Skip to main content

Restoring Election Confidence Requires Transparency, Increased Access

During a press briefing at the 2018 AAAS Annual Meeting, panelists examined voting restrictions and discussed the beneficial impact of automatic voter registration on voting participation. | Photo by Elliott Stallion on Unsplash

Efforts to limit access to voting, compounded by election security concerns, have created a lack of confidence in the U.S. voting system, said Myrna Perez, professor of law and director of the Brennan Center for Justice Voting Rights and Elections Project at the New York University School of Law.

During a news briefing at the 2018 AAAS Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas on Feb. 15, Perez said she recommends states undertake “basic, common-sense procedures” such as instituting automatic voter registration when a person applies for a driver’s license or other state services, extending polling place hours, increasing absentee ballot use and increasing election funding to improve voting technology and staffing.

Such an approach is counter to the “wave” of state legislation Perez saw being put into place starting in 2010 to make it harder for voters to register, such as requiring photo identification, or restricting early voting. Of the 180 bills introduced in 41 states, 25 were passed and more have been introduced. Perez said that some people benefit from making the systems less transparent and more complex because others will get “so disgusted with the system that they choose to opt-out.”

As legislatures have introduced more than a dozen bills that would restrict voter access to the polls, more than 200 measures that would make it easier to vote have also been introduced, a trend some view as a sign that voters’ rights need to be protected. | Brennan Center for Justice

The irony is that making voter registration easier increases votes for both political parties, said Paul Gronke, professor of political science at Reed College in Portland, Ore. Gronke studied Oregon’s motor-voter law, which enables people to register to vote when they apply for or update their driver’s license, and found it increased participation by voters from both parties, in both rural and urban areas. It significantly increased registrations of young voters and improved representation of lower-income residents who are being displaced by gentrification, two groups that are more mobile and less likely to have a permanent residence, he said.

The motor-voter law was added to vote-by-mail system Oregon already had, so even if people do not drive, they get a reminder to register by mail when they move. “If you have moved, that ballot is not forwarded and the system generates a postcard that allows you to update your voting record,” Gronke said. “We have extremely clean rolls because we rely on the U.S. Postal System.”

Another benefit of increasing voter registrations is that it can help reduce extreme partisan messaging by inducing candidates to broaden their appeal. “By maximizing the number of citizens that are on the rolls, both political parties are incentivized to compete for them,” Gronke said. “One of the reasons the parties are polarizing right now is they have different bases…demographically.” There are subgroups we think lean in one direction, but could be swayed. However, the other party has no incentive to appeal to them because they are not on the rolls, he said.

How much do laws restricting voter registration or access to polls affect voting? It’s hard to measure, because “as you change the rules, voters adjust,” Gronke said. Also, Perez said, while effects should to be tracked over multiple elections, any effects will be small and potentially masked by increased voting by another group in response. “It can be true some groups are restricted and a different group gets really mad about it and turns out more,” Perez said.

As for improving election security, both Perez and Gronke cited concerns about improving voters’ access and making practical changes, such as updating voting booth technology, increasing election funding and requiring every state to adopt risk-limiting audits.

While many may be concerned about Russian efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election, Gronke said, those efforts primarily took place in communications over Facebook and Twitter and were not attempts to hack election systems. Actually hacking into voting machines is difficult, he said, due the substantial number and variety of voting technology used in different states.

Election administration reform is really about efficiency, security and integrity, Gronke said. Ultimately, “voter turnout is most impacted by voter interest, voter engagement and candidates that people care about.”

[Associated image: Ben Schumin/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)]