Here in Los Angeles, you know if the restaurant you're about to eat in is clean, kind of clean, or just plain nasty by the letter grades that are clearly posted in every restaurant's front window by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. But if you're a voter in the United States, you (or your policymakers) have no idea where your state ranks on the list of best-to-worst elections practices, what voter turnout is, and how easy or reliable or secure the voting process is in your own state. But that may soon change.
Yesterday in Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, the campaign lawyers for President Barack Obama and Senator John McCain co-authored an op-ed endorsing the idea of ranking state election systems. Robert F. Bauer and Trevor Potter decided to back Yale professor Heather Gerken's plan for a "democracy index" because they see it as a critical step in the right direction to fixing America's (still) broken voting system.
As the general counsel to the Obama and McCain campaigns, we had our disagreements -- a fair number of them, as a matter of fact. But we share a deep commitment to fair and well-run elections in which all qualified voters have the opportunity to vote, and all the votes that they cast are accurately counted.
Looking back on the 2008 elections, we have no doubt that reforms in the administration of elections in this country are needed if we are to meet these standards. We also believe such reforms can be achieved, with potentially transformative success for the American voter.
It may be news to many readers that reforms are still needed. The media widely reported a smooth election, and in some places, those reports were accurate. The problems -- and there were many, scattered across the country -- received comparatively little attention because the outcome of the voting was clear.
State voter registration lists suffered from various levels of inaccuracies, there were controversies over registration drives, the lines for early voting almost overwhelmed the system in some states, and absentee ballots often reached voters too late to be cast, especially for armed forces members overseas.
And on Election Day, there were many reports of more long lines, inadequate ballots, malfunctioning machines and voters turned away because of registration issues across the country.
Data provide the reality check that forecloses the most extreme positions. Unfortunately, our state and local governments do not generate, let alone make public, the most basic information on how well the system is working. Many states cannot tell you how many people showed up to vote on Election Day. Other states have no idea how many voters are registered or how voters cast their ballots. What little data we have suggest that jurisdictions have widely variable numbers of provisional ballots and markedly different ballot discard rates. Even here, however, we lack enough information to figure out why that is so.
It is essential that the data collected is distilled into a useable form. Voters need a readily accessible metric to hold their government accountable for missteps and reward those who perform well.
Policymakers need solid, comparative data to referee the inevitable fights that take place between reformers, parties, candidates and election administrators over whether the system is working. Election administrators need a strategy for sorting through widely varying local practices to identify the best ones.
Photo of Los Angeles County Public Health sign by Allen J. Schaben for the Los Angeles Times