Case Statement

Why do we need the Commons?

In 2013 President Obama convened the Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCAE) to identify best practices in election administration and to make recommendations to improve the voting experience. The impetus for the Commission stemmed largely from the realization that—in many ways—America’s election system is in trouble.

As a democracy, we have built an enormously complex system, with over 500,000 elected officials that are chosen in 8,000 different jurisdictions, yet our ability to meet the demand for fair and legal elections across these jurisdictions is challenged by an aging elections workforce, evolving technology, shrinking training budgets and shifting legal interpretations of voting rights. Further, changing legislation, court rulings, and new technology put enormous pressure on election administrators as they seek to operate elections in a fair and consistent manner. Election workers realize that mistakes often land in the press and courts and create damaging cycles of criticism. Unfortunately, the large demand for professional election leadership preparation is not being satisfied by adequate and appropriate supply.

Consequently, one significant Commission finding was that America’s election system faces an urgent need for professionals who are well-trained in the latest technology and techniques in the field and well-versed in the legal and policy challenges facing our voting system. Even beyond the domestic sphere, the international community faces ever-emerging threats to electoral integrity, and they too urgently require well-trained and well-versed election professionals.

What is the Commons?

NASPAA has taken the initiative in founding the NASPAA Election Administration & Leadership Commons. The Commons project aims to pool resources and to share instructional capacity across universities with faculty, coursework, and internships related to election administration; consequently, students at a variety of NASPAA member institutions anywhere in the world would be able to pursue election administration academically and professionally.

To earn their graduate certificate or MPA/MPP specialization in Election Administration, students begin by taking coursework covering three core topics: Survey of Election Administration, Election Law, and Election Administration Management and Policy Process. Next, students take an elective course related to a more specific specialization, such as Cybersecurity and Election Administration, International Standards of Election Administration, Election Design, Voter Outreach and Participation, Budgeting and Management for Election Administration, Communications for Election Administration, or Data Analysis for Election Administration. Finally, students complete either an internship with an election-related organization, or a campus-based or online capstone project.

By launching the Commons, NASPAA has facilitated the exchange of courses and internships across universities that makes student training in election administration possible beyond just a small handful of schools. Because most institutions lack the faculty or student interest to offer all of these elements in-house, students would otherwise have been unable to pursue this specialized training. But, by allowing faculty members to collaborate on courses with faculty at other institutions and open their courses to students from across the world, or for election-related organizations to match up with students seeking internships in their field, the Commons serves as a nexus for the most qualified instructors, the most motivated students, and the most impactful organizations in election administration worldwide.

Why is NASPAA taking the lead?

NASPAA serves several roles in the Commons for which it is uniquely qualified. First, as the developer of an online course commons, NASPAA’s oversight, as a trusted and neutral third-party partner, is essential. Since NASPAA functions in the consortium with little to no financial gain, it is best placed to serve as a conduit among participants, playing an indispensable role in dispute resolution when concerns arise among the participants, and fostering greater trust, equity in outcome and cooperation.

Second, as the central link among schools and programs offering graduate degrees in public affairs, administration and public policy, NASPAA is best positioned to disseminate information among NASPAA member schools about offerings in the Commons, which is instrumental in the Commons’ success and growth.

Third, NASPAA’s involvement as an expert evaluator ensuring quality course programing and course content that meets COPRA accreditation standards is paramount to the acceptance of shared online consortium offerings across university settings.

And finally, on a more philosophical level, the Commons represents a fulfilment of NASPAA’s twofold mission is to ensure excellence in education and training for public service and to promote the ideal of public service.

What is at stake?

The NASPAA Election Administration & Leadership Commons is a remarkable undertaking to train the next generation of election professionals. These future leaders will need to be able to plan, direct, lead, and evaluate elections—from voter registration to recounts to electoral integrity to managing intergovernmental relationships among a nation’s local, state/provincial, and federal governments. They will need to apply an understanding of election law accurately and appropriately to officials, voters, and situations at the federal, state/provincial, and local levels. And they will need to know the structure of intergovernmental systems, including theory, historical developments, major themes, emerging issues, and the distinct phases and hurdles of the policy process.

Without this Commons, we would face a much higher risk of being derelict in our duty to safeguard our electoral institutions and processes; put differently, we would lack the supply of well-trained and well-versed election professionals that we desperately need in order to meet the demand of electoral democracies across the globe.