July | August 2017








CSG Releases Recommendations for Improving U.S. Military and Overseas Election Data Collection

By Kamanzi Kalisa, director, CSG Overseas Voting Initiative
In April, a CSG working group released recommendations to the public for improving U.S. military and overseas citizen election data collection. In coordination with the U.S. Department of Defense’s Federal Voting Assistance Program and the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, The Council of State Governments for the past year and a half has been focused on improving Section B of the Election Administration and Voting Survey, or EAVS, which tracks military and overseas voter behavior. This collaboration established the CSG EAVS Section B Working Group consisting of 13 state and local election administrators from across the nation who discussed experiences, analyzed data and put forth recommendations to improve the survey. 
“CSG put together an actual working group—they brought election officials together to do a deep dive into Section B and make tangible changes to improve the survey and make it easier to provide the information,” said Edgardo Cortes, Virginia election commissioner and EAVS Section B Working Group member. “The working group was a great, proactive step to improve EAVS and make it more useful for election officials and policymakers.”
Securing quality election data from the states has been a challenge for decades. The U.S. Election Assistance Commission administers EAVS, a federally mandated biennial survey, to collect state-by-state data on the administration of federal elections. A corresponding EAVS report captures data on the ability of civilian, military and overseas citizens to successfully cast a ballot and contains the most comprehensive, nationwide data about election administration in the United States. It is a survey of all states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, American Samoa and the U.S. Virgin Islands. 
The careful collection, management and analysis of good election administration data is critical to providing voters with the highest quality electoral experience possible as well as helping state and local election administrators run better elections. State election administrators use EAVS data to design election administration policies addressing the number of advanced voting locations, election administration office hours, the implementation of online voter registration systems and the use of voter information and voter communication tools.
A challenge associated with the administration of the military and overseas voter component of the survey concerns capturing an accurate number of ballot requests made by voters, the number of ballots transmitted to voters, the number of ballots and Federal Write-In Absentee Ballots that were counted, and the number of ballots and Federal Write-In Absentee Ballots that were rejected. Consequently, the CSG EAVS Section B Working Group put forth the following recommendations:
  1. Eliminate redundant survey questions.
  2. Improve the understanding of each survey question.
  3. Establish greater outreach to states prior to the submission of each biennial survey.
In addressing the redundancy in the survey, the working group found that allowing the jurisdictions to skip certain duplicative questions on the survey would be the simplest fix. In order to actually change the survey, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission would have to submit a new survey to the Office of Management and Budget for their approval, which can be a lengthy process. As a result of this recommendation, 24 sub-items questions can be skipped, and an overall 73 items in the survey do not need an answer. This led to improved accuracy and no loss of data.
“Participation in The Council of State Governments’ Overseas Voting Initiative yields multiple benefits to state and, ultimately, national efforts to ensure that U.S. military and overseas voters are able to vote securely and efficiently,” said Veronica Degraffenreid, election preparation and support manager for the North Carolina State Board of Elections. “The sharing of better, more reliable and uniform data among dedicated professionals undergirds development of good policy. In the simplest terms, the more we know, the more focused are our strategies for simplifying the EAVS survey, which in turn will identify and minimize the difficulties for new and inexperienced actors in the field.”
In addressing the need for more plain language in certain questions throughout the survey, the working group proposed changes to the EAVS survey’s Supplemental Instruction Manual, which explains how to complete certain survey items and provides definitions for certain terms in the survey. The four issues addressed were: defining Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, or UOCAVA, status more clearly; clarifying what “transmit” means when discussing “transmitted ballots;” clarifying the meaning of “returned and submitted for counting;” and improving the overall readability of the survey manual.
“Performance is everything in government; stakeholders demand high-quality service delivered efficiently,” said Noah Praetz, director of elections in Cook County, Illinois. “Measuring that is only possible with good data. Good data is difficult to gather in elections because of the patchwork nature of laws and terms. One word can mean many things and two terms can mean the same thing. The EAVS Section B Working Group tried to tackle this problem by breaking down the survey instrument to arrive at language commonly understandable by election professionals nationwide. By rephrasing questions in a way that achieve a common understanding, we will get responsive data. And with responsive data, measurement and analytics can really flourish.”
The voting rights of the millions of U.S. citizens living overseas, as well as active duty military personnel and their family members, are protected by the UOCAVA. About 75 percent of the 1.3 million service members, 700,000 family members and an estimated 2.6 million U.S. citizens residing abroad are eligible to vote absentee through the U.S. overseas voting process. Sometimes, U.S. citizens living abroad undergo a more challenging voting process than many of their stateside counterparts. In 2013, The Council of State Governments in collaboration with the Department of Defense’s Federal Voting Assistance Program launched the Overseas Voting Initiative to improve the return rate of overseas absentee ballots from service members and U.S. citizens living abroad.