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Fixing elections: What the U.S. can learn from Britain

Poll workers set up voting booths in New York on Election Day, Nov. 5, 2013 (Joshua Tucker/The Monkey Cage)
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[Joshua Tucker: The following is a guest post from University of East Anglia, Britain, political scientist Toby James, the author of Elite Statecraft and Election Administration (Palgrave, 2012).]


It is Election Day in America.  It is an off-year in the electoral cycle, but many citizens have the opportunity to vote in gubernatorial, state legislature, municipal and/or congressional special elections.

American elections, however, have often been plagued with administrative problems.  Memories of the infamous 2000 presidential election remain fresh in the mind.  More recently, President Obama drew attention in his 2013 State of the Union speech to the story of Desiline Victor.  Victor was a 102-year-old citizen from north Miami who voted despite being told that she would have to queue for six hours.  Victor’s story might have been heroic, but the burden placed upon an elderly citizen wishing to exercise her democratic right was an embarrassment for American democracy.  Obama therefore promised to fix American elections and launched a bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration to finally crack the nut of the long running administrative problems in U.S. elections.  What can be done?

One proposed solution has been to publish league tables of election officials’ (or comparative rankings) performance.  In her influential book, “The Democracy Index,” Heather Gerken argued that the publication of such information might be a trigger for change.  The idea is that the public ranking of electoral officials (according to factors such as how long voters in their state have to queue, how many ballots get discarded and registration rates) might encourage them to enact the necessary changes to improve elections.  The idea has had some political support from Obama and former secretary of state Hilary Rodham Clinton in the past.  It has been pushed by the Pew Institute, which has launched an Elections Performance Index (EPI).  But is this likely to have any effect?

The use of league tables of public services has been widely used in many countries around the world but the effect that they might have is unclear, especially on elections.  Lessons can now be learned from Britain, which has seen innovations in this area.  Performance standards for senior election officials have been published since 2008.  These were devised by the Electoral Commission, and the results published online for all to see.  A different approach to the EPI was used.  Rather than rank election officials on outcomes, they were ranked on their processes.  The Electoral Commission defined some ‘high quality’ benchmark processes and then measured the extent to which officials had adopted these standards.

My research on the effects that these benchmarks had has recently been published in Electoral Studies.  The research is based on in-depth interviews with those officials who were subject to the standards.  The introduction of the standards was a powerful trigger for change.  Many officials suggested that they were useful in facilitating learning.  They were introduced to new ways of working, which they had not thought about before, or had not been confronted with a sufficiently powerful trigger for changing procedure.  Electoral officials were also concerned about their personal or organisational reputation amongst peers and therefore adopted the necessary reforms to meet the standard. Where they thought that there was no reputation loss, they were less likely to change their practices.

There were a number of positive outcomes resulting from the standards.  The presence of the standards scheme sometimes increased confidence amongst local politicians who were then less likely to complain about the quality of electoral management.  It also led to more regular reviews of working practices within the electoral services departments and more consistent services across Britain.

However, this was not the only innovation. After problems with the administration of elections in the 2010 British general election (queues, insufficient ballot paper printing – common themes from the United States), the Electoral Commission went further.  In two referenda in 2011, it began to issue direct instructions to electoral officials. and I have also written up the consequences of this in a recent conference paper.  This has some positive outcomes because it gave the commission central oversight over elections, and it could address any problems from the center as it identified them.  However, the costs outweighed the benefits.  Local knowledge was overlooked, and centrally defined procedures were often costly.  Local electoral officials became unhappy and felt a sense of loss of ownership over their work.  This is perhaps a cause for concern when cash-strapped electoral services often rely on the goodwill of their employees for high quality elections.

What are the lessons for the United States?  The EPI might be a useful way forward, but it depends on the extent to which it is recognized by electoral officials.  If they think that their organizational and personal reputation will be affected, then we might expect change.  This is not automatic.  Professionals might not see it as important, and the media might not give it sufficient attention.  The EPI is not run by the government, and this might make a difference.  Time will tell.

The British experience, however, suggests that if the United States gave powers to a central government organization such as the Electoral Assistance Commission to identify benchmark practices for election administration and use these to evaluate electoral officials then there might be some considerable payoffs for American democracy.  Too much centralizing election management, however, may lead to fall out and prevent local knowledge being used.

Tuesday’s elections may pass without controversy.  But America’s electoral machinery has consistently shown signs of ill health.  Focusing on systems of electoral management is an essential part of any diagnosis.