Chapin: Enjoying the Unexpected – Or, the Virtue of a Victory Lap

Doug Chapin has written the following guest post for my Fixing Election Administration series:

Enjoying the Unexpected – Or, the Virtue of a Victory Lap
by Doug Chapin, Pew Center on the States

Almost as astounding as how smoothly Election Day 2008 went overall is how quickly everyone seems to have pivoted away to focus on the future of elections in this country. [I can't even claim credit for noticing this; that honor goes to fellow election geek Michael Alvarez.]

Yet, before we race ahead to the next big thing – which looks like it’s going to be state legislative debates about early voting and a Congressional debate on registration reform – I would suggest that we may want to take a long look in the rearview mirror.

Quite simply, we need to look back and ask why Election Day 2008 went so well – and why.

Over the years, I have had friendly (and occasionally not-so-friendly) discussions with election officials about the tendency for the media (and by extension, electionline.org) to focus on the negative in its coverage of elections. My response has always been that reporters are interested in the unexpected; building fires and plane crashes get coverage precisely because planes aren’t supposed to crash and buildings aren’t supposed to burn.

Sometimes, though, the lack of news is news – and I would argue that Election Day 2008 qualifies.

Conventional wisdom in some quarters held that the election system was facing a “meltdown” because of the combination of a system in flux and potentially record turnout. Even those of us who adamantly refused to predict trouble were holding our breath as polls opened on November 4.

But then nothing much happened. While there were problems – names not on registration lists, ballots
that couldn’t be read – they never rose to the level of systemic
electoral breakdown that some had predicted and even congenital optimists like me had feared.

The plane didn’t crash. Democracy didn’t burn.

I think that’s worth investigating.

Thus, before we simply assume that Election Day is behind us and move on, we need to dig more deeply into Election 2008 and find out what went right. Specifically, we need the answers to the following questions and more (which I will not even attempt to answer here but will be following in weeks and months to come):

  1. Did the margin in the presidential race mask flaws in the system; i.e., was election offcials’ apocryphal “landslide prayer” answered?
  2. Did the competitive and historic nature of the election make voters, poll workers and election officials focus more intently on their roles (what I’ve called the “game face” and social scientists call the Hawthorne Effect)?
  3. Was early voting really successful in getting voters “out of line” on Election Day?
  4. Do paper ballots ease polling place congestion by allowing more people to cast ballots at once?
  5. Do the number and nature of provisional ballots indicate larger hidden issues with the registration system?
  6. Did pre-election controversies about third-party registrations create issues or heighten attention (see #2?)
  7. Does improved voting information help?
  8. What changes were made between the problematic primary season and Election Day and what was their impact?
  9. Did we just get lucky? Or was luck merely the residue of design?

These questions only scratch the surface of what we need to learn about 2008 … but I cannot emphasize enough how important it is that we take the time to answer them.

Failures happen for a reason – but sometimes successes do, too.

Either way, we are foolish if we don’t stop to ask why.

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