[Image courtesy of Makes Me Smile]
Cross-posted from the January 5, 2012 electionlineWeekly
In case you missed it - and really, how could you? - the 2012 presidential election began in earnest Tuesday night in Iowa.
This will be our third presidential election here at electionline.org - four, if you count the echoes of 2000 that dominated our first months of existence - and while each cycle is unique I have discovered that there are usually common themes that emerge and are helpful to keep in mind before we start shooting with real ballots in the coming months:
OBSERVATION #1: Election administration and politics are supposed to be separate but they're hard to keep apart - and never more so in presidential years when everyone stops not paying attention.
Forgive the double negative, but it's appropriate here; the truth is that the details of election administration are complicated, nuanced and more than a little mundane. As a result, almost no one pays attention. That changes, of course, in presidential years when the minutiae of elections are suddenly vitally important to candidates and campaigns trying capture or hold the White House.
The problem, of course, is that this increase in attention isn't usually accompanied by an increase in understanding, with the result that politics and election administration tend to get mixed up in the public mind. That doesn't mean that they're mixed up in practice; to the contrary, in my experience, the men and women who run elections in this country are loyal to the process over any party and do their jobs without being influenced by partisan concerns.
But when stakes (and emotions) are high, you will hear accusations of partisanship leveled against election officials. Disproving - indeed, preventing - such accusations is going to be at the forefront of every election official's mind, and will almost certainly result in a degree of caution in how they speak and act in this presidential year.
OBSERVATION #2: Presidential elections always bring lots of new voters unfamiliar with the voting process - as well as "occasional voters" who are unfamiliar with changes to process since the last time they voted.
The nature of American voting turnout has always been cyclical, with spikes in presidential years. These years also tend to attract millions of new voters excited - or recruited by presidential campaigns in hopes they will become excited - to cast a ballot.
While not all of these voters will be casting ballots for the first time in 2012, they might as well be given how much the process has changed in some places since the last time they went to the polls.
In New York, for example, the old lever machines are gone in favor of optical scan ballots - which I am willing to wager will be an (unpleasant?) surprise to millions of Empire State voters in 2012. Voters' reactions to these changes - and policymakers' and politicians' reactions to their reactions - are going to be a constant feature in the upcoming year.
OBSERVATION #3: The sheer number of voters who cast ballots in presidential years is a challenge for the nation's election system.
In October 2008, electionline.org released an election preview subtitled "What If We Had an Election and Everyone Came?" In the Introduction to the report, I wrote the following - which remains essentially true in 2012:
For  years, policymakers, election officials, and advocates have upgraded the plumbing of the nation's election system - replacing some sections while patching and plugging others - all in the hope of keeping Americans and their votes flowing smoothly.
[Soon], however, voters will crank the pressure sky high.
A [race] for the White House, fueled by deep partisan, geographic, race and class divisions on issues at home and abroad, is about to result in a likely record number of voters turning out to vote on (and increasingly before) Election Day.
The question is no longer exclusively "will the system work?" Rather, it is "can the system handle the load?
Quite simply, for all the complaints one reads about the sorry state of voter participation in this country, the truth is that the nation's election system in 2012 isn't designed to handle 100 percent participation; indeed, in the wake of recent fiscal pressures, many election offices are scrambling just to approximate the same level of effort they had in 2008.
Presidential years are a political challenge for parties and candidates but they are a logistical and capacity challenge for the nation's election administrators. How they respond will be another constant theme in 2012.
Of course, there are many more themes and observation to be made - but I'm not giving it all away in the first newsletter of the year!
Stay tuned - presidential years are always exciting; not always in a good way, but exciting nonetheless.
Happy (New) Election Year!