Sunday, 10 May 2009

“The Democracy Index”, by Heather K. Gerken (Princeton)


Why the US election system is failing, and how to fix it

With the 2008 election now well and truly behind us, it is interesting to pick up and read this book from Heather Gerken, a professor at Yale Law School. Gerken, who was part of Obama’s “election protection team”, does not share the media-reported view that the 2008 presidential election went smoothly. In fact, in certain districts, reports of a smooth election “bore no resemblance” to what she was seeing on her computer screens. “Many jurisdictions simply fell apart as wave after wave of voters crashed down upon them.”

One comforting thought for Gerken was that “it seemed clear that most of the problems were caused not by partisan mischief, but by neglect” of the election system. In The Democracy Index, the author offers her prescriptions for how to fix this broken system.

“Our election system is run badly… [it is] clunky at best and dysfunctional at worst… Although many people are aware of the problem and eager for a solution, reform efforts have gotten surprisingly little traction.”

The biggest problem is that the system is poorly funded and planned; a failure of the “nuts-and-bolts” of the system. The book lays out a methodical, data-driven approach to election reform – including creating a ranking for all 50 states and their voting records, including such varied data as voter line-length, number of malfunctioning machines, problems with voter registration and miscounts and/or vote rejection.

Rather than stick all these data in a drawer, Gerken proposes that if it is all made public, it will create pressure on politicians and officials, giving them the incentive to reform their practices as they try to edge up the rankings. It would be a bit like the university rankings one sees in US and UK newspapers, or the RAE rankings I suppose. Gerken refers to the US News & World Report as a partial model for her Index. This, of course, offers possibilities of cheating (as happens with university rankings), where local officials might be tempted to cook the books in order to improve their ranking. While the author acknowledges that no system could ever be totally fool-proof, “If the Democracy Index were having such a powerful effect on election officials that they were tempted to cheat, we would already have come a long way” towards helping to fix the system, to change the entrenched mindsets involved. The author offers a very simple (and sensible) reason for a ranking being the best approach: “no one wants to be at the bottom of the list.”

The Democracy Index identifies the major obstacles to election-practice reform, and also looks at why it is a repeatedly sidelined issue in American politics. The obstacles include partisan bias, lack of professionalism, Perhaps the most important problems are that of “hyper-decentralization” (or “failed federalism”), and “deferred maintenance”. The former is just that almost everything with regards to election in the US is the sole responsibility of under-funded, under-staffed, and under-prepared localities. The latter means action is only likely to take place as-and-when a problem occurs. A Russian Roulette approach to election maintenance (the phrase is most commonly used in relation to infrastructure up-keep).

With four more years before the next election, it will be interesting to see if any of Gerken’s ideas get taken on board by state legislatures and also the federal government. It is hard to imagine any state having problems putting a good political spin on moving up the rankings (“Who, after all, is against democracy working better?”). “At a time when the United States is trying to spread democracy abroad, our election system falls well short of our peers’”, and no doubt America’s global image would improve if it could show that its brand of democracy did work, is representative, and is not prone to Banana-Republic-style problems. It’s difficult to see how Gerken’s proposals could ever be considered a bad thing.

Gerken writes in an accessible and engaging style, making this book about a not-exactly-sexy topic a pretty good read. Her prose are written in a welcome straight-forward, and unstuffy style. The book is also an honest account of election specialists and their standard approaches – on a number of occasions, Gerken highlights the go-to solutions usually carted out by specialists, and admits she herself has succumbed to the same temptations as her colleagues. Filled with anecdotes and examples to support and flesh-out the author’s arguments, The Democracy Index is a quick, interesting and important read for anyone invested in America getting Democracy right.

Also try: Andrew Gelman’s Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State (2008)

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