Archive for the 'Election Administration' Category

In 2016, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson found that state election officials were suspicious of federal offers of assistance in defending their voting systems from cyber attack. He tried to persuade them to accept DHS designation of those systems as “critical infrastructure,” which would have given states access on a priority basis to a range of protections. The response he received ranged from “neutral to negative.” DHS concluded that, in the middle of an election, it was best not to have a protracted, politicized fight over this step. It focused on providing assistance where it could, and a large number of jurisdictions requested help. In January 2017, even with officials remaining skeptical about the designation, Secretary Johnson proceeded to issue it.

According to Johnson, and as further reflected in reporting by The Washington Post, election officials resisting this engagement with the federal government viewed it as a threat to” states rights.” At least one, Brian Kemp of Georgia, suspected that the Administration might be using the claimed Russian interference as a ploy to advance the political prospects of its favored candidate, Hillary Clinton.  Kemp and others were not convinced that the Obama Administration had properly fixed blame on the Russians. Congressional Republican leadership stayed close to their state allies on these points, also stressing the rights of states and declining to embrace the finding of Russian intrusions.

This is a revealing part of the 2016 story: government at war with itself, in the grip of partisanship, when under cyber attack from a foreign government. The attack was directed at the electoral process, and yet it was still not enough to produce a unified, fully coordinated federal and state response. For all the progress in bipartisan election administrative reform in recent years--and there has been a fair measure of it--Johnson’s account exposes key, and altogether familiar, structural obstacles.

In apparent haste, with not all its members appointed, the President issued the executive order establishing the Pence vote fraud Commission. The appointments still to come will add only marginally to an understanding of this Commission’s objectives. As the Order is written, and with the naming of Kansas Secretary of State Kobach as Vice Chair, those objectives are clear, and the outcome not hard to forecast. And yet there are extraordinary features to the Commission, none of them surprising, and none are the result of error or lack of foresight.

Begin with the leadership:

The Chair is the Vice President of the President who has announced that millions of illegal votes were cast in the last election, all against him (or for his opponent). Now Mr. Kobach, as Vice Chair, has joined the leadership ranks as a public supporter of the President’s claims.  He has said that the “White House has provided enormous evidence with respect to voter fraud.” This is untrue.   As for the problem of non-citizen voting, Kobach has asserted that there is a “lot of evidence” of it. This is also untrue. The larger point is that the Vice Chair of the Commission has reached these conclusions long ago, before a day of testimony or an hour of deliberation. What are the chances that this Commission will arrive at judgments contrary to the ones asserted so confidently by the President--and echoed by Mr. Kobach whose bid for national prominence rests on loudly ringing the alarm about voter fraud?

Now, onto the Commission's purposes:

Responses to a Pence Commission on Voter Fraud

February 15, 2017
posted by Bob Bauer

There seems to be a question of whether the media should provide platforms for Administration spokespersons who regularly use the airtime to disseminate falsehoods. “Truth matters,” Margaret Sullivan writes, and she worries that viewers will come away misled, as some might have last Sunday after Stephen Miller’s appearance in which he repeated the charge of “serious” voter fraud. But Sullivan misses the point that the Administration should be given every opportunity to say what it will on this subject (and others). We might regret that some in the audience, predisposed to believe these claims, may mistake them for facts. But Miller, following Trump, is helping, by speaking, to clarify the nature of this initiative, and it is important that it be understood.

One consequence of clear understanding will be the disinclination of true experts to participate in this process. Few with credibility will be anxious to sign up to validate the work of a Commission launched to validate a conclusion already reached. And, as Miller made clear, this conclusion rests on what “everyone”--at least everyone in New Hampshire--knows. It is hard to imagine who will take this “everyone knows” school of election administration seriously and risk their reputations by enrolling in it.

In the normal case, when a Commission-in-the-making is virtually founded on the rejection of expertise, its bid for respectability would be a long shot. But when its political purpose is plain, because it is the creation of candidates pursuing their own self-interest, it has no hope. The President’s staunchest political allies might stay with him on this, and he can count on groups that thrive on allegations of fraud. In the wider world of administrators and experts, both Democratic and Republican, the prospects of having to engage with this Commission will inspire dread.

This leaves members of this community with a couple of choices.

For all the talk about weaknesses in the electoral systems--about voter fraud or hacking or machine failure, or all of the above--experience with these types of claims or concerns suggests that, as matters of general public debate, they will soon fade. The rhetoric may linger, but little of use, such as practical reforms, is likely to follow.

This does not have to be the way the story ends. Six years ago, the Presidential Commission on Election Administration suggested at least two potentially helpful measures, one very concrete and urgent, and the other pressing but more politically complicated and so harder to execute. These reforms won’t satisfy everyone: they offer only so much to those with the darkest suspicions. But they would make a major difference in preventing a calamitous breakdown in the voting process and an even greater collapse of public confidence.

First, the Commission emerged from its study of various administrative problems to sound an alarm about the state of election equipment and voting technology. It elected to use the words "impending crisis”: It did so in the knowledge that election administrators across the country would not accuse it of exaggerating. What was leading inexorably toward crisis was:

The widespread wearing out of voting machines purchased a decade ago, the lack of any voting machines on the market that meet the current needs of election administrators, a standard-setting process that is broken down, and a certification process for new machines that is costly and time-consuming.
Jurisdictions looking to address the problem did not then, and most do not now, have enough money to do it, or to do it promptly.

The Commission also recommended that post-election audits of voting equipment should be conducted after each election "as part of a comprehensive audit program," with full disclosure about machine performance in a common data format. The Commission specifically endorsed both risk-limiting audits, intended to validate the election outcome with a sample of votes cast, and performance audits to address the question of whether the voting technology performed as required.

The State of the Political Reform Program, Post-Election

November 14, 2016
posted by Bob Bauer

With two elections within sixteen years won by the candidate who lost the popular vote, it is a natural turn that the Electoral College moves higher on the reform agenda. There remain other items for consideration: the state of the political parties, campaign finance, and voting rights. The question is: in what ways will the substance of reform, and its timing or tactics, be affected by the outcome of this election?

1. Attention to the Electoral College is now heightened at a time of mounting impatience with the other ways in which the electoral process deviates from the expectation that the most votes should decide. James Ceaser has correctly said that we've arrived at the point in our political culture that it is, if not unthinkable, difficult in the extreme to stand against the principle that the person with the most votes wins. So Republican leadership balked at any program to stop Trump at least in part because they struggled to explain how the nomination could somehow be denied to the candidate in a field of 17 who won by far the most contests and the most votes. The Democrats have run into similar problems with the role of super-delegates.

The case against the Electoral College is strengthened considerably by this strong trend in popular expectation. Whether we will see sustained momentum for reform is a different question.

2. Meanwhile, what about the parties? Ezra Klein has come to the view that parties may be weak but partisanship runs high, and that this complicated combination explains a good bit of what some see to have gone wrong with the nominating processes. Parties do not mediate voter choice: it is not accepted that they should step in against the candidates the voters favor and compel an alternative choice presented as superior in experience, governing credentials, or electability. So the voters decide, and once they have decided, the parties and their partisan fall into line. As Klein explains it, this is the worst of all worlds: weak parties, high partisanship.

The absence of strong parties on the traditional model has been keenly felt in this way, and perhaps in other less visible ones. For example, candidates now rely upon polling data to shape strategy and to adjust as necessary to changed political conditions. All of this is done at headquarters, shaped by sophisticated analytics. And the analytics are highly advanced. A modern campaign cannot operate without them. But genuinely strong parties are built on something more. They would have good intelligence "on the ground" delivered by seasoned party officials and operatives. The state and local party would speak authoritatively on local conditions. It pick up quickly on changes in those conditions not easily accessible through polling.