What the Presidential Commission can learn from the United Kingdom about improving elections
Dear Mr. Robert F. Bauer and Mr. Benjamin L. Ginsberg,
I am a UK based academic whose research specialises in electoral administration. I have recently published a range of peer-reviewed journal articles in international journals on the topic. The most recent of this research evaluates the UK Electoral Commission’s schemes to improve the quality of electoral management. I am writing to submit this research as evidence because there are a number of lessons that I think the US can learn from the UK which should interest your Commission.
Problems with the administration of elections have plagued recent US elections. One proposed solution has been to publish league tables of election officials’ performance. In her influential book, The Democracy Index, Heather Gerken argued that the publication of such information might be a trigger for change. The idea is that the public ranking of electoral officials (according to factors such as how long voters in their state have to queue, how many ballots get discarded and they make, their registration rates) might encourage them to enact the necessary changes to improve elections. The idea has had some political support from Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton in the past. It has been pushed by the Pew Institute who has launched an Elections Performance Index. But is this likely to have any effect?
The ‘league tabling’ of performance in public services is widely used around the world but the effect that they might have on election administration until now. But lessons can now be learnt from the UK which has seen innovations in this area. Performance standards for senior election officials have been in place since 2008. These were devised by the Electoral Commission and the results published online for all to see through an interactive web tool. A different approach to the Elections Performance Index is used. Rather than rank election officials on outcomes, they were ranked on their processes. The Electoral Commission defined some ‘high quality’ benchmark processes and then measured the extent to which officials had adopted these standards.
My research on the effects that these benchmarks had has just published in new article Electoral Studies (enclosed, also see: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0261379413001133). The research is based on in-depth interviews with those officials who were subject to the standards. The introduction of the standards was a powerful trigger for change. Many officials suggested that they were useful in facilitating learning. They were introduced to new ways of working, which they had not thought about before, or had not been confronted with a sufficiently powerful trigger for changing procedure. Electoral officials were also concerned about their personal or organisational reputation and therefore adopted the necessary reforms to meet the standard because they were concerned about their reputation amongst peers. Where they thought that there was no reputation loss, they were less likely to change their practices.
There were a number of positive outcomes resulting from the standards. The presence of the standards scheme sometimes increased confidence amongst local politicians who were then less likely to complain about the quality of electoral management. It also led to more regular reviews of working practices within the electoral services departments and more consistent services across the UK.
However, this was not the only innovation. After problems with the administration of elections in the 2010 UK general election (queues, insufficient ballot paper printing – common themes from the US), the Electoral Commission went further. In two referendums in 2011, it began to issue direct instructions to electoral officials and I have also written up the consequences of this in a recent conference paper (http://tobysjames.com/doc/Centralising_electoral_management_JAmes.pdf). This has some positive outcomes because it gave the Commission central oversight over elections and it could address any problems from the centre as it identified them. However, the costs outweighed the benefits. Local knowledge was overlooked and centrally defined procedures were often costly. Local electoral officials became unhappy and felt a sense of loss of ownership over their work. This is perhaps a cause for concern when cash-strapped electoral services often rely on the goodwill of their
employees for high quality elections.
What are the lessons for the US? The Pew Elections Performance Index might be a useful way forward but it depends on the extent to which it is recognised by electoral officials. If they think that their organisational and personal reputation will be affected, then we might expect change. This is not automatic. Professionals might not see it as important and the media might not give it sufficient attention. The EPI is not run by government and this might make a difference. Time will tell.
The UK experience, however, suggests that if the US gave powers to a central government organisation such as the Electoral Assistance Commission to identity benchmark processes and practices for election administration and used these to evaluate electoral officials then there might be some considerable pay-offs for American democracy. Too much centralising election management, however, may lead to fall out and prevent local knowledge being used.
I would be happy to answer any questions that you might have about the research and its implications and I wish the Commission every success.
University of East Anglia