Pew study finds common ground in California with SOTU address

150 150 Christopher Nelson

The country’s eyes are trained squarely on the election process in 2013. President Obama’s State of the Union speech confirmed as much when he announced a bi-partisan commission to conduct election oversight across the country.

If the “dangling chads” from 2000 still haunt our collective psyche, stories about voter ID laws proposed with the intent of disenfranchisement, the mishandling or miscounting of absentee ballot and six hour plus lines in certain states just to cast a ballot only solidified that lingering doubt.

It’s also why the Pew Center decided to aggregate a massive amount of state by state data on how elections are administered into what they are touting as the first ever “Elections Performance Index” (EPI).

With regard to the election commission, this is the third time in a major national speech that President Obama has mentioned election reform. His intentions are clear and some in academia were quick to support his effort.

“[The President’s] appointment of a new bipartisan commission is an important step, focusing on improving the experience of voters. This should be a critical part of the larger mission of modernizing elections so every eligible citizen can vote and have that vote counted,” said Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law in a released statement.

While California was far from a battleground state this cycle, it still saw its share of issues with absentee ballots getting counted properly. Of course, in closely contested states like Ohio, Florida and Virginia, there is more at stake when there are attempts to make last minute changes requiring a driver’s license to vote or when the wait time to cast a ballot exceeds that which most people can afford to stay away from work. The President’s story of 102 year old Desiline Victor was a reminder of the perseverance required by some to exercise a basic civic right last November.

The bi-partisan commission may very well start by looking at Pew’s recently introduced Elections Performance Index. They indicate that a state’s performance “is based on 17 measurable indicators such as polling location wait times, availability of voting information tools online, the number of rejected voter registrations, the percentage of voters with registration or absentee ballot problems, how many military and overseas ballots were rejected, voter turnout, and the accuracy of voting technology.”

Predictably, not every data set is available for every state, but the scorecarding is thoroughly explained within the data visualization, which is undoubtedly the centerpiece of the effort. It begins with a maps giving the EPI scores for each state for 2008 and 2010 elections and you can peg into a deeper state by state level from there.

Given how well California did in most areas in 2012, I think most people would be hard-pressed to predict that California ranked fourth from the bottom in 2010’s elections while Wisconsin, North Dakota and Minnesota garnered gold, silver and bronze, respectively.

Gaining Online Voter Registration (OVR) and online voter information lookup tools will certainly be a huge boon to the state’s score for 2012, but California still needs to fix issues with provisional and absentee ballots, where it ranked near the bottom of the pile in number cast and rejected of the former and dead last in number rejected of the latter in 2010. Our participation levels as a percentage of eligible voters also needs improvement.

But we’d be remiss in downplaying the notion that things are moving in the right direction, both here at home and on the national level. Much attention is being paid to younger demographics in previous efforts to take registration online as well as new legislation this session aimed at widening options and timeframe for pre-registration. The expansion of voter guides into more languages than the standard English and Spanish are on the table.

And of course, we have the President of the United States preaching about the need for election reform in his most widely watched address of the year. The needle has clearly moved. It is important that we as citizens fulfill our end of the bargain by moving to register and, subsequently, moving to vote when the time comes.

Democracy works best when people are informed and participating by holding their elected leaders accountable. The EPI results shows where California can still work to improve on engaging voters more broadly into the process and making sure those who cast their ballots are counted.

California Forward will continue to work with the Future of California Elections partners to accomplish this goal.


Christopher Nelson

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