On March 7, 1965, civil rights protestors were attacked and beaten as they peacefully marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Public outcry at the images broadcast across the nation hastened passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act, which aimed to ban racial discrimination in voting. On March 7, 2021—the 56th anniversary of the Selma march—President Biden signed an executive order directing federal agencies to protect, promote, and remove barriers to voting. The scope is broad, requiring all federal agencies to assess the ways in which they can facilitate voter registration and voter participation. The executive order focuses particular attention on removing barriers to vote that are faced by federal employees, people with disabilities, active duty military and overseas citizens, individuals in federal custody, and Native Americans.
President Biden’s executive order takes significant steps toward fulfilling the promise of the Voting Rights Act. But truly moving the needle requires figuring out what steps federal, state, and local governments can take to increase access and participation. One way to do so is by harnessing the tools developed by federal agencies in response to the Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2019, commonly referred to as the Evidence Act. Passed with bipartisan support, the Evidence Act provides a roadmap for federal agencies to measure and increase their impact, requiring them to:
- Develop plans for building evidence around agency priorities;
- Ensure open access to data; and
- Integrate evidence into strategic planning.
As agencies work to comply with the March 7 executive order, FMG’s Program Evaluation and Policy Analysis (PEPA) leadership recommends that agencies consider how current actions, policies, and regulations pertaining to voter access and participation can be advanced through different types of evidence-building activities put forth in the Evidence Act. Moreover, we recommend that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) monitor implementation against the requirements of the Act, yielding a comprehensive picture of federal progress.
1. Policy Analysis
Under the executive order, agencies will review relevant policies related to voting access and participation. The Federal Government should also gather data about state policies, particularly for groups of voters who have been historically disenfranchised. For example, policies about voting rights for incarcerated individuals vary from state to state. By measuring the impact of these variable disenfranchisement policies on voter participation and election administration, agencies can get a clearer picture of how different approaches to disenfranchisement affect voting and then structure policy recommendations accordingly to address these issues.
2. Program Evaluation
The Federal Government can play a leadership role in evaluating initiatives that can then inform state and local elections policies. For example, the Federal Government invests considerable effort in providing information and assistance to military and overseas voters around the world. As part of this work, the government has identified best practices in providing these voters with answers to their voting questions. By collecting and sharing data on the impact that these best practices have on voter outreach, the Federal Government can guide state and local election offices on the best ways to structure their own outreach to military and overseas voters to ensure that this important worldwide community of voters can register, obtain a ballot, and return it in time to be counted.
3. Foundational Fact Finding
Foundational fact finding includes conducting basic research and exploratory studies, and compiling statistics describing programs and practices. President Biden’s recent executive order to promote voting access explicitly calls for one type of fact finding, directing the National Institutes of Technology (NIST) to assess the usability of the Federal Voter Registration Form for people with disabilities. Agencies regularly undertake other studies that could provide useful insights to increase voting access, however. For example, the government collects data on all aspects of registration and voting from state and local election offices after each federal election, and also receives reports on grants spending for election administration, cybersecurity, and, beginning in 2020, election offices’ COVID-19 response. By combining these sources of data, the Federal Government could get a better picture of what is—and isn’t—working with its grant investments that are aimed at increasing voting access nationwide.
4. Performance Measurement
We recommend that OMB establish and track performance measures for each agency to monitor federal progress in promoting voting access and participation. Data transparency is foundational to evidence building and will shed light on areas of success, challenges, and gaps that remain. Measures could be summarized on a user-friendly dashboard, making it clear for citizens to see progress toward the goals articulated in the executive order.
Mark Twain once said, “supposing is good—but finding out is better.” The March 7 executive order on voting and elections provides the Federal Government with an excellent opportunity to harness the approaches and tools developed under the Evidence Act to “find out” the full picture of the national elections landscape. Here at Fors Marsh Group, we have ample experience with both specific elections research as well as larger evidence-building activities under the Evidence Act. Our PEPA division is well-equipped to help federal agencies—and the people and groups who seek to guide them—to ensure that the principles initially enshrined in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 are being upheld in 2021 and beyond.