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The Latest NCSL "Canvass": Advice to States on How to Cope With Budget Cuts to Elections

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[Image courtesy of the National Conference of State Legislatures' Canvass]

Back on August 5, I included the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) on my blog roll for election geeks. In particular, I singled out the Canvass, which is a newsletter produced regularly by NCSL's Elections team and aimed at state legislators and their staffs.

Yesterday, NCSL published the September 2011 Canvass, which features a series of presentations delivered in August at a session of NCSL's annual Legislative Summit - held this year in San Antonio, TX.

The theme of the session was Can States Stage Efficient Elections? with panelists Zachary Markovits of the Pew Center on the States, Doug Lewis of the National Association of Election Officials, and Allan Wallis, professor of public policy at the University of Colorado-Denver. A full webcast of the panel is available here.

Pew's Markovits led off with a simple but powerful equation:

efficiency = costs/output

He then noted the scarcity of cost data in the field of election administration, conceding that such data is "extremely important but can be hard to get." His message was simple: states cannot assess the efficiency of their election system until they get a better handle on their election costs; what's necessary, Markovits observed, is for states to encourage election offices to collect and report such data. By doing so, he said, states "can use existing data ... to drive election legislation so that policy supports better outputs and reduced costs--or, in other words, greater election efficiency." [You can see a short interview with Markovits here.]

Lewis - a thirty-year veteran of the election policy wars who is deeply knowledgeable about the nuts, bolts and people of the American election system - sounded a cautionary note about the impact of budget cuts. He said that legislators should expect notable election "oopses" in the next few election cycles as election offices struggle with the competing demands of legal mandates, dwindling funds and rising turnout, especially in 2012. In particular, he predicted that one result "will likely be longer wait times at the polls in 2012--something all elected officials will hear about." He also noted - as I did yesterday - the struggles election offices will face as existing voting technology breaks down or becomes obsolete and the funds to replace it are scarce to nonexistent.

Lewis' prescription for legislators was less, not more - specifically, states should not add more legal requirements which inevitably force election offices to play "catch up". Rather, he said, states should offer "general guidance" that promotes "stability and good performance" rather than react to events by enacting legislation designed to "fix last year's elections goof." [A short interview with Lewis is available here.]

Finally, Professor Wallis presented the results of a study he co-authored (with Peggy Cuciti) entitled Changing the Way Colorado Votes: a Study of Selected Reforms, commissioned by the state's Best Practices and Vision Commission.

According to the Canvass,

Wallis told the NCSL audience that between 2004 and 2008, election costs rose by 42 percent and have continued to go up. The cost of running elections is driven by two categories: 1) equipment and its maintenance, and 2) labor. He also noted that Colorado's county clerks are increasingly "having trouble finding people who can run a modern election."

The study looked at the potential for all-mail voting in terms of both political acceptance and financial viability. The study predicted Colorado would save money by switching to all-mail voting. However, a bill to permit Colorado counties to use all-mail voting was withdrawn by its sponsor before the committee could vote on it. Wallis offered these closing words: "Political reality can wipe out rationality very, very quickly."

All three of these perspectives - data-focused, tested by experience and politically aware - are tremendously valuable and will be vital to anyone (not just legislators) interested in the future of elections in America.

Amazing - and yet it's just another month's work for the Canvass, to which you can subscribe by contacting TheCanvass@ncsl.org.

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