Several years ago I directed a global commission on how best to promote and protect the integrity of elections worldwide. I remember vividly a particular discussion among the commission members concerning electoral management bodies. When elections fall victim to ineptitude, careless logistical mistakes, and errors of ignorance, voters may assume intentional malfeasance. If such mistakes are made by electoral authorities perceived to be partisan, then voters will have further reason to question the integrity of elections. The commission agreed that to protect the integrity of elections, best practice recommends that electoral authorities should be professional, competent, non-partisan, and politically independent. The problem was, as one commissioner pointed out, “the United States doesn’t follow this best practice we and they advocate for newer democracies.”
The commission released its report, Deepening Democracy: A Strategy for Improving the Integrity of Elections Worldwide, in September 2012. It criticized the United States for its failure to control campaign finance, pointing out that unlimited campaign cash and the difficulties of sourcing it would create fundamental challenges to electoral integrity. The report also criticized policies that made voter registration and voting difficult, especially for minority populations. American policies on finance and voter registration, the report argued, undermined the bedrock principle of political equality at the heart of electoral integrity. Since this was a global commission, and its recommendations were meant to address elections in both developed and less affluent democracies, the commission did not say, as it easily could have, that the United States, unlike most of the democratic world, lacks professional, independent, non-partisan election management. Pointing that out might have been perceived as piling on.
A deep strain in American political culture really doesn’t care what the rest of the world has to say about how we do things here. Part of American exceptionalism nurtures the belief that what may be problematic elsewhere in the world can somehow work in the United States because of our unique virtues. Our elections may be run by amateurs and self-interested elected politicians; we may be awash in a tsunami of political money that is getting ever harder to source; and we may erect barriers to participation in the name of fighting fraud, but damn it, they’re our elections and because we are a great democracy, then they must be pretty good elections. As if right on cue, two months after our report was issued, during the 2012 presidential election season, ten states barred international observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) from access to polling stations, and authorities in Texas actually threatened to arrest them.
More recently, though, the general alarm and concern prompted by the polarization of American politics has begun to seep into the electoral arena. Members of the attentive public and some concerned politicians are beginning to worry whether our flawed elections may one day diminish the legitimacy of American democracy. At the same time, however, today’s deep polarization and hyper-partisanship have made electoral reform more difficult as political actors assess whether they will benefit or lose under any change in how we conduct elections. As Bruce Cain describes in his new book, Democracy More or Less, we have moved outside the bounds of electoral administration to “electoral policy and strategy, because there are so many unsettled and highly politicized issues.”
Against this backdrop we Americans need to think more broadly about electoral integrity. The electoral fiascoes of 2000 in Florida and 2004 in Ohio, and more recently the very long lines of 2012, have generated interest in improving American elections. But from a global perspective there are at least two problems with the direction this impulse is taking. First, American views about electoral integrity remain limited to questions of election-day fraud, and do not address larger issues that affect the integrity of our elections. And second, we risk treating our electoral dysfunctions as technical problems, and not as the political problems they really are.
One of the great triumphs of the global movement for democracy is the development of an extensive set of norms and best practices for the conduct of elections. It is not only that the conduct of elections in the United States is ever more out of touch with those norms and standards, it is that the United States seems ever more out of touch with thinking about how elections are supposed to support democracy, and why their integrity matters.
The Global Commission on Elections, Democracy, and Security defined an election with integrity “as any election that is based on the democratic principles of universal suffrage and political equality as reflected in international standards and agreements, and is professional, impartial, and transparent in its preparation and administration throughout the electoral cycle.” International standards and agreements provide the normative tissue to link electoral practice to democracy. Norms of fairness, universal suffrage, and political equality are part of electoral integrity, but so is the expectation of professional, competent electoral administration with full independence of action. Electoral integrity has to encompass the whole range of electoral activities in the long run up to voting day, not just what happens when voters cast their ballots. Political finance, media coverage, the design of electoral systems, the drawing up of electoral districts, voter registration, access to the ballot—all these issues and more are part of the electoral cycle, so norms of fairness, full participation, and political equality should apply to them all, as well.
The Commission derived its definition and recommendations from their study and discussion of best practices among democracies, as well as norms codified in various agreements among governments, non-governmental organizations, and international organizations. The commission looked at what democratic governments, NGOs, and international organizations recommend for new democracies, as well as what reputable international election observer groups such as the Carter Center, the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI), and others look for in evaluating elections.
One of the commission’s recommendations was to create an international NGO, Electoral Integrity International, to assume responsibility for assessing elections worldwide in terms of their integrity. Unfortunately, major democracy advocacy groups opposed this recommendation; alas, monopolistic and cartel-like practices are not solely the purview of business. Fortunately, just as our commission was winding down, the Australian government funded a major research project to put the global study of electoral integrity on firmer empirical grounds. Led by a top international political scientist, Pippa Norris, the Electoral Integrity Project seeks “to understand international standards of electoral integrity, what happens when elections fail to meet those standards, and how electoral integrity can be strengthened.”
One of the Project’s first tasks was to be more systematic in discerning and defining global norms of electoral integrity. The director surveyed hundreds of election experts worldwide to judge whether we can really speak of a set of global norms of electoral integrity. The project concluded affirmatively, and then created a 100-point scale with which to assess the integrity of any election. The project then asked experts to apply the scale to judge hundreds of legislative and executive elections worldwide over the past three years. The result can be compared favorably with what Transparency International does with its yearly global corruption index.
The Project’s most recent report, The Year in Elections, 2014, provides scores on presidential and parliamentary elections held from 2012 to 2014 in 107 countries. Included in the report’s rankings are the U.S. presidential election of 2012 and the mid-term Congressional elections in 2014. According to the index, “the contests in the United States scored the worst performance among any long-established democracy.” The scores for these elections ranked them 42nd and 45th respectively out of 127 elections conducted worldwide, and 35th among the 35 long-running democracies. All in all the United States scored in the “moderate” integrity range. Elections held in South Africa were ranked slightly higher, those in Mexico in between, and those in Colombia and Panama slightly worse. According to the Report’s notes, the U.S. score reflected poor marks in our electoral laws, district boundaries, voter registration, and campaign finance.
Another interesting source on international judgments of the integrity of American elections comes from international election observer reports. Although few Americans are aware of it, since 2002 the OSCE has sent observer missions to presidential and off-year congressional elections and issued recommendations. They have made a habit of drawing attention to the potential conflict of interest that exists when partisan, elected officials are in charge of elections. The 2012 report recommends an overhaul of the FEC and Election Assistance Commission in order to provide non-partisan oversight of the crazy quilt of partisan, often amateurish election management across states. The reports also point out the weakness of reporting requirements of campaign money, partisan redistricting, and efforts to use registration requirements as barriers to voting. In short, while they judge the overall conduct positively, they point to weaknesses across the electoral cycle where American operations fall short of international standards of integrity.
When you talk with seasoned election officials from around the world, you will hear a phrase repeated many times: the integrity of elections is much more of a political than a technical issue. In the United States we have inverted the phrase and treat the integrity of our elections mostly as a technical matter of efficient electoral administration.
American scholars, practitioners, and journalists have paid enormous attention to the conduct of American elections since the Bush vs. Gore fiasco of 2000. There is an emerging school of evaluating elections, and much of the scholarship is first rate. Charles Stewart and Barry Burden have done an excellent job thinking through what data we need to evaluate the performance of electoral officials across the United States. Michael Alvarez, Lonna Rae Atkeson, and Thad Hall have pioneered methods and standards for evaluating elections. Nathaniel Persily has brought to bear the work of countless scholars and practitioners to help the Presidential Commission on Electoral Administration produce recommendations on how electoral administration in the United States could be improved.1 If a basic conclusion can be drawn from this work it is that the United States has more elections, more elected officials, and the least professional election management among the longstanding democracies. The task therefore is to improve electoral management through scientific measurement, superior evaluation methods, and better technical standards.
The Pew Charitable Trusts has worked closely with these scholars in order to “achieve the highest standards of accuracy, cost-effectiveness, convenience, and security in America’s system of electoral administration.” Anyone can go to the Trusts’ website and study its Election Performance Index to compare the performance of electoral authorities in all fifty states on such measures as percentage of mail ballots rejected, numbers of mail ballots that were unreturned, disability-related voting problems, turnout, voter registration rate, wait time at the polls, and many others. The website is a useful resource for understanding how varied the voting experience is in the United States, and it could be invaluable for testing the effects of voting reforms.
But when viewed from a comparative perspective, however, two things are amiss. First, electoral integrity seldom arises in this literature, and when it does it is mentioned as something that must be traded off against removing barriers to participation. Integrity is defined narrowly as the prevention of voter fraud. When limited to questions of fraud, one can see that there may be a tradeoff between making registration and voting easy and ensuring that only eligible voters cast a single ballot. From the global perspective on electoral integrity, removing barriers to registration and voting to facilitate full participation is an element of integrity. Narrowing the opportunity for voters to participate in elections raises fundamental questions about the fairness and political equality inherent in the election. Likewise, as this scholarship tries to improve the work of electoral officials across the United States, it remains largely silent on the glaring conflict of interest in American electoral administration: that it is largely a partisan affair. One might have thought that after the 2000 Bush-Gore recount in Florida, which was overseen by Florida’s Secretary of State, a close ally of the Bush family, that Americans might take notice. But this didn’t happen. No one seems bothered by the fact that in the event of a flawed or corrupted close election, the official in most states who gets to judge which ballots count and which do not is a professional, partisan politician.
Second, the research is evaluative, but seems narrowly focused on the casting and processing of ballots. The voter is a consumer and election officials provide a service: How can we improve the voting experience? This is partly understandable given scandals of long wait times in some strategic urban, mostly minority dominant precincts, and if long waits can truly be reduced across the country it will be a good thing for individual voters and our democracy, and will improve the integrity of our elections. But we should not presume that efficiency in casting and processing the ballot is all there is to electoral integrity in the United States.
The one link in this literature that could connect the voter experience to larger concepts of electoral integrity is voter confidence. As Paul Gronke points out, before 2000 the concept was used to tap judgments about larger attributes of our democracy. But since then the concept has become more narrowly defined in electoral administrative terms: “trust in the electoral process as the confidence that the voters have that their ballot is counted as intended.”2 It is telling that measures that proponents suggest should increase voter confidence, such as post-election audits, have been found to actually decrease confidence.
None of this is to dismiss the practical recommendations of the Presidential Commission, or the work of the Pew Trusts in trying to improve the administration of American elections. Given the difficulties surrounding electoral reform in this country, the approach of technical improvement and efficiency might be all we can hope for. If the approach increases voter registration, reduces voting time, and prompts action concerning problems with voting machines, American elections will be better. But there is a huge disjuncture between an approach focused on administrative efficiency and a problem caused by “political strategy and policy.”
To be clear, however, from a global perspective U.S. elections will still lack full integrity, and this needs to be part of our national discussion on elections. We need to stop equating electoral integrity with the fight to end fraud. We need to stop thinking that integrity is necessarily put at risk by the removal of barriers to participation; we need rather to think of integrity as entailing obligations across the electoral cycle. As the old adage of electioneering goes, “only amateurs steal elections on voting day.” Selective registration of voters, the creation of safe districts through partisan gerrymandering, the strategic allocation of voting assets by partisan officials—all of these shenanigans imply election theft long before voting day.
The frailties of our election system are a problem for reasons of pure principle, but the problem is not limited to principle. Current and prospective levels of polarization and partisanship are likely to increase incentives to manipulate electoral processes. It is not unimaginable that in 2016 or 2020 that we could have a repeat of what happened in 2000—or something worse. If it happens, it will take place against a backdrop of dramatically decreased public trust in all three branches of government, including the Supreme Court. Should we assume that our democratic legitimacy will emerge relatively unscathed if we simply muddle along with the mess we have now? This is where professional, non-partisan election management could pay a large dividend.
But how do we get there? Here again a global perspective helps. In the work of the Global Commission, we pointed to two avenues of change. One is well known: the ability of citizens to organize for collective action in support of the integrity of elections. The citizen referendum process has helped to take redistricting out of the hands of partisan legislators—in California, for example. Perhaps the time has come for popular movements to take elections out of the hands of Secretaries of State and other elected partisan officials in the other 49 states.
The second avenue comes from what the American political scientist, Margaret Levi, refers to as “principled principals”, leaders who refuse to benefit from rigging the rules of the game in their favor and see that the national interest is served by elections with integrity. One such leader was one of the members of the Global Commission: Ernesto Zedillo, the former President of Mexico. Elected through a process that lacked full integrity, he insisted that if Mexico were to become a full democracy, it would need to change the rules and institutions to allow truly competitive elections—elections with integrity.
It is heartening to see the emergence of “principled principals” on electoral reform in the United States. The work of the Presidential Commission on Elections and the Bipartisan Center’s Commission on Political Reform show that there are partisan politicians who understand that our elections can be improved. But I suspect that only when partisan officials realize that what is at stake is citizen confidence in our democracy, not just narrow confidence in whether one’s vote was counted, are we likely to get real reform.
1Barry C. Burden and Charles Stewart III, The Measure of American Elections (Cambridge University Press, 2014); R. Michael Alvarez, Lonna Rae Atkeson, and Thad E. Hall, Evaluating Elections: A Handbook of Methods and Standards (Cambridge University Press, 2013); and The American Voting Experience: Report and Recommendations of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration (January 2014).
2Paul Gronke, “Voter Confidence as a Metric of Election Performance”, in Burden and Stewart, The Measure of American Elections, p. 252, citing Michael R. Alvarez, Thad E. Hall, and Morgan Llewellyn, “Are Americans Confident Their Ballots Are Counted?” Journal of Politics (July 2008).