The Presidential Commission on Election Administration hearing in Ohio

EDITORIAL NOTE: This guest blog post was written by Carrie Davis, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio.

On Friday, September 20th, Ohio played host to the U.S. Presidential Commission on Election Administration. In President Obama’s State of the Union Address earlier this year, he talked about setting up this Commission to look into problems that occurred in the 2012 elections.

No surprise, the Commission chose to visit Florida, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. What do these states have in common? You guessed it, they’re perennial battleground states.

So why are these states always ground zero for election problems? What makes the electoral process in battleground states such a mess? And, more importantly, is there anything we can do about it?

The League of Women Voters of Ohio (LWV Ohio) sought to address these questions in our testimony (PDF) before the Commission. For Ohio, it comes down to two main problems. One is that we have a history of election related problems, which have spawned an avalanche of legislation and litigation. The other is that Ohioans have wildly different views of how elections should be run, creating a continual battle between the state and counties over who gets to control the process.

The most glaring of Ohio’s troubled elections history was the disastrous 2004 election. We had incredibly long lines (some lasting up to twelve hours and into the wee hours of the morning), inadequate and malfunctioning equipment, poorly trained poll workers who gave voters misinformation, delayed election results, and more. It was an embarrassment.

In the aftermath of the 2004 election, advocates across the political spectrum called for change in the way Ohio administers its elections. One of those voices calling for change was the League, and in 2005 we filed a lawsuit against the state for its decades-long failures to properly manage elections. LWV Ohio’s lawsuit was settled in 2009, having survived appeals all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In addition to all of the lawsuits, policymakers at the state and local level have been engaged in a tug-of-war over how elections should be run. Why? Because Ohio is a battleground state even when no one is watching. Ohio has a diverse population. We have eight large urban areas, as well as sparsely populated rural communities. Naturally, there are tensions between large counties with more resources and small counties with small budgets, which often preclude a one-size-fits-all solution. There are tensions between state and county officials, because the state constitution grants counties “home rule” authority to make many policy decisions independent of the state. So state and county officials arm wrestle over who gets to decide.Members of the League of Women Voters of Ohio at the Presidential Commission on Election Administration hearing

Ohio is a politically balanced state, almost equally split between the two major parties. So there are tensions and heated rhetoric amongst party officials seeking to protect their voters. There is also the growing public outcry over fairness and integrity, terms whose meaning varies depending on one’s perspective. This makes for a very challenging climate in which to set aside rhetoric and focus on the practical side of running elections.

So what can be done in a “battleground state” that takes the moniker too seriously? Well, ideally, as League members, we would love to see policy makers engage in civil discourse and come to some kind of consensus. Barring that, LWV Ohio has a suggestion.

Remember the LWV Ohio lawsuit settlement (PDF)? That may provide the answer.

One of the key provisions of the LWV Ohio settlement was that all Ohio county Boards of Elections were required to adopt an Election Administration Plan (EAP) for each even-year election. The EAP requires each county to have a formal written plan for administering all aspects of the election.

A written plan? That’s it? In a word, yes. Because that plan requires each county to think about all the little things and big things that could go wrong. How many voting machines should you have at each polling location? What to do about long lines? What if the power goes out or there is a flood? What if a poll worker doesn’t show up? How do we communicate about problems on Election Day? What if one of the machines stops working? The list could go on and on. Any number of things can go wrong. Having a written plan saves precious time, because it answers the question “oh no, what do we do?”

While initially election officials decried the burden of the plan preparation, once they completed them they realized it made their job easier by clarifying how the workload had to be planned. When something did go wrong (those long lines again!), they could go back to their plan and see where they needed to make changes to keep from repeating the problem.

While the League would like to be able to take credit for this idea, in fact it was being promoted in the 1980s by what was then the Federal Election Commission’s Office of Election Administration. What we contributed was getting a judicial mandate to make it happen in Ohio.

It bears repeating that EAPs are not a silver bullet, but if the right questions are asked and updated after every election, they can address most issues that arise. 

This is one thing Ohio does well. EAPs work, and they ought to be made permanent. And as other states face similar problems with long lines and weather emergencies, LWV Ohio’s testimony (PDF) to the Presidential Commission offered our EAP model as one way to get in front of those problems.

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