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Heather Gerken on Pew's New Election Index

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[Image courtesy of bostonglobe]

Last week, I wrote about the release of Pew's inaugural Elections Performance Index and its potential to bring the field forward through evidence-based examinations of election administration.

Over the weekend, Yale law professor Heather Gerken - whose book The Democracy Index was the catalyst for Pew's effort - weighed in over at Rick Hasen's Election Law Blog with her views in the wake of the Index's release.

On Indices generally:

Indices are incredibly useful tools in the policymaking world. They allow us to spot, surface, and solve problems by making election problems visible to everyone. They help policymakers identify the drivers of performance and sort useful policy needles from a haystack of disparate practices. They allow us to judge state performance against a realistic baseline - how a jurisdiction compared to its neighbors - rather than relying on a crisis to tell us there's a problem.

On the process involved in creating Pew's Index:

The process for creating the Index was remarkable - as serious and professional an undertaking as I've witnessed. Pew itself devoted significant funding and top-notch staffers to the project. It also assembled an extraordinary group of advisors, which included some of the top state and local election administrators in the country. The legendary Charles Stewart, the former chair of MIT's political science department, served as the data expert (though that seems a bit like calling a Ferrari a "car"). The Pew staff and advisors -- along with numerous outside experts Pew called in to poke and prod and test and challenge the validity of the indicators - narrowed down a list of almost fifty potential performance indicators to the seventeen you see on the website. A huge amount of effort was put in to be sure the indicators were measuring something meaningful, and that the data gave us genuine signals rather than noise.

Most importantly, Heather shines a light on a process that I think too often gets short shrift in conversations about reform - the role of professionals in identifying opportunities for reform and implementing necessary change:

I [have written] about the ways in which professional norms may be the best guarantor of a well-run election system. I wrote that we often think that reform and high-quality performance are due to pressure from the outside, but it's actually the people inside the system who are best situated to improve it. I've now begun to wonder whether I should have devoted the entire book to the idea. Election administrators do a very hard job with very few resources. They care deeply about whether they are doing a good job, and they all want to do their jobs better. What I found most impressive about the meetings of the Pew advisors was how much they cared about their own performance on each and every indicator. These folks, after all, were chosen because they are so well regarded in the field. And yet every time a number was put up on the screen, the room fell silent as the administrators absorbed the results. What happened next was even more striking. They started to talk to each other. They talked about where they fell short and why, whether a low ranking was a glitch or trend, whether a high ranking was due to luck or skill. And they began to swap information about how similar problems were addressed or similar practices were used elsewhere. The data generated exactly the kind of conversations that will lay the groundwork for a better-run system.

As usual, Heather is a step or two ahead of us: recognizing that the Index is merely the starting point in a long conversation about election performance - and remembering that election administrators are an important part of that conversation.

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