The EPI and Election Reform: The Early Returns Are Promising

I want to offer a brief response to Rick Hasen’s post about the release of Pew’s 2012 Election Performance Index.  Now that we can assess state performance across two comparable elections, he asks an excellent question:  Will we see states trying to improve their performance?  I suggested as much in my book, The Democracy Index:  Why Our System is Failing and How to Fix It, where I proposed creating a ranking like the EPI.

It’s only been a few days, of course, but the early returns are heartening.  States are obviously paying attention; there are lots of stories about states touting their rise in the rankings or grumbling about their scores, with more discussions happening behind the scenes.

More importantly, election officials are already using the EPI to push for reform.  Secretary of State Jon Husted, for instance, noted that one of the reasons that Ohio didn’t rank higher on the EPI was its failure to keep up with other states in creating an online registration system and urged his legislature to take up the bill.   Iowa is paying special attention to military and overseas balloting, which pushed its rankings down.  Florida was working with Pew in advance of the EPI’s release and promises that it has already enacted transparency and access reforms that will improve its rankings next time.  Indiana’s Secretary of State tells us that, as we speak, the state is working on a post-election auditing process in order to up its ranking.  The state also issued “a call to action” suggesting further improvements.  Georgia insists that it’s going to do a better job on data collection in the future in order to increase its score.

We see the same thing happening at the top of the rankings, also as I predicted.  For example, the Secretary of State of Montana – which now ranks near the top – is not resting on her laurels.  She called for additional reform so that Montana could maintain its position.  So, too, the Secretary of State of top-ranked Michigan, which fell just shy of the top five, has called for online voter registration and changes to absentee voting in order to move the state higher up the list.  Twelfth-ranked Washington is on the hunt for ways to improve its already strong ranking.  And in North Dakota, which ranked first in the nation, policymakers who oppose voting rules recently enacted in North Dakota are using the EPI as a cudgel to beat the other side, arguing that those changes put the state at risk of losing its treasured number one spot.

I don’t want to overclaim.  It’s going to be hard to prove exactly how much of a push the EPI gives reform going forward, as Rick noted in his generous review of my book a few years ago.  Nonetheless, if anything the pressure on states to improve seems likely to increase over time.  The EPI has only been on the scene for two years, and this is the first time we’ve been able to make an “apples to apples” comparison (comparing a presidential election to a presidential election).  If the EPI continues to develop into the touchstone for measuring election performance, it should matter more in these debates.  Moreover, the pressure will mount for low-performing states.  States improved an average of 4.4 percentage points between 2008 and 2012.  As the always observant Doug Chapin noted, “even states showing modest improvement run the risk of being left behind.”  A spokesperson for Washington State has plainly gotten the message:  “[M]uch of what we’ve done is outstanding” but “others are catching up . . . We’re still a high performing state [but] other states are making rapid improvements.  Essentially, all boats are rising . . .”

Even if the EPI doesn’t prod a single state to do a single thing, it will still matter a great deal to election reform.  That’s because it provides an essential tool for data-driven policymaking:  a baseline.  Just as we cannot get a good read on economic policy without measures like the GDP, so, too, we cannot get a good read on elections policy without a reliable measure of how well our election system is working across time.  Already, for instance, we’ve begun to learn things we didn’t know before.  States with high obesity rates, for instance, seem to have trouble getting their voters to the polls.  So, too, we’re shaking loose some of our assumptions about which systems are working and which aren’t.  For instance, a number of states with long lines in 2012 ranked pretty high on the EPI, suggesting that the long lines were not a sign of a failing system.  Ohio and Florida, the perennial objects of late-night comedy during elections season, were somewhere in the middle of the pack.  Moreover, we see rich states and poor states performing well and badly on the list, something that at least raises questions about the real drivers of election performance.

All of the credit for this goes to Pew, which developed a rigorous and assiduously nonpartisan process for building the EPI.  Pew’s careful procedure and remarkable end product put the lie to the naysayer’s claim that any index would be dismissed out of hand as partisan.  As to the rest, we’ll see.

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