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Blake Hulnick '09 Examines Changes in Election Administrative Policy

By Laura Bramley
Posted August 11, 2008
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After the contested presidential election of 2000, public attention suddenly focused on the issue of voting policy and reform. In response to the confusion of that election, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002, which was intended to allow the federal government to organize election administration over all 50 states, modernizing voting equipment and procedures. To oversee the process, HAVA created the Election Assistance Commission to take over many duties formerly allocated to the Federal Election Commission. The changes in election procedure thus make the voting process a mixture of federal, state and local policy.

This summer, Blake Hulnick '09 (Ridgefield, Conn.) is studying how New York State handles election and voting policy by examining HAVA and the subsequent controversy over it. New York was one of the last states to implement several of the required changes, and in 2006 the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the state to enforce compliance. The controversy over HAVA, Hulnick says, is an "interesting lens through which to view the implementation of election policy."

Hulnick became interested in election administration when he participated in Hamilton's Washington, D.C. program last year. He worked with the American Enterprises Institute, a think tank that studied the issue of election reform, and was "immersed in the debate," he says. He wrote his thesis for the program on state and federal control over the election process, and decided to continue that research this summer in a specific study of how New York is handling the issue.

Hulnick has interviewed people across New York at both the state and county levels of government, as well as talking to civic groups focusing on election reform. He also plans to head to Albany and interview members of the State Board of Elections. He says he was surprised at how little consensus he has found between the people he has spoken to, and says there are no unified opinions about how the changes should be implemented.

Election policy reform may seem dry, but Hulnick says that people are surprisingly passionate about it. For those who remember the infamous "hanging chad" debate in the 2000 election, it will come as no surprise that much of the controversy centers on the type of voting machines to be used. Initially, everyone assumed that the state would introduce digital machines, but testing showed the devices to be subject to malfunctions, and now only Hamilton County has put them into operation. Now, says Hulnick, "there is an interest group for every conceivable iteration" of election procedure, including one that favors returning to ballot boxes and paper ballots. And the discussion can be bitter – to the point where some interviewees are wary about even sharing their opinions. "I'm not at all confident we've come to the end of the debate about how elections should be run," Hulnick says.

A government major at Hamilton, Hulnick is a member of the mock trial and debate teams, as well as the Hamilton College Democrats. He also hosts a radio show and has served as secretary of the Student Assembly. His research, which he is undertaking in collaboration with Maynard-Knox Professor of Government Frank Anechiarico, is funded by the Research Fellows Program run by the Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center.

In terms of electoral policy, research usually focuses on campaign finance reform as the "hotter topic," Hulnick says, but his work stresses an important, often overlooked facet of voting administration. By examining how policy emanates from the federal to the local levels of government, he hopes to make his own contribution to the question of electoral procedure. "It's a lonelier struggle," he says. 

-- by Laura Bramley

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