December 4, 2023

Election 2023: The IRG Breakdown

The 2024 elections will be crucial for our democracy. As the first post-pandemic presidential election, following several years of unprecedented shifts in election law in states around the country, many have already turned their attention to the anticipated challenges and outcomes next year may bring. But before we head full speed into 2024, the 2023 elections left us some lessons and insights worth examining.

With this in mind, IRG hosted a panel of election experts the day after the 2023 elections (November 8) to offer analysis on the state of election administration and voter access, and how Responsive Government anticipates other major legislative changes will impact elections writ large in 2024.

The panel, moderated by IRG’s Executive Director Sam Oliker-Friedland, featured former Secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Kathy Boockvar, former Virginia Commissioner of Elections Edgardo Cortés, and Henal Patel, the law and policy director at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. You can watch the full panel here, but below are some of the major takeaways. 

Virginia: List Maintenance Error Impacts Thousands of Voters

In Virginia, former Virginia Commissioner of Elections and IRG fellow Edgardo Cortés reported that overall, things went smoothly on Election Day. However, in the weeks leading up to the election, news broke that thousands of eligible Virginia voters may have been erroneously removed from the voter rolls under Gov. Youngkin’s administration. Cortés acknowledged that because the reported number of voters wrongfully removed has continued to change, and because the error occurred so close to Election Day, we don’t yet know the full impact of the mishap.

Cortés has been disappointed to see a rollback of many procedures that have been in place in Virginia – under both Republican and Democratic governors – to keep the state’s voter rolls accurate and up-to-date. For example, this year, Virginia withdrew from the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), a widely trusted, nonpartisan, interstate agreement to help ensure voter roll accuracy.

“All those things that help us maintain accurate rolls, I think it’s a big problem that the state has pulled back from that, and is now in a position heading into a presidential election year where the state has access to a lot less data, a lot less information to keep the rolls clean, at a time where we need that the most,” said Cortés in the briefing. “Hopefully the administration will rethink that heading into next year so that the voter roll issue and the accuracy of our list doesn’t become an issue.”

Another contributing factor to the improper removal of voters ahead of the 2023 elections was changes to Virginia’s voting rights restoration policy. Governor Youngkin rolled back the policy of automatic rights restoration used by the previous two governors, increasing the data burden on already under-resourced election officials. One way to prevent similar issues in the future would be for the Virginia General Assembly to adopt automatic restoration of voting rights as a constitutional amendment.

“Looking at it from a purely election administration standpoint, not having automatic restoration of voting rights just makes it a lot more complex and cumbersome for election officials to manage that system and administer that process when it comes to voter registration,” Cortés said.

However, with the 2023 election changing the makeup of the Virginia state legislature, it’s likely that discussions around a constitutional amendment to bring back automatic voting rights restoration – a policy that is popular in the state – will commence.

New Jersey: Modernizing Elections Infrastructure

Similar to Virginia, the 2023 elections went smoothly in New Jersey this year, with a couple of usual exceptions. Turnout was higher than typical for an off-year election.

Henal Patel, the law and policy director at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, shared how New Jersey has been adjusting to changes in its election laws and infrastructure in recent years, and how many common sense policies are still needed to provide safe, secure, and accessible elections throughout the state.

For a long time, the New Jersey election system remained stagnant, falling behind on updates to bring their elections into the 21st century. In the last six years or so, the state underwent a shift, prompted by both the political interest to make improvements and the urgency of adapting during the pandemic. New Jersey began to see renewed efforts in modernizing its voting systems, such as the adoption of online voter registration, ballot cure, and voting rights restoration.

These changes came quickly and not without hiccups. For example, with the expansion of mail voting in 2020, the state had to reckon with its lack of electronic poll books to address situations like voters who had been sent a mail ballot but decided they preferred to vote in-person. After the 2020 election, New Jersey adopted early voting, which consequently forced the state to update to electronic poll books and invest in newer voting machines.

Many voters and elections offices are still getting used to these changes, and additional policies are needed to make New Jersey elections more efficient and accessible. While New Jersey has partial automatic voter registration, for instance, it has not adopted secure automatic voter registration (SAVR), which would capture far more people and prevent some of the confusion that occurs around the existing process.

Similarly, the state needs to pass same-day voter registration to make sure eligible voters aren’t left out of the democratic process. Patel cited one woman who became a new citizen in the couple of weeks before the election, but because of the state’s arbitrary 21-day voter registration deadline, the woman wasn’t permitted to cast a ballot. “That’s not what our elections system should be about,” Patel said.

Pennsylvania: A Case for Pre-Canvassing

Pennsylvania also saw relatively smooth elections in 2023, with a couple of normal exceptions. According to former Secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Kathy Boockvar, much of the turnout was driven by the State Supreme Court contest, as well as local races like school board and county commissioner.

Boockvar reflected on how policy changes and expanded voting options that stemmed from the 2020 election have helped ease the burden of election administrators on Election Day. “That’s a real success, because it expands access, it actually lessens the burden on any particular day or time, and it allows election administrators to plan across the time period as opposed to all in one day,” she said.

But there are still many changes left to be made that would significantly improve the accuracy and efficiency of Pennsylvania elections. Chief among them, according to Boockvar, is allowing elections officials to pre-canvass ballots. Pennsylvania is one of just nine states left in the country that does not allow counties to begin pre-canvassing ballots ahead of Election Day.

“Last night, most of the statewide and local races were not close enough that we woke up not knowing answers. But as we all know, that doesn’t always happen that way,” said Boockvar. “There’s at least one Superior Court race where they haven’t called it yet in Pennsylvania, and those remaining ballots will matter. If they had allowed pre-canvassing, we would have all the answers today.”

The Persistence of Election Fraud Narratives

Across our panel, elections experts felt that while fewer candidates have been centering election fraud on the campaign trail – often because they’ve realized it’s no longer a popular or winning issue among voters – the discourse around fraud is still prominent, and it’s dangerous to our democracy. Here were some of their remarks on the issue:

  • Former Secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Kathy Boockvar: ”It doesn’t matter if there’s the most rational explanation in the world, these conspiracy theories continue to fester, and unfortunately not only fester as conspiracy theories, but lead into threats against election officials. 2022 was worse in terms of threats against election officials across the country – at the local level, at the state level – even than it had been in 2020. I left being Secretary of State in 2021, and I was still getting threats last year based on candidates in Pennsylvania who were still going around the state alleging fraud. …I’d like to say that this problem has gotten better, I think we still have a long way to go. I think we still have to be spreading accurate information about how elections work in this country.”
  • Former Virginia Commissioner of Elections Edgardo Cortés: “It’s not just that candidates aren’t promoting it, but they’re quietly letting it fester. That’s a big issue here, that while you may not have candidates and election officials publicly pushing the  narrative, they just kind of give a wink and a nod to those that are doing it. They used charged language. They don’t dispel the misinformation – they just let it be there and play out. So there is a big undercurrent still around 2020, and I think it will be a big issue come next year…It’s going to surface again, I don’t think it’s gone away.”

What Elections Officials Really Need

We concluded our post-election panel with a question near and dear to the IRG team: What are the resources our elections officials really need to run secure, effective, and accessible elections in 2024? Here’s what our panelists had to say:

Henal Patel, Law and Policy Director at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice

“I definitely think we need to have a serious discussion about what is needed, because there are things that are needed,” said Patel. She saw a few different categories of needs, starting with ensuring the support and funding to not only hire, but recruit, enough manpower to run as big of an election as we will have in 2024.

Next, Patel emphasized the importance of ensuring that elections infrastructure is healthy enough to execute a secure and successful federal election. “We need to make sure our systems are strong enough to do this,” said Patel. “We’re going to need sufficient money to audit and test our system, because in New Jersey, we’ve had a lot more machines, a lot of challenges. So we want to make sure it is as smooth as possible.”

Patel also made the case for adopting smart policies to ensure New Jersey’s voter rolls are accurate, like secure automatic voter registration and same-day voter registration, and providing election officials with the funding and resources to securely implement those policies. Lastly, she emphasized the importance of resources for communications – money, training, etc. – to prevent doubt and election conspiracies from taking hold.

Kathy Boockvar, Former Secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania 

Kathy Boockvar summed up how well-resourced elections must be a priority. “Look: Our right to vote is a foundational principle of our union,” she said. “This is one of the most fundamental rights that we have as citizens in this country, and guess what, we want to invest in that. Investing in that benefits all of us and strengthens our country.”

She also emphasized the need for long-term resource planning to fund our elections. “Procurement takes years. Planning ahead so that election officials don’t need to think just, ‘What do I need this year,’ but, ‘What do I need three years from now, five years from now, ten years from now?’ So we really should be looking at elections as a long-term investment because that’s what our nation is founded on.”

Edgardo Cortés, Former Virginia Commissioner of Elections

We closed our panel with these words from Edgardo Cortés on the importance of adequately resourcing our elections at all levels of government:

“Free and fair elections are the cornerstone of our democracy, and when you look at particularly next year, a federal election, there’s a shared responsibility – there needs to be – between the federal, state, and local governments. Everyone needs to pitch in and provide adequate funding here, and a steady, consistent source of funding, starting with Congress at the federal level; moving down to the states when state legislatures convene at the beginning of this year, making sure there’s sufficient funding; and then at the local level, that counties and cities and local governments provide the funding that’s needed to fill in the rest.”

“I think yes, funding is needed, funding is critical, but it needs to come from all three levels of government for this to work, because it’s a shared responsibility – everyone needs to pitch in and do their part.”

We couldn’t agree more. To speak with any of our 2023 elections panelists, or IRG Executive Director Sam Oliker-Friedland, contact Ali Javery at