News & Events
Study Finds Deficiencies in Election Administration Systems
December 4, 2007
Contact: Barbara Peck, (614) 292-0283
With the 2008 presidential election quickly approaching, a recent analysis of the election administration systems of several key battleground states showed deficient systems that jeopardize voters’ access to the polls and the integrity and finality of election results. Researchers at Election Law @ Moritz at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, with the generous financial support of The Joyce Foundation, conducted a comprehensive study of the election administration systems in five Midwestern states – Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, focusing on how voters register, ballots are cast and recounts are conducted.
“Each of these states employs a unique election ecosystem, and collectively they represent the variety of systems used across the nation,” said Steven Huefner, senior fellow at Election Law @ Moritz. “Unfortunately, during our yearlong study, we found multiple problems and systems that were not cohesive or that bred inconsistencies.”
The study makes several key recommendations for election systems across the country:
1) Enhance registration options. States should work to improve access to voting by relaxing barriers to voter registration. Both Minnesota and Wisconsin allow Election Day Registration and the study found no increased fraud under these systems. Other states reluctant to embrace this reform might consider Michigan’s system of affidavit voting, which protects voters whose names are not on the voter rolls even though they have attempted to register.
2) Favor early voting. States should consider in-person early voting instead of expanded absentee voting. Absentee voting is the area of election administration most vulnerable to abuse, with serious allegations occurring in Michigan and Illinois.
3) Clarify provisional voting standards. States should provide clear guidance on when provisional ballots should be cast and counted. In many states, including Ohio and Illinois, individual counties hand out and count provisional ballots using different rules, calling into question the integrity and equality of the state’s system.
4) Improve poll worker programs. Poll worker recruitment and training should be enhanced. This area was a problem in all five states studied and can lead to long lines at the polls, polling places opening late, and the mishandling of ballots and electronic voting machine memory cards.
5) Reform post-election dispute processes. The process for evaluating post-election disputes, including recounts, should be reviewed. None of the five states had a final arbiter of disputes in place that was perceived as fair and evenhanded. While disputes should be rare in a solid system, they do occur in close races, when tensions are running high. In these situations, a trustworthy system for handling these disputes is ideal. In addition, Congress should consider giving states more time to evaluate and settle disputes in presidential elections. The current timeline of 35 days is not enough time for most disputes to work their way through a state’s legal system.
The study specifically reviewed the following nine areas for each state: 1) institutional arrangements; 2) voter registration; 3) challenges to voter eligibility; 4) voting technology; 5) early and absentee voting; 6) polling place operations; 7) ballot security; 8) provisional voting; and 9) vote counting, recounting and contests.
After evaluating the nine areas, the study’s authors found there are several key factors to a solid election administration system.
“What really stood out is that states with strong, nonpartisan oversight had significantly fewer problems,” said Dan Tokaji, associate director of Election Law @ Moritz. “The registration process still functions as a barrier to participation in some states. On the other hand, Minnesota and Wisconsin have great Election Day Registration systems that increase turnout while reducing the need for provisional ballots.”
The state with the most significant problems is Ohio, which has suffered a variety of serious problems and risks an ugly partisan dispute if these problems recur in a close election. Illinois also has major problems, including a decentralized system and a history of fraud. While Michigan has a decentralized system with local officials playing a predominant role and there is concern over whether the deeply divided state supreme court could fairly handle a dispute, the state also receives praise for its qualified voter file, uniform system of optical scan voting and strong leadership by state officials. Wisconsin was praised for its nonpartisan and professional election administration and its Election Day Registration system, though its problematic voter registration database was called into question. Minnesota was found to have the strongest election administration system marked by uniform voting technology across the state, strong leadership and Election Day Registration.
“The systems we studied varied greatly from those in real need of reform to those that are fairly high functioning,” said Edward B. Foley, director of Election Law @ Moritz. “But we believe every state can do better and the integrity of our elections and democracy depends on it. A healthy election system should promote three core values: access, integrity and finality.”
The full analysis and recommendations are available in the book From Registration to Recounts: The Election Ecosystems of Five Midwestern States. To read the book and a state-by-state breakdown of the analysis, visit www.electionlaw.osu.edu.
Election Law @ Moritz, an award-winning program of The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, has rapidly become one of the country’s premier centers of election law expertise. The program provides nonpartisan information and insight on election law and administration, and on important issues, developments and trends within the field. Through its web site (www.electionlaw.osu.edu), faculty scholarship, annual conferences, speaker series, and participation in academic and government sponsored examinations of election law, EL@M has become a resource to which the public, academics, and government officials turn for accurate and non-partisan information and analysis concerning election law and administration. EL@M has also become a resource to which the media has turned repeatedly for assistance in its attempt to educate the public on election law and administration facts, issues and developments.