June 28, 2012

I. In Focus This Week

New web tool makes absentee voting easier
U.S. Vote Foundation provides state-specific info online

By M. Mindy Moretti

With more and more people choosing alternative methods to casting their ballot than at a polling place on election day — the U.S. Election Assistance Commission estimated that 23.7 million voted absentee in 2008 — making sure voters have access to what they need to do so has become a top priority.

This month, the U.S. Vote Foundation (US Vote) launched an online absentee ballot tool that allows U.S. voters anywhere in the world to download and complete a state-specific absentee ballot request.

“We created this tool so that anyone who wishes to vote can be assisted – whether it be a traveling executive, a working parent, a home-bound person, or a college student away from home,” said US Vote President and CEO Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat. “The point of our services is access.  We want to make sure all Americans are equipped with the tools they need to vote, from the polling place to the kitchen table.”

The web tool allows voters to either create an account for future use, or fill out the required information as a one-time user. The online form asks basic voter information and then generates a state-specific form populated with the necessary information that the voter then prints, signs and mails to the address provided.

Dzieduszycka-Suinat said that part of her inspiration for working on a tool like this is the lack of publicly available innovative voter services in the U.S.

“All the organizations out there now need new and better tools,” she said. “You can’t stop at a widget. A widget is one tiny piece of the voting pie.”

Electionline.org gave it a whirl and it’s quite easy to use. The only quibble we would have is that it asked us if we wanted to vote absentee for a special election that happened more than year ago [Ed. Note: A represenative from U.S. Vote pointed out that they cannot alter the forms provided to them by state–in this case District–officials].

Dzieduszycka-Suinat noted that on the backend of the web tool it is quick to make changes to any of the forms and her team has worked with state and local officials to make those changes when necessary.

She said that while U.S. Vote did not work directly with state and local elections officials to create this tool, many of them did review the tool after it was complete and offered suggestions and corrections.

U.S. Vote is the first nongovernmental organization known to provide an online tool such as this.

“We are spearheading the modernization of domestic absentee ballot request,” said Dzieduszycka-Suinat. “This technology will improve the quality of absentee ballot requests, which will also assist election officials across the country.”

While all of the information in the absentee voter web tool — there is also a voter registration tool — is currently available on a multitude of other web sources, Dzieduszycka-Suinat pointed out that it’s often difficult for voters to find.

“Our added value is that we have hunters and gatherers that go around and find it,” she said.

Whether or not a new web tool such as this will help with turnout remains to be seen. Paul Gronke director of the Early Voting Information Center noted that the major administrative impacts on turnout are same-day and election-day registration as well as election day vote centers.

“A site like this is very useful, but I suspect is used primarily by those who are already interested and motivated,” Gronke said.

Even though he’s not sure how much a web tool like this might increase turnout, Gronke does see it as the first of many steps to make voting more accessible to voters.

“I think the future will hold more creative partnerships between private or non-profit groups like AVF, OVF, and Pew’s Voting Information Project and state and local elections offices, who are facing serious budgetary limitations,” Gronke said. “The challenge will be to assure that these websites retain their non-partisan flavor, a path that has been difficult to navigate in the past decade.”

As with any online tool, there are always questions about security. Dzieduszycka-Suinat said that security is always one of their forefront issues and that the they do a number of things to mitigate the risk to the voter such as sessions that timeout if someone steps away from a computer, none of the forms are stored on US Vote’s servers and that none of the sensitive information like dates of birth or social security information is stored even if a voter creates an account.

While the feedback from the elections community has been generally positive, there are some concerns that like almost anything else, this web tool, in the hands of the wrong people, could be abused.

“Obviously is that there could be those out there who would misdirect people; they could set up a dummy site or alternate site that takes someone away from the legit site like this one or like the county site,” said Pamela Smith, director of Verified Voting. “Just like with offering a portal for Internet voting, that portal could be spoofed and someone misdirected by an email campaign, say, to a different (and malicious) portal, offering another way to disenfranchise voters. “

Smith noted that that’s true about county sites as well and that there’s nothing inherent in a site like this that would make it especially vulnerable.

“Misinformation campaigns will occur; this site does provide contact information to the actual election officials, so you can make sure you’re getting the right info.

They also direct you to the state-specific form for registration. Those are good positives, in my view.”

News Update: Last week’s electionlineWeekly focused on the impacts the High Park Fire may have on the election process in Larimer County, Colo. Unfortunately since we first reported that story, not only has the High Park Fire become more dangerous, but other fires in the state impacted Tuesday’s primary.

In El Paso County, election results were delayed because the county’s main ballot counting center is located near the park where the Waldo Canyon fire is burning. Thick smoke and nearby evacuations had the county releasing preliminary results at 7:30pm and then sending workers home for their own safety.

Election workers were granted a two-hour access to the tabulation building on Wednesday to gather uncounted ballots and tabulation equipment.

“All of the ballots and all of the equipment have been under video surveillance this entire time,” Alissa Vander Veen, chief deputy with the El Paso County Clerk and Recorder’s Office told The Gazette.

The county was also forced to move its ballot collection process from outside the building to inside because smoke was too thick for election workers to stand outside waiting for voters to drive-up and drop off their ballots.


II. Election News This Week

  • This week, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Maryland law that allows the state to count prisoners at their last known address instead of at the prison address when redistricting. The 2010 law differs from the U.S. Census Bureau’s policy of counting inmates at the prison address. According to The Washington Times, critics of the federal policy say it has artificially inflated the populations and voting power of the often-rural districts that contain prisons, while reducing the influence of urban areas where many inmates formerly lived. The Court issued its decision without hearing oral arguments.
  • Last week Maine Secretary of State Charlie Summers was under fire for not stepping down from his role as the state’s chief elections official while running for the U.S. Senate and this week his office is back in the news for running low on voter registration cards used by third-party voter registration organizations. According to the Bangor Daily News, office policy statewide candidates and political parties can request up to 2,000 cards per week, with a 10,000-card limit for the election cycle. But when a candidate for state senate called last week to request 250, she was told she could only have 50 because of the shortage. Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn told the paper that more forms will be available the second week in July. “It caught us a little unaware that folks would want to be going out this soon before the November election doing these drives,” she told the paper.
  • Jasper County, Mo. has joined a growing list of states and counties using electronic poll books to check in voters. County Clerk Bonnie Earl is ordering iPads to use in each of the county’s 50 polling places. Earl told The Joplin Globe she expects using the devices will reduce waiting by voters because election judges will not have to look up voters’ names in polling books. “I think this will just eliminate any concern about voter fraud, because the iPad will take a picture of a voter’s information, and it will bring it up automatically, so things will go much faster,” she said. Earl told the paper she plans to purchase up to 100 iPads, at a cost of more than $112,000, including licensing and software. She said costs will be covered by a $40,000 state grant and $65,000 that she has saved in her election budget.
  • The D.C. Board of Elections no longer has any ethics. Earlier this year they city enacted a new ethics law that creating a Board of Ethics and Government Accountability and since then the DCBOE(E) has slowly been getting rid of that extra E on everything from its website page, to letterhead to its Facebook page. “It became official when the law became official, but really we’re just rebranding things when we get around to it,” board spokeswoman Alysoun McLaughlin told The Washington Post. McLaughlin the paper the board is not spending money on a “PR campaign” or other efforts to change the name — it will be changing signs, logos and letterhead as they would otherwise be normally replaced to keep costs down.
  • Personnel News: Kim Webb, an administrative assistant with city of Prescott, Ariz. will serve as the interim clerk through the summer while the city conducts a search to replace Clerk Elizabeth Burke who resigned to make the move to Flagstaff. Matthew P. Tlachac has been named the new director of the Clark County, Ohio board of elections. Tlachac previously served as the Madison County BOE deputy director. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder appointed Colleen Pero to the board of state canvassers this week. Pero replaces Jeff Timmer who recently resigned. Daniel Teed has been appointed to serve as the new Harrison County, Texas elections administrator. Columbia County, Ga. Elections Director Deborah Marshall is home from the hospital where she was being treated for a brain tumor since April 6. Electionline wishes Marshall a continued, speedy recovery.

III. Opinions

National News: Voter suppression, II; Latino voters

Alaska: Voting Rights Act

California: Same-day registration; Top-two primary; Voter turnout

Florida: Voter purge, II; Voting rights

Georgia: Sample ballots; Voter fraud; Overseas ballots

Iowa: Ex-felon voting rights, II

Massachusetts: Election reform

Michigan: Absentee voting; Voter fraud

Minnesota: Voter ID

New Hampshire: Voter ID

New Mexico: Straight-ticket voting

New York: Voting machines; Voter interest; Voter registration

North Carolina: Election funding, II, III

Ohio: Election protection

Pennsylvania: Voter ID

Tennessee: Voter purges

Wisconsin: Racine recount, II

**Some sites may require registration.

IV. Job Openings

electionlineWeekly publishes election administration job postings each week as a free service to our readers. To have your job listed in the newsletter, please send a copy of the job description, including a web link to mmoretti@electionline.org. Job postings must be received by 5pm on Wednesday in order to appear in the Thursday newsletter. Listings will run for three weeks or till the deadline listed in the posting.

Rules Committee Counsel, Washington, D.C. — Senate Committee on Rules and Administration Democratic staff is seeking an attorney to handle a variety of legal responsibilities, with emphasis on administrative and election law.  A minimum of three years’ legal experience and Capitol Hill experience are mandatory.  Senate experience, knowledge of Senate rules and procedures, and/or election and campaign finance experience are highly desirable.  Responsibilities include interpreting and drafting Senate rules, procedures and regulations, evaluating contracts and claims, drafting legislation, hearing development and preparation, memoranda, statements and speeches as well as training and providing guidance to Senate offices on administrative and rules matters.  Successful applicant will have the ability to operate in a fast-paced environment, excellent research and writing skills.  Applicants should possess excellent academic credentials. Please e-mail resume and writing samples to senate_employment@saa.senate.gov indicating job referral number in the subject line.

Statistician, U.S. Dept. of Justice — primary responsibility of the statistician is to provide technical guidance and statistical analyses used by the Voting Section to determine whether states and local jurisdictions are in compliance with the Voting Rights Act and other federal voting laws the Section enforces. Qualifications: degree that included 15 semester hours in statistic and 9 additional semester hours in one or more of the following: physical or biological sciences, medicine, education, or engineering; or in the social sciences. Combination of education and experience: courses as shown in A above, plus appropriate experience or additional education.  The experience should have included a full range of professional statistical work such as (a) sampling, (b) collecting, computing, and analyzing statistical data, and (c) applying statistical techniques such as measurement of central tendency, dispersion, skewness, sampling error, simple and multiple correlation, analysis of variance, and tests of significance. Application: Please submit your application via fax at 202-514-6603 or by email to crd.vacancies@usdoj.gov. Deadline: June 29, 2012. For more information and the complete listing, please click here or here (two openings).