June 02, 2010

Pildes: Where Should Election Reformers Target Their Efforts

Rick Pildes sends along the following guest post:

    Where Should Election Reformers Target Their Efforts?

    Here is one suggestion: the reform community and supportive foundations should select a single state to focus on as a focal point for election-reform efforts. This will require overcoming the all too common tendency to focus on the national level. There are both positive and negative reasons for the desirability of focusing efforts at the state level. On the positive side, most of the nuts and bolts of election administration take place at the state level. Given risk aversion, reforms are only likely to be adopted at the national level once they have been tested and perfected at the state level. Moreover, the ability to turn to direct democracy initiatives in some states creates the shadow of a threat over legislators (or ways to bypass them) that does not exist at the national level. Much like Brandeis recognized that social security programs had to begin at the state level, we should recognize the same for major electoral reform. On the negative side, given the partisan divides in national politics, it is unlikely any meaningful reforms can be adopted nationally. Even beyond that political obstacle, national reforms, if any, are likely to be cast at such a high level of generality that, even could they be adopted, they are unlikely to have enough genuine substantive content to be more than credit-claiming actions with little bite.

    The single state should be large enough so that success there could be transplanted to other large states and eventually the national level. It should be a state with substantial partisan competition, rather than a state dominated by one party. It should have large urban areas. It should be a state known to have problems in election administration. It should be a state with a referendum or initiative process. And generally speaking, it should be a state that is fairly representative demographically as well as in partisan makeup. For this reasons, my suggestion is that Ohio become the focal point of reform efforts. By making one state the "poster child" for reform efforts, it will be easier to draw media and national attention to the efforts and successes of such a program. By concentrating reform efforts on one state, it would make all the various initiatives more effective. Ohio seems ripe for reform efforts; recently, the legislature has taken significant steps toward putting the districting process in the hands of non-political actors. Perhaps partnerships between states and foundations might emerge in this area, in addition to foundations funding only academic efforts. Perhaps efforts in Congress could also focus on generating financial support for these efforts (admittedly, a difficult aim in these financially-stressed times), even if Congress is not likely to be a major source of substantive legislation.

    National election reform is going to build on whatever successes can be established first at the state level. Instead of focusing on one particular issue in isolation from others, I suggest showing that one major state can be "recovered" from years of bad election administration and transformed into a model of clean, effective, problem-free elections would be one of the most effective ways of proving the case for more general election reform.

Posted by Rick Hasen at June 2, 2010 12:21 PM