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Non-Precinct Place Voting: Trends and Opportunities

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Early.Voting.DuPage.jpg

[Image courtesy of Dupage, IL Elections]

Pew's latest Election Data Dispatch looks at the steep upward trend in the numbers of voters who are casting ballots outside the traditional neighborhood polling place. Using data from the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey, the Pew team found that 26.6% of voters in 2010 cast ballots by absentee, vote-by-mail or in-person early voting - up from 19.6% in the 2006 midterm elections.

I recently had the opportunity to contribute a piece to the Election Law Journal discussing the impact of this growing shift by voters to non-precinct place voting (NPPV). In doing so, I made the following observations about the nature of the changes that accompany a growth in NPPV:

Much of the impact of NPPV has been temporal--i.e., tied to the expansion of the notion of Election Day. Traditionally, Election Day marked the only opportunity for the vast majority of voters to cast their ballots; today, Election Day is merely the last day a voter can cast a ballot. Much of the popular scrutiny of NPPV to date, then, has focused on this temporal expansion, along with its attendant effects on candidate and voter behavior.

Equally important, though, is NPPV's spatial expansion of election administration. NPPV has inexorably eroded the traditional equivalence between electoral geography--that unique combination of candidate and non-candidate contests that comprise a voter's ballot style--and the physical location where a voter actually casts that ballot.

NPPV's temporal and spatial effects have combined to create a modal expansion for voters and election officials alike. Because voters now have more choices about when and where to vote, election administration has had to evolve to become an increasingly complex system to cope with ballots cast at different times and at different places, but also in different forms.

This three-dimensional shift in the electoral process creates challenges for the field, especially with regard to

  • + the interplay between NPPV and voter registration - in a world where voters can cast ballots before Election Day, some jurisdictions (like North Carolina) have sought to expand opportunities for voters to register and vote on the same day;
  • + the interaction between NPPV and political geography - both in assuring that voters get the the correct ballot for their "home" precinct as well as connecting election returns back to that precinct for reporting purposes; and
  • + the impact of NPPV on the timeliness and nature of election night reporting and the election canvass/certification process.

The biggest challenge in the long run, however, will be how election offices adjust to the new landscape that voters' reliance on NPPV has created. From my ELJ piece:

[Election offices] will be left with the question of how to make NPPV work--and how to pay for it. To date, every state that employs NPPV is layering it onto a pre-existing election framework (with the exception of Oregon and Washington, which are now all vote-by-mail). As the proportion of voters using NPPV grows--with the dollars available to cover election costs staying flat if not decreasing--jurisdictions must find a way to align demand for voting across all different modes with the resources available to support them.

The next step, [therefore], will be for the election community to engage in more detailed calibration in response to NPPV's "supply and demand." As NPPV expands, researchers are going to learn more and more about who uses NPPV and why. Similarly, as more and more jurisdictions begin to collect data on what it costs to administer elections, they will get clarity on what NPPV costs--both alone and in relation to traditional polling places. Someday, these two strands of data will converge and election officials will be able to allocate resources to NPPV and traditional polling places much as an investor does to stocks, bonds and cash--maximizing return at the most affordable cost. Such analysis will never replace the tough policy decisions--unlike funds in a portfolio, voters are not fungible--but it will almost certainly result in a better-managed election system.

In many ways, the shift to NPPV is the result of voters "voting with their feet" by no longer relying exclusively on the traditional polling place. Pew's latest Dispatch suggests that this shift appears to be permanent - and consequently the election community will need to find ways to adapt its procedures to ensure it can keep pace.

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