Kalisa to Lead CSG Overseas Voting Initiative

The 2000 presidential election revealed some problems in America’s voting systems.

“That election shed a really nasty spotlight on elections administration in the United States,” said Kamanzi Kalisa, the new director of The Council of State Governments’ overseas voting initiative. “For a long time, we thought our elections were great and we had no issues. In 2000, we identified a lot of issues as a nation with our system.”

Some states were using old, outdated hand equipment. Others required people to write in their choices of candidates.

“In terms of close elections and recounts, efficiency and accountability, those are the worst forms of capturing a person’s candidate choice,” Kalisa said.

In addition, the equipment was not ideal for voters with disabilities, leading to a situation where some people simply were not participating in the process, he said. In many areas, polling places were not accessible and voter registration systems were unfriendly for people with disabilities.

The need for some changes led to the passage of the Help America Vote Act in 2002. The law helped reform the domestic voting process, but issues remain for American citizens who live outside the nation’s borders—either through service in the U.S. military, the U.S. Foreign Service or simply civilians living overseas, Kalisa said.

That is the focus of the Overseas Voting Initiative, in which CSG is working with the U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness through a four-year, $2.9 million cooperative agreement.

Kalisa, director of the initiative, is familiar with the problems—and solutions—with domestic election administration. He served as director of the Help America Vote Act in Georgia before joining CSG Feb. 24.

“Stateside voting has improved dramatically in this country,” Kalisa said.

He’ll be researching best practices among the states to improve the overseas voting administration for U.S. citizens abroad. A national policy advisory group—comprised of state and local elections officials—will help Kalisa identify the challenges with voting abroad as well as some ways to address those challenges.

Overseas voters, Kalisa said, are very reliant on online resources, but the various steps in the election process are not always available to them electronically. It also is a challenge that not all states operate elections in the same manner.

While Kalisa lauds the fact that voter registration is based on residency, he said that adds a wrinkle for overseas voters. For instance, military personnel stationed in the same overseas base follow different rules, different eligibility requirements and different deadlines.

“Some states offer advance voting, some don’t,” Kalisa said. “Some use different technology, equipment. Some require voter ID, some don’t.”

The electronic election resources available to overseas voters also vary by state. He uses Georgia as an example in the four-step process an overseas voter must follow.

The first step, registration, can be completed online. Previously, that would have been done by mail. The next step, requesting the ballot, also can be completed online as of this year.

With the third step, receiving the ballot, the local election jurisdiction—either the city or the county—would process the request and decide whether to mail or email the ballot. In Georgia, ballots are typically sent via email now.

“Three of the four steps are now electronic in Georgia,” Kalisa said. “I can register to vote, I can request the ballot and I can receive the ballot in PDF format.

“The last frontier is the actual submission of the ballot (electronically) and no state or territory allows that now,” he said.

One problem, he said, is security.

“Is there a platform that is secure enough that we can trust it and voters can trust, if I press a button online, will my vote be counted?” Kalisa said.

Throughout the four-year span of the grant, Kalisa and his advisers will look at voting equipment to determine what works with regard to overseas voters, as well as policies at the state and local level that can make overseas voting easier for citizens abroad, especially those serving in the military.

“It’s a shame that military voters who are in harm’s way in many respects, who sacrifice so much, they’re still having basic issues of even receiving and submitting ballots on time, and that’s not right,” Kalisa said.

“Voting, to me, is fundamental to any democracy.”

Kalisa has long been interested in public service, both politics and public policy issues. His South Carolina native mother and his father, a native of Rwanda, have long been involved in helping to make their communities better. His mother is an educator in the Atlanta area, while his father returned to his home country in the 1990s and heads up the development bank in Rwanda.

Kalisa majored in political science at Tufts University in Boston, then interned in then-U.S. Sen. John Kerry’s office. He worked with local law enforcement officials in Massachusetts to educate them on new funding available for homeland security. This was soon after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Kerry was big on international service, and Kalisa had considered serving the U.S. abroad in the foreign service. He decided against that, instead attending a campaign school offered by Emily’s List, an organization that focuses on electing women. The school trains recent college graduates on campaigns—everything from media strategy to fundraising to political messaging.

The organization deploys recent graduates to different statewide campaigns for candidates it supports. His first foray into politics was a U.S. Senate campaign in Florida, then a gubernatorial campaign in Georgia. That campaign was for the state’s first female secretary of state, Cathy Cox, who was running for governor.

After she lost in the primary to the sitting lieutenant governor, Cox appointed Kalisa to the Help America Vote Act position.

Throughout his tenure, Kalisa has seen the funding for elections administration decline across the states, and believes the Overseas Voting Initiative might help states in administering elections more efficiently stateside.

“There is a sense of urgency on the domestic side to continue the efficient service we’ve seen over the last 10 years,” said Kalisa, “but also, if online voting becomes the norm and it’s done right, … I can see some states considering this for stateside voting to further mitigate costs and labor burdens.”