Gerken: Pew’s Election Performance Index

A few years ago, I proposed creating a “Democracy Index” that would rank states and localities based on how well they run elections.  Since then, the Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonpartisan organization well known for promoting data-driven governance, has tried to put these ideas into action.  It created the nation’s first Elections Performance Index, which was released this week.  The EPI measures state performance based on seventeen indicators, which include the length of lines, the accuracy of voting technology, and the percentage of voters who experienced problems registering or casting an absentee ballot.

The process for creating the Index was remarkable – as serious and professional an undertaking as I’ve witnessed.  Pew itself devoted significant funding and top-notch staffers to the project.  It also assembled an extraordinary group of advisors, which included some  of the top state and local election administrators in the country.  The legendary Charles Stewart, the former chair of MIT’s political science department, served as the data expert (though that seems a bit like calling a Ferrari a “car”).  The Pew staff and advisors — along with numerous outside experts Pew called in to poke and prod and test and challenge the validity of the indicators – narrowed down a list of almost fifty potential performance indicators to the seventeen you see on the website.  A huge amount of effort was put in to be sure the indicators were measuring something meaningful, and that the data gave us genuine signals rather than noise.  I am frankly amazed that Pew came up with so many good measures – it’s a testament to the creativity of the team, especially the political scientists who were involved.

I devoted a book to explaining why an election performance index like Pew’s has the potential to make a difference in election administration.  Indices are incredibly useful tools in the policymaking world.  They allow us to spot, surface, and solve problems by making election problems visible to everyone.  They help policymakers identify the drivers of performance and sort useful policy needles from a haystack of disparate practices.  They allow us to judge state performance against a realistic baseline – how a jurisdiction compared to its neighbors – rather than relying on a crisis to tell us there’s a problem.

Rather than rehash all of those arguments here, I’ll just note two things that really came through during the process.  The first was how important it is to have an EPI.  The EPI isn’t perfect, to be sure.  It measures what can be measured using the best means available.  But there are obviously areas where we can and ought to have better measures in the long run (something that Pew itself has shown itself expert at generating in other areas).  The EPI is thus best understood as a baseline for measuring election performance going forward.

Nonetheless, it makes a huge difference to have that marker laid down.  Going forward, we’ll be able to trace the effects of policy interventions (like the reform to the military and overseas voting process).  We’ll be able to identify problems we might not have seen before (even within this short period, we’ve already seen tantalizing glimpses of this possibility).  For the first time, we’ve had a chance to acknowledge the unsung heroes of our democracy – the election administrators whose only reward for doing a good job before today has been a quiet election and no media firestorm.  And the EPI should help low-performing jurisdictions lobby for the resources they need to improve.

The second thing that process underscored was how seriously election administrators take these numbers.  I spent a chunk of the book talking about the ways in which professional norms may be the best guarantor of a well-run election system.  I wrote that we often think that reform and high-quality performance are due to pressure from the outside, but it’s actually the people inside the system who are best situated to improve it.  I’ve now begun to wonder whether I should have devoted the entire book to the idea.  Election administrators do a very hard job with very few resources.  They care deeply about whether they are doing a good job, and they all want to do their jobs better.   What I found most impressive about the meetings of the Pew advisors was how much they cared about their own performance on each and every indicator.   These folks, after all, were chosen because they are so well regarded in the field.  And yet every time a number was put up on the screen, the room fell silent as the administrators absorbed the results.  What happened next was even more striking.  They started to talk to each other.  They talked about where they fell short and why, whether a low ranking was a glitch or trend, whether a high ranking was due to luck or skill.  And they began to swap information about how similar problems were addressed or similar practices were used elsewhere.  The data generated exactly the kind of conversations that will lay the groundwork for a better-run system.  The EPI, in short, is the type of reform that makes bigger, better reform possible.

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