Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Democracy Index

Heather K. Gerken

Alert Balkinization readers may have noticed that a new book is featured on the right hand column of the blog: The Democracy Index: Why Our Election System is Failing and How to Fix It. It argues that we should create a Democracy Index, which would rank states and localities based on their election performance. Imagine the rough equivalent of a U.S. News and World Reports ranking, one that focuses on the basic questions that matter to voters: how long were the lines? how many ballots got discarded? how many machines broke down?

I first proposed the idea in 2007. Within a few months then-Senators Obama and Clinton put the idea into separate bills. Within the year, Congress set aside $10 million to fund the efforts of five states to improve their data-collection processes. During the same period, foundations and think tanks have organized several meetings to discuss the proposal. The idea has attracted keen interest from several foundations, including the Pew Trusts' Center on the States, which has played a leading role in improving state governance and promoting data-driven decision-making.

As I explain in detail on the book, the ranking should be useful to the three key leverage points for election reform: voters, policymakers, and bureaucrats. Voters would have the information they need to hold election officials accountable for their missteps and reward them for good performance. Policymakers would have the information they need to figure out whether their state is doing as well as it should and to identify cost-effective strategies for improving performance. Election administrators would have a means of diffusing the professional norms that are the hallmark of a well-run system.

The book offers a good deal of analysis on how our election system is run and why it is hard to change. I spent a year and a half interviewing people in every part of the system, from low-level bureaucrats to secretaries of state, from on-the-ground reformers to academics. Their stories help frame the arguments I make. The book is also written for a general audience, so the style (I hope!) is accessible.

Finally, while the argument is grounded in a concrete policy proposal, it is animated by a larger theme, one that I first wrote about on Balkinization.

We have a "here to there" problem in election reform. We spend a great deal of time thinking about what’s wrong with our election system (the "here") and how to fix it (the "there"). But we spend almost no time thinking about how to get from here to there -- how to create an environment in which reform can actually take root. Rather than continuing to fight the same fight on this hostile terrain in the vague hope that something will eventually take, we should take a step back and figure out how to create an environment that is more receptive to change generally. In my view, it is time to think less about the end game and more about the interim strategies and institutional tweaks that will help us get from here to there.

The Democracy Index is a quintessential "here to there" approach. It does not create national performance standards. It does not take power away from partisan officials. It does not even endorse a set of best practices for administering elections. Instead, it pushes in the direction of better performance, less partisanship, and greater professionalism. The Index does so not by trying to resist the fierce push against change generated by our political system's twin engines -- partisan warfare and local competition -- but by harnessing partisanship and localism in the service of change. It is a modest reform that makes bigger, better reform possible. It gets us from here to there.