Anecdotes are illustrative, evocative and memorable—and a staple of election policy debates. Just think back to February’s State of the Union Address, when President Obama introduced Desiline Victor, the Floridian who waited six hours to vote. The President was illustrating why he created a bipartisan election commission. But anecdotes make a weak foundation for public policy. Instead, “evidence-based management” is underpinning all kinds of government services these days, whether the topic is health care, transportation, criminal justice, education or election administration. For election administration, finding “evidence” is tricky. Every state, and frequently every jurisdiction, conducts elections differently, making comparisons difficult. Data is not gathered uniformly nationwide as it is in many other government arenas. Election costs are hard to track because they’re borne by several levels of government. You get the idea—it is hard to get facts and figures to support election evaluation.
Not that policy wonks haven’t tried. The first nationwide effort came in the late 1920s when the diligent researcher, Joseph P. Harris, surveyed all the states on election administration. In the second of two tomes based on that research, Election Administration in the United States (Brookings Institution,1934), he describes his work this way:
The election administration of the several states visited was surveyed in a systematic manner with a view to finding which features were working satisfactorily, which unsatisfactorily, and what was the general experience. Emphasis was placed always upon the practical operation of election laws rather than merely the provisions of the statutes. Each survey involved not only a study of the statutes but also detailed, and usually lengthy, interviews with chief election officers, examination of records and equipment, and interviews with politically informed persons outside of the election office …This study was undertaken because of the present backward and generally unsatisfactory administration of elections.
With a linguistic update, those words could describe this year’s effort to measure elections: The Elections Performance Index, from The Pew Charitable Trusts. “Our work was in part a response to election officials at the state and local level getting frustrated with the widespread lack of empirical data to understand the election process, and to get away from the anecdotes that drive policy and media attention,” says Zach Markovits, manager of Pew’s election initiatives team.
Full Article: The Canvass March 2013.