U.S. Election Procedures
04 January 2012
Thousands of administrators are responsible for organizing and conducting U.S. elections, including tabulating and certifying the results. These officials have an important and complex set of tasks — setting the exact dates for elections, certifying the eligibility of candidates, registering eligible voters and preparing voter rolls, selecting voting equipment, designing ballots, organizing a large temporary work force to administer the voting on Election Day, tabulating the votes and certifying the results.
While most American elections are not particularly close, there are occasionally races with a very small margin of victory or races in which the outcome is contested. The outcome of the 2000 U.S. presidential election — the drawn-out contest to determine a winner in the closest presidential election in American history — exposed Americans to many of these administrative issues for the first time.
Voting in the United States is a two-step process. There is no national list of eligible voters, so a citizen must first qualify by becoming registered. Citizens register to vote where they live; if they move to a new location, they have to register again at their new address. Registration systems were designed to eliminate fraud, but the procedures for registering voters vary from state to state. In times past, selective registration procedures were used to discourage certain citizens — most notably, African Americans in the South — from participating in elections.
There had been a tendency to ease registration requirements. For instance, the 1993 National Voter Registration Act makes it possible for citizens to register to vote at the time they renew their state-issued driver’s licenses. More recently, however, many states are passing laws making registration more difficult by, for example, requiring government-issued identification, restricting voter registration drives and eliminating registration on Election Day.
One of the most important functions for election officials is ensuring that everyone who is eligible to vote is on the registration lists but that no one who is unqualified is included. Generally, local election officials err on the side of keeping people on the lists even if they have not voted recently, rather than eliminating potentially eligible voters. When people appear at the polls whose names are not on the lists, they are now given a provisional ballot to record their votes. Their eligibility is subsequently reviewed before their votes are counted.
In the United States, an election, even an election for federal office, is a locally conducted administrative exercise. And, as noted, election administrators — typically county or city officials or clerks — have a daunting task. Not only are they responsible for registering voters all year long and for determining who is eligible to vote in a particular election, they also have to design the ballots for each election and make sure that all certified candidates are listed and all issues up for decision correctly worded. And they must try to make the ballot as simple and as clear as possible.
Currently, there are no national standards for ballot forms. Under the Voting Rights Act, election officials may have to provide ballots in multiple languages (if a percentage of the population does not speak English as a primary language). In some jurisdictions, the order of the candidates and parties on the ballot has to be randomly assigned. Ultimately, local election officials have to select the specific voting machines to use, and the ballots must fit the devices.
In between elections, these officials are responsible for the storage and maintenance of the voting devices. And one of their most difficult tasks is to hire and train a large temporary staff for one long session of work (typically 10 to 15 hours) on Election Day.
The Nature of Balloting
A certain effort goes into fair, legal and professional preparation for elections. Since the equipment and ballot forms are generally purchased by officials at the local level, the type and condition of equipment that voters use often is related to the socioeconomic status and the tax base of their locale. Since local tax revenue also funds schools, police and fire services, as well as parks and recreation facilities, investments in voting technology often have been given low priority.
A wide variety of voting devices is available in the United States, and the landscape of voting technologies is continuously changing. Today, there are very few places where voting takes place with handheld paper ballots marked with an “X” next to a candidate’s name, as was done in the past, but many computerized systems still depend on paper ballots on which circles are filled in or lines connected. These ballots are then scanned mechanically to have the votes recorded; the equipment is known as an optical scan system.
Some jurisdictions still use “lever” machines, on which voters turn a small lever next to the names of the candidates they prefer or the side of an issue they support. Another very common device is a “punch-card” machine. The ballot is a card where holes or punches are made next to a candidate’s name, or the card is inserted into a holder that lines up with a ballot image, and then the holes are punched. This is the form of ballot that caused controversy in counting votes for the 2000 U.S. presidential election in Florida. As a result of that situation, many jurisdictions have eliminated punch-card devices. The Help America Vote Act provided voluntary funding to jurisdictions to replace lever and punch-card voting systems.
The current trend is toward adoption of direct recording electronic (DRE) devices, which have touch screens that resemble those of automated banking machines. Security specialists are working to refine these systems to resolve security issues.
A significant change in balloting in recent years has been the adoption of procedures that make ballots available to voters before the election. This trend started with provisions for absentee ballots, issued to voters who anticipate being away from their home (and their voting place) on Election Day. Some states and local jurisdictions gradually liberalized this provision, allowing citizens to register as “permanent absentee voters” and routinely have a ballot mailed to their home. Oregon conducts its elections entirely by mail, but it is the only state to do so at present. Absentee voters generally return their completed ballots by mail.
Another new provision is “early voting,” for which voting machines are set up in shopping malls and other public places for up to three weeks before Election Day. Citizens stop by at their convenience to cast their votes.
Counting the Votes
Tabulation of votes takes place on Election Day. Even though early ballots are becoming more popular, they are not counted until tabulation begins after the polls close, so that no official information can be released about which candidate is ahead or behind. Information about early results of balloting could affect later stages of the election.
The Reform Movement
One of the distinct lessons of the 2000 presidential election was that the election administration, balloting and vote-counting issues encountered in Florida could have occurred to some degree in almost any jurisdiction in the United States. Several studies were commissioned, and a variety of panels heard expert witnesses and took testimony about the need for reform.
In 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which includes several notable elements. First, the federal government offered payments to states and localities to replace outdated punch-card and lever-voting machines. Second, it established an Election Assistance Commission to provide technical assistance to local election administration officials and establish standards for voting devices. The commission’s portfolio includes establishment of research programs to study voting machine and ballot design, methods of registration, methods for provisional voting and for deterring fraud, procedures for recruiting and training poll workers and education programs for voters, among other matters.
HAVA represents a significant departure from limited federal involvement in what has historically been a local administrative issue. But this procedural reform effort has helped reconfirm the faith that Americans have in their electoral system. And the costs involved are small when one considers that elections are the legitimizing foundation of democracy.