December 11, 2010

Bush v. Gore Reflection: Heather Gerken

Here is a guest post in my Bush v. Gore reflections series from Yale's Heather Gerken.

    Rethinking the 2000 Fiasco

    Heather Gerken

    I've changed my mind about what happened during the 2000 presidential election. Like most people, I was sure at the time that the brouhaha was a sign that Florida was one of the worst-run election systems in the country. Now I am sure of only one thing: we don't really know whether Florida was an outlier or just happened to be a state where the election was close.

    It's easy to draw the wrong inference from an election crisis. We see a problem that isn't happening elsewhere, and we take that crisis to be proof that the system isn't working. But just as you can't measure annual rainfall based on how often lightning strikes, you can't assess the health of a system based on whether an electoral meltdown has occurred. The problems we saw in Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004 occur across the country. The key difference is that those elections were close enough for those problems to matter. As I've argued in my book, The Democracy Index: Why Our Election System is Failing and How to Fix It, we need reliable, comparative data before we can decide whether Florida and Ohio were outliers or not, before we can rest easy that our own state’s election system is working well.

    In a world without data, we don't just make mistakes in identifying where problems exist; we make mistakes in identifying what caused them. Without good data, election administration is a black box -- we see a problem, we don't realize that the same problem is occurring in many places where the election isn't close, and we all too quickly assume that the people in charge must be engaged in egregious partisan manipulation.

    Good comparative data would help here as well. It would tell us whether an election crisis is caused by bad faith or by the problem that afflicts most election systems: inadequate funding. Most election administrators are trying to do a very hard job with very little money. Little wonder that problems occur. Computer programmers often invoke a rule called "Hanlon's Razor": never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity. If we had better election data, I think we'd develop a different rule: never attribute to malice and manipulation that which can be adequately explained by money.

    To me, what is most striking about the last ten years since Bush v. Gore is how little progress election administration has made in catching up to the rest of the public sector (MIT's Charles Stewart wrote much the same thing in 2006). Data-driven management is ubiquitous. It is the only way to distinguish between a glitch and a trend. It is the only way to identify the drivers of performance. It is the only way to be confident that reform is working. Yet election administration -- which easily lends itself to measurement -- lags far behind both most other areas of public administration. The new generation of election administrators and organizations like the Pew Center on the States have done a tremendous amount of work to move us forward. But there's a great deal more work to do.

    If we were to draw one lesson from the 2000 brouhaha, it ought to be this: the best way to avoid another Bush v. Gore is to build a well-functioning election system. And the first step in that direction is to collect decent data. Getting better election data may seem like a modest reform. But it's the type of modest reform that makes bigger, better reform possible.

Posted by Rick Hasen at December 11, 2010 06:03 PM