On the Record: How to Improve Elections (Summer 2013 Trust Magazine)

Source Organization: The Pew Charitable Trusts

Author: Trey Grayson


07/15/2013 - Pew’s Elections Performance Index provides the data.

Clean, fair, and credible elections are the foundation of a functioning democracy, so improving the way ballots are cast and counted ought to be a broadly embraced, nonpartisan goal. The divisive 2000 presidential contest, with its drawn-out tally and infamous hanging chads, delivered a wake-up call that improvements were needed. Twelve years later, elections are unquestionably better administered, but there is still plenty of room for improvement.

Election difficulties have not been limited to one place or time. Across the country, state and local officials have lacked clear information about how their methods and outcomes compared with balloting elsewhere.  I asked myself this question when I served as Kentucky’s secretary of state and chief election officer and put it to my peers when I was president of the National Association of Secretaries of State. Without factual and impartial comparisons, the operation of a government is bound to suffer.

But now there’s help. A recent study by The Pew Charitable Trusts, encompassing all 50 states and the District of Columbia, provides exactly the kind of comparisons that could help elections officials figure out how they measure up. Most importantly, it offers a way for states to borrow the best ideas from one another.

It is the interactive Elections Performance Index. It steers clear of the rancorous issue of voter identification and moves away from use of anecdotes to shore up points of view. It allows users to customize the index to see how the rankings are affected by the inclusion or exclusion of different indicators.

Now, elected leaders and administrators have an opportunity to ensure that the process of democracy is better. It is precisely the sort of progress we’ve championed at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, which seeks to bridge the chasm between academics who study democracy and the policymakers who make a government operate.

The index reveals significant differences in how easy or difficult it is for Americans to vote, based on where they live. The best states for voting in 2008 and 2010 turned out to be North Dakota and Wisconsin. Scores for most other states show mixed results, with many doing well in some areas but lagging in others. For example, my home state of Kentucky was close to the middle in both years, a combination of keeping better tabs on its data but failing to help disabled voters.

The index shows that a growing number of states, such as Colorado, have improved elections by adding ways for voters to find information and by devising secure online registration.  Florida, which always seems to be in the nation’s spotlight during presidential election years, lands in the middle of the pack, despite its long lines in 2008.These state-by-state comparisons can lead to improvements. I used state rankings when lobbying Kentucky’s General Assembly to improve campaign finance and business organization laws.

I hope that this index will empower  legislators, citizens, and election administrators to examine how their states measure up—and then make the necessary changes to improve. With the eventual addition of 2012 data, the index will become even more valuable.

Elections should vigorously test candidates and ideas, but the actual process ought to take place smoothly and cleanly. Making them work better can and must be a nonpartisan goal. If ballots are the building blocks of democracy, then transparency and credibility form the mortar that holds together the foundations of self-government.

Trey Grayson, director of Harvard University's Institute of Politics and secretary of state in Kentucky from 2004 to 2011, was an external reviewer of the Pew study on election performance.  Versions of this essay appeared in more than two dozen newspapers around the nation.

Learn more about the Elections Performance Index at pewstates.org/elections

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