Report

Toward a Voting System Worthy of a Democracy (Spring 2007 Trust Magazine article)

  • June 04, 2007
  • By Glee Holton

The prolonged, contentious aftermath of the 2000 presidential election established one fact: The nation deserves better than to be left with debates over “hanging” and “pregnant” chads.

In 2001, Pew, with a long-standing interest in restoring public confidence in our nation's elections, initiated the Election Reform Information Project, better known as electionline.org, located at the University of Richmond. The project began as a neutral clearinghouse for information about election reform, but over time, it has guided federal, state and local election officials on trends, important issues and best practices in election reform. Without engaging in advocacy and while remaining scrupulously nonpartisan, electionline.org forms opinions based on its research and evaluates the most effective approaches to reform.

For instance, electionline.org's report on the 2006 elections—the 15th in a series of policy briefings—found widespread accounts of voting-system troubles, sporadic incidents of voter intimidation and poll-worker confusion over voter-identification requirements, and isolated breakdowns at polling places because of problems with newly mandated voter-registration systems. The next two years are expected to see intense activity in election administration.

Electionline.org's information reaches policy makers and election officials through briefing papers on best practices and innovations, annual reports on the status of election reform and convenings of state and local officials. Electionline.org's work informs and guides the work of the federal Election Assistance Commission by providing research, data and analysis on states' election-reform efforts. The project's work is available to all through its Web site (www.electionline.org) and a weekly electronic newsletter.

In 2006, Planning and Evaluation, at the request of the staff of Pew's State Policy Initiatives program, designed an evaluation of electionline.org. The review was timed to (1) provide the Trusts' board, senior leadership and program staff with objective information about the value of electionline.org to the election-administration and reform communities; and (2) help inform program staff's thinking about the role the project might play in the Trusts' programming if integrated as a key component of an expanded election- reform strategy.

The evaluation was done by Andrew Rich, Ph.D., associate professor of political science at the City College of New York and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. He reviewed documents from the Trusts and electionline.org and interviewed staff from both organizations as well as election administrators (e.g., secretaries of state, county registrars and state election directors), policy makers involved in election reform, journalists who cover the issue, and advocates and researchers of election systems. He also examined print media both nationally and in the states of California, Maryland and North Carolina to understand how the project contributed to discourse on the way we conduct elections.

Summary of Findings

Rich determined that (a) electionline. org is considered a highly valued resource and a trusted authority in the field of election administration; (b) its value is recognized by representatives of a wide range of stakeholders; (c) it is emerging as an agenda-setter through the issues it identifies and the information it provides; and (d) it is well positioned to produce or commission more original research that will inform the thinking and direction of decision-makers.

As a Clearinghouse

Since it began, electionline.org has become a highly credible source of information. Its materials about our system of elections is up-to-date, comprehensive, timely and useful. Advocates, researchers and journalists alike affirm that they use electionline. org's data in their work and credit the project for being trustworthy, nonpartisan, balanced and knowledgeable— in fact, the best resource on election-reform issues.

Impact

Electionline.org has helped build the election-administration community, and its data have raised the level of informed discussions. Because the project frequently serves as the key place for information, it tends to drive the issues that receive decision-makers' attention. By illuminating best practices, it helps set the agenda for election administrators, policy makers and journalists.

Some interviewees expressed the wish that electionline.org be less reserved about providing judgments about possible policy alternatives and the best directions for election-reform efforts.

Media Coverage

Over the period studied, electionline. org was referenced in 126 media stories, establishing that it was a consistent contributor to discussions about the state of our elections. The coverage was politically neutral; typically, electionline.org was described as an objective and nonpartisan research group.

Twenty-eight of the stories were written by electionline.org staff and appeared in the journal Campaigns and Elections, demonstrating the regularity of electionline.org's reach into one of the most important election- reform publications. As would be expected, coverage was higher in election years.

Recommendations

  • Protect and develop the high regard electionline.org has attained. Because electionline.org occupies a somewhat unusual niche in that key stakeholders—election administrators, journalists and advocates—find it to be timely and politically neutral, electionline.org must maintain its reputation as reliable and independent as it undertakes new activities.
  • Cultivate a more influential role for electionline.org. Earning the trust of election-administration officials is one of electionline.org's major accomplishments. The time is ripe for electionline.org to move from generating reports to an expanded research program by conducting original research on trends around the country, interviewing election-administration officials directly, and exploring alternative options for election reform in greater depth. By partnering in research efforts that both report on and outline policy options, electionline.org might develop insights that build on its clearinghouse role.
  • Stay focused on an agenda-setting role for election administrators and journalists. Sustaining and expanding electionline.org's agendasetting role is of paramount importance if it is to remain a relevant contributor to a reform agenda. By producing research, and not being merely a clearinghouse, electionline.org is more likely to have substantive influence on election reform. It should maintain its steadfast commitment to providing facts and trustworthy information, and offer an evidence- based foundation for election officials' decision-making, helping inform their options for reform.

Aftermath

In a relatively short time, electionline.org has made tremendous strides in establishing itself as an important clearinghouse on voting practices and election reform. Key stakeholders—election officials and administrators, researchers, journalists and advocates—report a high level of confidence in electionline.org and confirm their reliance on it for the most current and comprehensive information.

Yet, as an operating project of Pew, it has the potential to do even more. (In becoming a public charity in 2004, Pew gained the flexibility to operate its own projects when effectiveness and efficiency could be optimized.) Electionline.org will help further the objectives of Make Voting Work, the Trusts' broader election-reform strategy initiated this past winter.

Electionline.org brings critical assets to this expanded initiative. Its strong reputation, comprehensive base of knowledge, ability to translate and disseminate arcane and complex material and its relationships with those in the election field offer a solid foundation for Make Voting Work.

To play this role, electionline.org must reach a broader audience that includes civic leaders, policy makers and the public, and its voice must be consistently and clearly heard beyond the narrow confines of the election cycle.

To succeed, Pew is committed to deepening electionline.org's capacity to diagnose problems in the election system and identify and rigorously evaluate proposed solutions. Having already developed a core competence in collecting comprehensive cross-state information, electionline.org will take the next step: strengthen significantly its ability to drill down into the most critical issues, provide more analysis and assessment, and commission and manage the independent research that the field acutely needs.

Above all, electionline.org will preserve its reputation as a trusted source of unbiased, accurate and objective information. In fact, the only way to move a reform agenda is by grounding it in the best research and using the knowledge gained to guide policies and practices that will serve the public well. Electionline.org will continue to merit the field's respect as it spearheads the research and analysis that guide Pew's efforts in election reform.

Glee Holton is a senior officer in Evaluation and Program Analysis at Pew.

Pew is no longer active in this line of work, but for more information, please visit electionline.org.