
  • Increasing the public’s trust in elections: unsubstantiated allegations of widespread voter fraud are damaging and undermine the legitimacy of those in elected office. To foster trust in the system, voters must, at minimum, have a better understanding of the system’s key security features. Increased attention to security presents an opportunity to educate the public about election processes and to show how their election officials protect the integrity of the ballot. Given the new concerns about attempted interference in our election system by foreign actors, policy and practice must allow for officials’ ability to defend against potential attacks.

It will not be easy to improve the election system, nor will challenges be solved by any one organization alone. We understand that officials, advocates, experts, and voters all play a role in improving and promoting a healthy election system. Now that we have a framework, we can more easily identify where actors and activities occur within the elections and voting ecosystem, and have a better sense of where we should address problems.

How You Can Help

The map reflects our current understanding of the elections system in the United States and we hope that it captures key cyclical patterns that occur at the federal, state, and local levels. Of course, we are not able to capture every aspect of the system; we hope that we can rely on our larger community of stakeholders (you!) to help. As you navigate the map, please feel free to provide us with any feedback, questions, or comments by emailing us at electionsmap@democracyfund.org.

Thanks for viewing! We look forward to hearing from you.

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