2008 Ohio Elections Summit

March 11, 2009

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Read introduction from report
Author's statement about the report
Related documents and selected news coverage

Shortly after the voting ended on Nov. 4, 2008, Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner announced a bipartisan convening of election officials and voting experts to study the recent election with a goal of determining what went right as well as what could be improved. This page includes the Preliminary Report on the 2008 Ohio Elections Summit as well as related resources, including press releases and news articles.

Click here to read the final report, issued Apr. 8, 2009.

Introduction from Report

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quoteThis preliminary report has two, occasionally competing, goals. It aims to survey in some detail the policy concerns regarding Ohio’s election system that emerged from the December summit. Additionally, it strives give coherent shape to the varied responses voiced by summit participants and subsequent interviewees. Our goal was to produce a document that faithfully records different points of view on Ohio election policy in an organized format that will be useful to election officials.

Substantively, the report is structured around four aspects of election administration; each emerged as an important focus for future election policy. The four subject areas are: the statewide voter registration databases (the “Statewide Database”), Provisional voting and voter ID, early in-person and mail-in absentee voting, and poll worker recruitment and training. Policy developments in these areas will shape Ohio’s election system. There is not necessarily consensus on the direction of reform. There is, however, agreement: change is needed in each of these key areas.

This is not an advocacy document. It does not promote a particular policy agenda. Within each of its four main sections, however, the report reveals some areas of common concern, large and small, without obscuring existing differences in the views expressed. Moreover, it is possible to identify some broad principles for policy development that were articulated by many different voices, cutting across the different substantive topics and sometimes coming from opposing viewpoints on the content of needed reforms. There is value in articulating these general principles both because they highlight shared values that can foster cooperation, and because they function as a screening device that may help measure the viability and functionality of suggested reforms.

Five of these themes can be presented as general instructions for future policy development:

1. Base decisions about election policy and practice on systematic data analysis.

Summit participants and interviewees with otherwise very different perspectives voiced a common concern that election policy decisions be driven by systematic factual analysis. In many substantive contexts, election officials, advocates and academics all noted areas where more information was needed and where assumptions substituted for objective data, and noted instances in which more information was needed. For example, a deputy election board director noted that criminal convictions alone are not reliable indicators of election fraud; a political scientist proposed studies of counties and precincts with unusually high rates of provisional balloting and a number of participants called for a technical study of the Statewide Database’s security, accuracy and reliability, analogous to research conducted previously on voting machines. At the end of each section, the report lists areas participants identified where additional research information would be fruitful.

2. Consider carefully the impact of policy changes in the real world of election administration.

The need to assess the real world impact of policy changes was a theme sounded in various contexts and from multiple ideological perspectives. County election officials expressed considerable frustration with the disruption caused by last minute changes in election policy. Whether they supported or derided voter ID requirements, advocates and election officials agreed that some of the current ID rules were so arcane and confusing that they almost guaranteed some misadministration. At the same time, while county officials appreciated statewide standards and wanted to clarify statewide election rules, they worried that sometimes one-size-fits-all rules increased inequities when applied in different contexts, or when they prevented responding in common sense pragmatic fashion.

3. Aim to count every vote cast by a person qualified to participate in that electoral contest.

Of course this is a guiding principle, by definition, of voter protection advocates. But it is worth noting that to a person, election officials emphasized that they were personally committed to the same basic goal. Moreover, some differences of opinion about the value of existing election structures appear to come more from different understandings of their enfranchising or disenfranchising function than from any disagreement that the primary goal of election administration is to enfranchise eligible voters. So, for instance, some election officials’ approval of Ohio’s relatively high rate of provisional balloting is based on the perception that those provisional voters would otherwise be unable to vote at all, while advocates’ and academics’ concern that provisional ballot numbers are too high comes from the assumption that in states with lower provisional rates a greater proportion of the electorate is voting by regular ballots. Harking back to the first principle that policy should be based on systematic assessment, then, this is a difference of opinion that should be resolvable by empirical research—because the value of full enfranchisement cuts across the opposing viewpoints.

4. Recognize that election officials—including poll workers—take seriously their duty to make sure all eligible voters, and only eligible voters, are allowed to vote, and support and facilitate their performance of that dual obligation.

Several participants stressed how important it is that policy makers recognize how seriously election officials—including poll workers—regard their work. For instance, one election official expressed the view that the new documentary voter ID requirements overlook poll workers’ ability and desire to identify and prevent any attempted voting fraud. Based partly on that view, he supports a return to poll book signatures for identification. In contrast, an official who supports documentary ID suggested that a state policy aimed at providing consistent treatment of absentee voters who omit some identification information prevents local officials from contacting these voters by phone to resolve the problems, resulting in needless disenfranchisement. Recognizing their shared desire to let local election officials do their jobs in a common sense fashion is unlikely to make these two interviewees agree on what substantive reforms are needed, but it does clarify a very real criterion for effective policy—whichever substantive direction is ultimately chosen.

5. Make cost and funding an explicit part of election policy analysis.

Local election officials repeatedly sounded this theme, as did academics and advocates. County boards are responsible for carrying out mandates from state and federal government, often without funding to support those mandates. One advocate expressed the view that financing is part of voting rights, and urged an advocacy campaign for federal funding.

Across the board, election officials felt that it was only good policy to factor in efficiency tradeoffs when changing local and statewide election practices. Clearly, Constitutional violations cannot be sustained in the name of cost savings. But election officials strongly felt that cost-benefit analysis should be included in analyses of possible ways to implement federal and state mandates. The cost of new initiatives and reforms, at a time of shrinking budgets and cutbacks, must be considered and weighed against the initiatives’ potential benefits. If additional financial burdens are imposed on county boards without provision for additional resources or other cost savings, voters will frequently suffer: the reform will be poorly administered because of insufficient resources, or resources will have to be directed away from other critical functions.

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Recent (and not so recent) battles over changes to both Ohio’s election law and election practices have been troubling to anyone who studies or works in elections and cares about the integrity and strength of our Democracy. Too often, these battles have either been motivated by partisanship, or perceived by large portions of the public to have been motivated by such concerns. Too frequently, big changes have been proposed without careful study of relevant data, or without consideration of the views of those who study elections most closely and implement the changes on the ground. Our hope is that this document—with a review of election data from 2008, as well as detailed descriptions of the challenges and policy proposals described by a diverse group of stakeholders who understand Ohio’s election processes intimately—can assist in building an informed consensus for election reforms where they are needed.

Click here to download a PDF of report.

Statement About Preliminary Report

This “Preliminary Report” was drafted at the request of Secretary Brunner. Drafted with Jessie Allen (a former attorney at the Brennan Center), it aims to facilitate discussion at the March 12–13, 2009 elections summit by summarizing and organizing some of the data, concerns, and suggestions on election reform that surfaced at the first, December 2, 2008 elections summit, and in subsequent interviews. The sources for the information and ideas in this report include the statements of those who participated in the December summit; written testimony provided for the December summit; interviews conducted by Brennan Center staff with election officials, other Ohio public officials, voting rights advocates, members of the media, and Ohio voters;1 and figures and analyses supplied in response to requests made to the Ohio Secretary of State’s office,2 the Early Voting Information Center, the Pew Center for the States, and Professors Edward Foley, Paul Gronke, Candice Hoke, David Kimball, Quin Monson, Norman Robbins, and Dan Tokaji, among others.

This report does not advocate a particular agenda; the policy suggestions we present reflect the diversity of opinion amongst summit participants and interviewees and, as the reader may note, are occasionally conflicting. We hope that the ideas presented by this diverse group of stakeholders can assist in building an informed consensus for election reforms where they are needed.

Related Documents and Selected News

Related Links

Video from the 2008 Elections Summit (12/08)
Sec. Brunner press release on testimony regarding election bill (12/9/08)
Sec. Brunner press release announcing March summit (2/13/09)
March summit agenda (3/12/09)

Selected News

Brunner to hold Ohio Election Summit, Dayton Daily News (11/7/08)
Brunner announces bipartisan summit, Columbus Dispatch (11/7/08)
State elections chief to host bipartisan summit, AP (11/7/08)
Senate pursues quick action on election reform, Columbus Dispatch (12/2/08)
OH Election Summit starts to evaluate the 2008 election, Election Law @ Moritz (12/3/09)
Ohio Senate seeks quick action on election reform, Columbus Dispatch (12/3/08)
The long view from an elections summit, Ohio.com (12/4/08)
Last US House Seat Filled on Grave of Stolen 2004 Election, HuffPo (12/12/09)
Brunner Touts conference..., Columbus Dispatch (2/17/09)
Ohio Elections Conference In Columbus This Week, Progress Ohio (3/8/09)
Ohio Concerned About Number Of Provisional Ballots, AP (3/10/09)
Editorial: A vote of confidence, Columbus Dispatch (3/19/09)