The Democracy Index: Why Our Election System Is Failing and How to Fix It

The Democracy Index: Why Our Election System Is Failing and How to Fix It

The Democracy Index: Why Our Election System Is Failing and How to Fix It

The Democracy Index: Why Our Election System Is Failing and How to Fix It


Despite howls for reform, the only thing separating us from another election disaster of the kind that hit Florida in 2000, and that almost struck again in Ohio in 2004, may simply be another close vote. In this lucid and lively book, Heather Gerken diagnoses what is wrong with our elections and proposes a radically new and simple solution: a Democracy Index that would rate the performance of state and local election systems. A rough equivalent to the U. S. News and World Report ranking of colleges and universities, the Index would focus on problems that matter to all voters: How long does it take to vote? How many ballots get discarded? How often do voting machines break down? And it should work for a simple reason: no one wants to be at the bottom of the list.

For a process that is supposed to be all about counting, U. S. elections yield few reliable numbers about anything--least of all how well the voting system is managed. The Democracy Index would change this with a blueprint for quantifying election performance and reform results, replacing anecdotes and rhetoric with hard data and verifiable outcomes. A fresh vision of reform, this book shows how to drive improvements by creating incentives for politicians, parties, and election officials to join the cause of change and to come up with creative solutions--all without Congress issuing a single regulation.

In clear and energetic terms, The Democracy Index explains how to realize the full potential of the Index while avoiding potential pitfalls. Election reform will never be the same again.


Our election system is run badly. Although many people are aware of the problem and eager for a solution, reform efforts have gotten surprisingly little traction. This book explains why election reform has yet to catch hold and offers a promising new solution for getting change passed: a “Democracy Index,” which would rank states and localities based on how their election systems perform.


The best evidence we have suggests that our election system is clunky at best and dysfunctional at worst*. Ballots are discarded. Poll workers are poorly trained. Registration lists work badly. Lines can be too long. Machines malfunction. Partisan officials change the rules of the game to help themselves and hurt their enemies. Election administrators cannot agree on what constitutes a best practice, or even whether there is any such thing. Authority is decentralized, so it's hard to know who's to blame when a problem occurs. Most experts agree that the system we use to run our elections is chronically underfunded, often poorly run, and sometimes administered in a partisan fashion.

*Rather than repeat the phrase “the best evidence we have” in every other sentence of this book, let
me offer a general caveat about the diagnoses offered here. As chapter 2 makes clear, it is difficult to
make precise claims about the current state of the election system because the data are so sparse. What
I describe here are the symptoms that experts routinely see and the field's best guesses as to their root
causes. These assessments are based on the best information available, but better information would be
necessary to state these claims with certainty. One of the main points of the book is that we should be
deeply troubled by our inability to know whether the system is working or not.

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