We hear volumes about what’s wrong with the candidates and even the voters, but what exactly is wrong with the election process itself? Is it another “Florida in 2000” waiting to happen? And is it possible there exists a radical new solution that’s also deceptively simple? In her book, The Democracy Index, Heather Gerken proposes the Democracy Index, a system that would rate the performance of state and local election systems. A rough equivalent to the U.S. News and World Report ranking of colleges and universities, the Index would respond to key problems: How long does it take to vote? How many ballots get discarded? How often do voting machines break down?
Writing for Election 101, Gerken gives us the five major myths about voting and voting reform, all of which point to why she feels a disaster is inevitable if we don’t embrace reforms now.
Myth 1: The 2008 election ran smoothly.
As a member of the Obama for America’s national election protection team, I helped monitor the reports of thousands of lawyers, field staff, and volunteers across the country. What scrolled across our computers that day was quite different from what was reported on November 5th. While elections in some places ran smoothly, many jurisdictions fell apart as a wave after wave of voters crashed down on them. The reason we never heard about these problems is simple. The media reports on problems only when the race is close enough for them to affect the outcome, as in Florida 2000 or Ohio 2004. People assume if the cameras turn off on election night, the election was a success. What it really means is that the election wasn’t close.
Myth 2: Breakdowns in voting systems are caused by partisanship.
Most people think that what happened in Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004 were caused by partisan mismanagement. While partisanship played a role in those debacles, both states were victims of a turnout tsunami that too few states are equipped to handle. The truth is that most election administrators are people of good faith trying to do a very hard job with very few resources. Computer programmers have a rule called “Hanlon’s Razor,” which says that we should never attribute to malice that which can be explained by incompetence. I propose a different rule for elections: never attribute to partisanship that which can be explained by a lack of resources.
Myth 3: We know what’s wrong with our election system and how to fix it.
Our sense of what’s wrong with our election system depend largely on anecdote and educated guesses. While most private and public organizations relentlessly measure, election administration – which all but lends itself to hard numbers — is a world without data. Without basic information on how well jurisdictions are performing, we cannot identify even the basic drivers of performance, let alone solutions to more discrete problems. That’s why I’ve proposed creating a Democracy Index, which would rank states and localities based on how well elections are run. It would ask the basic questions that matter to most voters: How long were the lines? How many ballots got discarded? A Democracy Index would give us the data we need to spot, surface, and solve the problems that plague the system.
Myth 4: Election reform will be costly and time consuming
The first and most important step we can take to reform our elections is easy and cheap: gathering data and distilling it into an accessible form. While data collection takes money, that investment would be modest compared to the potential payoff. Without good data, we cannot be confident we know the problem, let alone have the right solution. By providing reliable, comparative information on election performance, a Democracy Index would make election problems visible to voters. It would give policymakers the tools they need to target problems and identify solutions. And it would help bureaucrats sift through remarkably varied local policies to pinpoint best practices. Before we throw resources at the problem, we need to know what the problem is and how to solve it.
Myth 5: The only solution to our problem is nationally mandated standards and a nonpartisan election system . . . and politicians will never create them.
While every other developed democracy uses a national nonpartisan system to run elections, our system is highly decentralized and often run by partisans. The key is to stop complaining about these unusual features and figure out how to take advantage of them, harnessing local competition and partisanship in the service of reform. A Democracy Index would do just that. By making problems visible and highlighting best practices, an Index would give politicians an incentive to care about performance while pushing administrators to conform to best practices. A Democracy Index would not mandate national performance standards, take power from partisan officials, or even endorse best practices. But it would push toward better performance, less partisanship, and greater professionalism. It is the type of small reform that makes bigger, better reform possible.
Heather K. Gerken is the J. Skelly Wright Professor of Law at Yale Law School, where she teaches election and constitutional law. She is a frequent media commentator on elections and has written for the New Republic, Roll Call, Legal Affairs, and the Legal Times.