UNM’s Center for the Study of Voting, Elections and Democracy operates a project that plays a major role in the improvement of that process throughout New Mexico.
The project has been ongoing for years with every county clerk’s office in the state, but particularly with Bernalillo County.
“We’re at the forefront of election administration and in the center it’s all about a data-driven approach to public policy,” said Lonna Rae Atkeson, director of the Center. “(We focus on) elections, but also representation issues, data quality issues and issues that end up mattering to people — anything about the relationship between people and government.”
Bernalillo County is the only county in the country that has undergone such a microscopic look at its election administration over such a long span of time, Atkeson said.
The professors and graduate students involved with the Center observe polling sites during every election season and record problems they see. The observers are trained to know the polling process so they know what problems to look for, she said.
Afterward, a report is written and delivered to the county clerk, who responds and implements the necessary changes accordingly.
After the election, the Center also takes a stratified random sample of voters and asks about their impressions of the polling process and their overall experience. The poll workers are also questioned. These responses help build the final report as well, she said.
Maggie Toulouse Oliver, Bernalillo’s county clerk, has executed most of the things the Center has recommended, Atkeson said.
Atkeson said the County Clerk’s Office has entirely reworked the training for poll workers and developed special positions to make everything run more smoothly. The chain of custody of ballots and polling machines has been tightened to prevent fraud from occurring. Poll workers have also been forced to comply with New Mexico voter ID laws after a 2006 study found that workers often ignored the law and asked Hispanics for ID more frequently, she said.
“It’s so cool because it’s in Bernalillo County, its right here, and we’re leading the nation in terms of analysis,” Atkeson said. “Over time we have formed a synergistic and positive relationship (with the County Clerk’s Office.)...It’s all about using data to improve elections rather than going with your gut.”
Toulouse Oliver stressed in a press release the importance of protecting the voting process in Bernalillo County, since voting
“Fair elections and transparency in government are the bedrock of our democracy,” Oliver said. “I will continue working to make voting more accessible and promoting the integrity of all New Mexico elections.” During the 2014 gubernatorial election the Center visited and observed every early voting site twice and all but one site during the election, Atkeson said.
The Center also works on other various projects and studies, according to their website.
One project has assessed the role of the Electoral College and how it might be done away with completely, so that the president would be truly elected by citizen voters.
Another study examined how well polling machines count votes in comparison to humans.
“Maggie (Toulouse Oliver’s) voter confidence has improved every election since she’s been in office and I would like to believe the Center has played a part in that,” Atkeson said.
Marielle Dent is a staff reporter for the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at news @dailylobo.com or on Twitter @Marielle_Dent.