Instead of planning summer vacations, many of us are still thinking about last year’s election. Election officials conducted one of the most transparent and secure elections in recent history under harrowing conditions, yet they continue to be under threat of violence by citizens who believe disinformation. We’ve seen legislators elected by those secure systems seek to undermine fair results through spurious “audits,” but only in the areas they feel their party lost. We need decision-makers to modernize our elections before we lose American confidence — and our democracy along with it.
Decision-makers have reacted in different ways: Restrictive bills popped up in states such as Texas and Florida, and legislative inaction took hold in New York, while states such as Vermont, Nevada and Kentucky continue to make bipartisan progress. These ad hoc, hyper-local and often temporary policies can get us only so far. Voters need to know what they can expect from democracy, no matter what state they live in or what method they use to participate.
The path to building confidence in elections is this: Offer more access to voters without compromising security and give election officials the money and resources they need to make it happen. Americans have a tradition of bipartisan federal action on election policies, but we have not made progress together since elections were designated as critical infrastructure in 2016. In a world of coordinated cyber attacks and disinformation, the American people deserve modern election systems. We have seen refinement on federal legislation such as the For the People Act (HR1/S1) and the Voting Rights Advancement Act (HR4) but the substantive need for process change has been lost in polarizing partisanship.
As a national expert and former election official, I’ve talked to hundreds of local and state election officials about what updates are vital to continue a premium standard of service for modern voters. There are seven obvious nonpartisan enhancements that advance both access and security for all voters:
- Enfranchise eligible voters by automating the voter registration and address update processes using the Postal Service’s National Change of Address database and other existing resources. Processes such as same-day voter registration are possible with efficient technical systems, negating unnecessary and confusing registration deadlines.
- Improve the voting experience by offering mail ballot access and early-voting options to all voters, regardless of age or location, to meet the needs of those who have been diversifying their voting methods for decades. As with any federal legislation, we need to account for the vast patchwork nationally, so flexibility for factors such as the length of the early-voting period should be considered.
- Support voters by shifting from assigned polling locations to multi-service vote centers, and federally fund outbound and inbound postage for election mail, including ballots (we do this for military and overseas voters). This would spare budget-strapped local jurisdictions from passing along the cost to voters. This also would lift the large cost of postage off localities and provide federal financial support directly to local governments.
- Foster confidence in the process by creating a ballot-tracking system with the postal service and the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. Each ballot envelope would have an intelligent mail barcode so the voter can be notified when the ballot is processed. Strict data privacy guidelines would ensure protection of voter information, and voters should have the opportunity to “cure” their ballot for any errors, reducing the rejection of viable ballots.
- Allow election officials adequate time to do their jobs by establishing a minimum of 14 days to scan ballot envelopes, mark them as received, verify the voter’s information, and scan the paper ballots. Preprocessing ballots enables jurisdictions to be more efficient in using their resources and allows the voter to cure their ballot, if need be.
- Allocate adequate funding directly to local and state election offices to update machinery and technology, and to recruit and maintain staff. Beyond necessities, funding must go toward effectively communicating processes with voters.
- Protect our election infrastructure. Disinformation and intimidation are part of the game that bad actors are using to infuse doubt in our voting experience. Election officials are the most trusted sources of election information, and their voices should be elevated to cut through disinformation. It should be a federal crime to obstruct, harass or attack our local or state election officials, and we must hold accountable those responsible for such acts.
We must take such actions now. American democracy cannot wait to set a baseline to protect voters and our election systems. Federal legislation is imperative if we want Americans to rest easy knowing that their democracy has not been subject to malfunction or interference. Partisan politics are just a sideshow, and the American people deserve more. Politicians must stop fighting each other and do what is right for us, and for future generations.
Amber McReynolds is founding CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute. She formerly was the director of elections for the City and County of Denver, where she helped to design and implement Colorado’s vote-at-home system. Follow her on Twitter @AmberMcReynolds.