A recurring lament among reformers is that the basic structural features of our constitutional system get in the way of needed change. For example, many believe that our federal system decentralizes policy-making and gives rise to partisan feuds in ways that thwart the adoption of positive reforms and enable bad situations to persist. This is certainly a common refrain with respect to our decentralized system for administering elections and the chronic problems associated with it.
But there is a silver lining sewn into our federal system—namely, the potential for experimentation, innovation, and—not least—productive competition among what Justice Brandeis called our “laboratories of democracy.” State and local governments are free in many domains to tackle common problems differently, as they might see fit. Superior approaches developed in one state or locality can thus be adopted in places where performance is subpar. If not, the onus is on the underperforming policy-makers and administrators to explain themselves to their underserved citizens.
That onus just got much heavier for state elections officials that are lagging their peers. Last month the Pew Charitable Trusts launched a revamped Elections Performance Index that, on 17 concrete performance measures, identifies states in which election administration is going relatively well, states where it is not, and the trend lines in recent elections. This data will make it harder for officials to preside over abysmal performance; at the same time, it will make it easier for officials who want to improve to identify where and how they can do so.
This idea originated with Yale Law School Professor Heather Gerken, who in 2009 wrote a book proposing just such a “Democracy Index.” Her call was based on her underlying philosophy that reformers need to “harness politics to fix politics.” That is, rather than throwing up our hands in the face of the localism and partisanship that can stand as barriers to reform, we need to find ways to put those same forces, and the ambitions and conflicts underlying them, to work in bringing about needed changes.
Gerken’s powerful idea, carried out with Pew’s characteristic blue-chip execution and sustained engagement with state officials, already appears to be making a difference. Gerken has noted that officials in at least nine states have responded to the most recent ratings with new pushes for improvements relative to their peers on different dimensions of the index.
That said, the work is really just beginning. It is now up to the watchdogs, journalists, advocates, organizers, civil servants and—not least—ambitious politicians and determined partisans to capitalize on this treasure trove of information. Whether prompted by high or low motives (or something in between, as is usually the case), their use of the information that is now at their disposal should ratchet up the visibility of, expectations about, and performance on election administration.