How Ballot Measures Get on the Ballot

When voters take to the polls, they not only vote on political candidates, but also ballot measures. Most voters know where they stand on these measures, but how much thought is given to how they made it onto the ballot in the first place? To answer this question, one must first define a ballot measure. A ballot measure is a proposed law, issue, constitutional amendment or question that appears on a statewide or local ballot for voters of the jurisdiction to vote on.

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What is a Caucus?

Caucuses are rarely a topic of everyday conversation; however, they play an essential role in shaping the American government. The American use of the term “caucus” was first used in 18th century Boston to refer to a political club. Over time, the term evolved, referring to two distinct forms of political organization – party caucuses and legislative caucuses. These forms are distinct in membership and purpose. However, both allow Americans to come together around common political objectives.

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Absentee Ballot Processing in the States

During the 2020 general election, a surge of Americans elected to vote via absentee ballot. Now, almost three years later, many Americans can still recall the days-long wait for the race to be called. Polls had long been closed, but ballots were still being counted. Why?

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Election Technology Through the Years

When going to vote, most people do not think about the technology behind the equipment they are using. They wait in line, show their ID, fill out their ballot, scan it into a machine, grab the free sticker and go about their day. Very little, if any, thought is given to how we got here. With questions looming about election integrity and election technology systems, it is important to understand the election technology we have today.

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Executive Branch Contests Highlight Election Day 2023

General elections for governor, justice, and state House and Senate occur across six states Tuesday, highlighting notable Election Day 2023 contests. In an additional seven states, ballot measures are up for vote that address areas ranging from election spending and property taxes to project funding.

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State Measures to Improve Election Security and Voter Confidence

By Nicholas Relich and Casandra Hockenberry

State officials and lawmakers across the US have proposed and passed laws to increase the confidence of voters in election integrity. Challenges faced in the last several elections — such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the spread of misinformation — served as a starting point for some of this legislation.

Post-election audits, known as PEAs, serve as safeguard against errors or fraud and verify of accuracy. Many states have existing statutes authorizing or mandating PEAs in one of two forms: traditional audits or risk-limiting audits. A traditional audit looks at a fixed percentage of voting districts or voting machines and compares the paper record to the results produced by the voting system. A risk-limiting audit is a statistically based audit designed to reduce the risk of a contested race being certified with the wrong winner. If an election margin is wider, fewer ballots must be reviewed; if there is a narrow margin more ballots are reviewed.

For states with existing statutes, the scope (how many ballots) and method (determining precincts, timing, technology and type of audit) may be  reconsidered for future elections. In 2022, Louisiana and Maine passed bills mandating audits in the coming elections. Louisiana passed HB 924 (2022) that will require traditional audits, beginning in 2023 after “the procurement and implementation of a new voting system by the secretary of state.” Similar legislation in Maine will pilot a risk-limiting audit after the 2024 election and will allow similar audits statewide beginning the following year.

Election officials must navigate privacy and accuracy concerns in voter registration databases, fight social media misinformation and disinformation, and work to ensure the security of voting infrastructure. States, often in partnership with federal cybersecurity and election agencies —such as the U.S. Department of Defense Federal Voting Assistance Program, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, and the U.S. Election Assistance Program — have sought numerous solutions to these issues to improve election security and voter’s perception of the trustworthiness in elections in the digital age.

Voter Registration Data

Voter registration data from states, including information on voter names, address and demographic information, have long been available for private use, at various degrees of accessibility, as a means to promote transparency in the election process. However, in an era of increased concern for data privacy, states have adopted different policies regarding the openness of this information. Some states restrict data requests to government agencies and election campaigns, while others maintain open access to the public at large. Many states also charge fees to obtain voter data. States also keep certain information confidential, such as a voter’s social security number, date of birth and driver’s license number, though these policies vary by state. States also restrict information for participants of address confidentiality programs, which protects the confidentiality of victims of certain violent crimes.

Voter registration data is a critical tool for election officials to maintain accurate voter rolls despite changes to an individual voter’s status, such as when a voter moves within the state but into a new election district or across state lines. This in turn helps officials maintain and build public trust in the election process. In May 2023, Washington enacted WA S5459, which requires any requests for voter registration data be processed by the secretary of state, with the goal of increasing public confidence through a more efficient and streamlined process. In the 2023 legislative sessions, Arkansas and South Dakota also provided additional directives for their Secretaries of State to update these records.

Misinformation and Disinformation

Ensuring voters have accurate information on polling locations, procedures, and election issues and have confidence in the election results is a critical goal for states. Social media provides election agencies a means of communicating important resources to voters, but these platforms also provide foreign and domestic bad actors an opportunity to promote confusion and distrust. To counter misinformation and disinformation online, secretaries of state around the nation have taken part in the #TrustedInfo Initiative, a public education campaign led by the National Association of Secretaries of State In 2007, the Election Assistance Commission established the Voluntary Voting System Guidelines, a set of recommendations which set a standard for the agency’s evaluation of voting systems and assists election officials in their own planning. States have either adopted the Election Assistance Commission’s guidelines as their own via statute or created their own testing and certification guidelines. The Commission recently updated this guidance with the VVSG 2.0, which will go into effect on November 16, 2023, after many of this year’s elections. The Election Assistance Commission clarified that the new standards do not invalidate election technologies approved under previous guidelines, but rather reflect updated systems and goals that election officials should consider implementing in the future. At the time of publishing, no election technology vendor has completed the VVSG 2.0 certification processes. State officials recognize the need to mitigate potential confusion in voters through clear communication of implications of the new guidelines.

Several states enacted legislation relating to the cybersecurity of voting infrastructure in 2023. Wyoming and Alabama passed laws requiring electronic voting systems to be incapable of connecting to the internet. States also focused on the use and procedures surrounding paper ballots. Alabama requires the use of paper ballots in electronic vote counting systems through AL S9 (2023). Arkansas required counties cover the cost of paper ballots should they chose to use them over voting machines and ensured that if paper ballots are used, they be compatible with electronic vote tabulation devices selected by the Secretary of State. States have also been interested in the standards and testing of voting infrastructure. South Dakota required that election officials conduct a public test of automatic vote tabulating equipment to ensure accurate vote counting, and Wyoming requires every electronic voting system used in the state include proof of certification by the United States Election Assistance Commission and approval from the Secretary of State.


Legislation on elections walks a fine line between improving security and ensuring access for all voters. Cybersecurity continues to be an important consideration for state officials motivated to ensure positive voter perception of election integrity. Americans’ confidence in election administration and the legitimacy of election results is a top priority of state officials. This means increased transparency with how elections are administered in the U.S. are necessary.

State Approaches to Election Integrity

By Grace Harrison and Casandra Hockenberry

Free, fair and accessible elections are the cornerstone of a democratic society. But not all elections are created equal, and there is a large amount of variance in terms of election integrity globally. Election integrity isa concept “built on international commitments,” and, in the United States, is often based on aspects such as fairness to political parties and voters, competency of election administrators and security of the voting process and results.

In the U.S., elections are run by the states, resulting in procedural differences such as voter registration deadlines and voting processes. States ensure that elections are administered with integrity and security.

While the perception of election integrity has become an increasingly salient topic in recent years, equal and fair voting access and trust in election administration are basic components of U.S. elections.

Americans’ perception of electoral integrity is a multi-faceted concept. It consists of not only trust in elections but also in the electoral process and administration. The latter, governed by official rules and processes, is crucial for voters to understand. Election administration is highly decentralized, leaving the majority of key functions and responsibilities to officials at a county or municipality level.

The Professionalism of Election Administration

Election administration includes state chief election officers, state election directors, state election commissions and boards, and local election officials including town, city, and county clerks, boards, and an array of other election professionals. Though the exact process for appointing election officials and administrators varies by state statute, chief election officials are generally chosen across the U.S. in one of four ways: they are either elected by voters directly, appointed by the governor, elected by the legislature, or elected by the state board or commission of elections. In 37 states, this official serves as the Secretary of State. The National Conference of State Legislatures provides a detailed breakdown of state chief election officials, selection method and which states have a board or commission.

On a local level, elections are administered either by a single elected individual, board or commission, or a combination of these. These administrative units are responsible for the workings of election day, such as managing polling locations and the processing of ballots.

Election administration requires a high level of professionalism, and officials are aided by membership organizations that provide support through resources, forums for sharing best practices and innovative ideas, and a community of other officials. The National Association of Secretaries of State, the National Association of State Election Directors and the National Association of Election Officials all provide invaluable resources.

There are also certification programs for election officials. In partnership with Auburn University, The Election Center has a professional education program which offers certification as a Certified Elections or Registration Administrator. This certification requires the completion of continuing education credits to maintain active status. Officials can also seek training from national or state organizations, among other resources.

Election officials also regularly receive security updates and briefings from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, the FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. All chief election officials and state election directors, as well as many local election officials, hold federal security clearances to stay apprised of and prepared for ongoing international and national threats to the security of elections.

Assessing Voter Confidence in Elections

Understanding how Americans perceive election integrity is not as simple as asking a yes or no question. Surveys often blur the lines between impressions of election administration and the overall electoral process in the US. Scholars attempt to clarify confidence in elections by surveying based on the relationship between these two concepts and their connection to trust in the government overall.

As with many public opinion polls, confidence in the American electoral system fluctuates with changes in administration, economic conditions and general social discourse. Individuals are more likely to accept and place trust in election results that align with their chosen candidate’s victory. When asking the question “how confident are you that, across the country, the votes will be accurately cast and counted in this year’s election — very confident, somewhat confident, not too confident or not at all confident,” Gallup found that across the years of 2004-2008 and 2016-2022, an average of 63% of voters reported they were “very” or “somewhat” confident in the accuracy of election outcomes.

Underlying national confidence levels, Gallup revealed major partisan divides. In 2016, this gap was only 30 percentage points, and in 2018, Republicans’ confidence outweighed that of Democrats by eight percentage points. Currently, 45 percentage points separate how confident Republicans and Democrats are in election accuracy.

Charles Stewart, founder of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab, focuses article, “Trust in Elections,” on the narrow view of questions the public uses to evaluate electoral integrity — whether votes were recorded and reported accurately, and cast by eligible voters. Then how trust in elections relates to trust in the process and government more broadly.

“By the most common measures of voter confidence, Americans were more confident in the electoral machinery following the 2020 election than they were in 2016,” Stewart wrote. “The difference is they were more polarized over the question in 2020. This polarization was not fueled by evidence of the shortcomings of election administration, but by basic psychological factors, such as emotions and motivated reasoning.”

Ultimately the public perception is not based on evidence but instead following the ongoing decline of public trust in American institutions broadly. To counter this, Stewart posits that “[t]he notable trustworthiness of the system can be maintained for only so long without widespread trust among Americans across the political spectrum.”

What is and isn’t a Primary Election?

A Primary Election is an election where the political parties choose their candidates for the general election. In the general election, candidates from opposing parties face off against one another. In a primary election, candidates are nominated rather than elected. In order to be nominated by a political party, a candidate must receive at least 35% of the votes cast for that office by members of their political party and receive more votes than anybody else in their party for that race. However, in the case of how primary elections are administered, that depends on the State. States decide whether they would like a partially open, semi-closed, closed, open to unaffiliated voters, open or top two election.

Partially Open Primary

The Partially Open system allows voters to cast ballots regardless of party affiliation. Still, they must do so publicly or it may be construed as an attempt to register with the opposing party. For example, Iowa requires voters to select a party when registering to vote. Still, it permits primary voters to publicly switch parties to cast their ballot on primary election day. To identify their supporters, some state parties keep track of who votes in their primary.

States with Partially Open primaries include Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, New Jersey, Ohio and Wyoming.

Semi-closed Primary

In a semi-closed primary, Independent voters, or those without a party affiliation, may pick which party’s primary they want to cast their ballot in; however, individuals who are enrolled with a party may only cast their ballot during that party’s primary. A voter who is registered as a Democrat, for instance, may only cast their ballot in a Democratic primary. Still, a voter registered as an Independent can cast their ballot in either a Democratic or Republican primary.

States with a Semi-closed primary include Connecticut, Idaho, Maryland, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah and West Virginia.

Closed Primary

A closed primary is an election in which only registered members of a particular political party can vote. In other words, a voter chooses either the Democratic Party or the Republican Party on their voter registration application and may only vote for members of that party.

Voters can only cast their ballots in a closed primary for the party with which they are enrolled. For instance, a Republican primary election is only open to voters who are registered as Republicans. In States with closed primaries, absentee voters are frequently required to select a party affiliation on their voter registration form to participate in the State’s primary elections.

States with a closed primary include Delaware, Florida, Kentucky, Nevada, New Mexico, New York and Pennsylvania.

Open to Unaffiliated Voters Primary

Many states restrict registered members of one party from voting in the primary of another, allowing only unattached voters to participate in whichever party primary they want. Because a Democrat cannot vote in a Republican party primary or vice versa, this system is not an actual open primary. Unaffiliated voters in New Hampshire must express their party preference at the polls to participate in that party’s primary. Unaffiliated voters in Colorado must either indicate which party they want on their ballot at the polls or return just one party’s mail ballot. Although the decision is made public, the voter’s unaffiliated status remains unchanged.

States with open to Unaffiliated Voters primary include: Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island.

Open Primary

A voter with any political affiliation is eligible to cast their ballot in an open primary for any party. For example, a voter who is registered as a Democrat has the option to cast a ballot in the Republican primary. Voters may only participate in one party’s primary and many States do not require voters to declare their political allegiance when they register to vote. The way open primaries for absentee votes are conducted varies between states. States with open primary voting include Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Hawaii, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Top-Two Primary

Washington was the first State to implement a top-two primary system for state and federal elections in 2004. California adopted this strategy in 2010. In Nebraska, only state legislative elections are conducted using a top-two primary system. Partisan affiliation labels are not shown next to the names of state legislative candidates since Nebraska’s state legislature is nonpartisan. A ballot initiative establishing a top-four primary for state executive, State legislative and congressional elections was approved by Alaskan voters in 2020. Additionally, ranked-choice voting was implemented for general elections for the positions mentioned above and the presidency.

California and Washington primarily use the “top two” primary format.

Presidential Primary Rules

Regarding Presidential Primary Rules, the states thoroughly differ in the systems the states choose to use. Some states hold their State and presidential primaries on the same day; others hold the other elections weeks or months apart.

Other Primary Processes

Legislative elections in Nebraska and Louisiana share specific characteristics with top-two primaries, but they differ.

All candidates in Louisiana run on the same ticket on the day of the general election before being narrowed down to a top two. The top two then compete in a runoff six weeks after the election if no candidate earns more than 50% of the vote. One way to look at this is to suggest that there is only a general election for all candidates, with a runoff as necessary and no primary elections.

Alaska’s top-four open primary system is unique and used for state and congressional elections.

Legislators are chosen in Nebraska in a nonpartisan election. As a result, they run unaffiliated and are all listed on the same nonpartisan primary ballot. In local, nonpartisan offices around the country, this arrangement is typical.

Why is it Important to Vote in the Primaries?

Primary elections allow the voter, the chance to select from a field of candidates who your political party should ultimately nominate to run in the general election. Based on voter turnout and primary results, parties may redesign their election strategy and allocate more or less attention and resources towards certain demographics, states and issues which can serve to moderate the outcomes.