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Our elections run well. (Don't they?)—A Commentary by Heather K. Gerken

The following commentary was published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on March 30, 2009.

Our elections run well. (Don't they?)
By Heather K. Gerken

The 2008 presidential election was one of those remarkable moments in politics when the nation was paying attention. After a riveting primary season and general election, the race ended with millions watching the first black man to accept the presidency.

But there was also an invisible election in 2008 -- the nuts-and-bolts of election administration that journalists rarely report and citizens rarely see. Even election experts catch only glimpses of the invisible election. It's only when the race is close -- as in Florida 2000, Ohio 2004 and Minnesota 2008 -- that we see what really happened at the polling place.

I am one of the few people to have gotten a pretty good view of this invisible election in 2008, and the reality does not match the media reports of a smooth, problem-free election. As part of Obama's election protection team, I spent 18 hours working in the "boiler room," the spare office where 96 people ran national Election Day operations. In many places, everything ran smoothly, but other jurisdictions simply fell apart as wave after wave of voters crashed down upon them.

Thousands of people had to wait three hours or more to vote. In some places, there weren't enough machines to process all the voters. In others, there were plenty of voting machines, but voting booths stood empty because there weren't enough poll workers to check people in. Machines broke down. Parking lots were full. Far too many people showed up at the polls thinking they had registered, only to be told they weren't on the rolls. A bewildering number of polling places needed pens by mid-day because theirs had run out of ink. Many polling places simply ran out of ballots.

These problems occurred even though more voters than ever before (an estimated third of the electorate) cast their ballots before Election Day. They occurred even though everyone knew that turnout would be extremely high. They occurred even though at least one of the campaigns had done an extraordinary amount of work in helping election administrators get ready for the turnout tsunami that was approaching.

There are three lessons to be drawn from the experience of watching the invisible election unfold:

First, it is essential that the public see the invisible election. We are never going to get traction on reforming our election system until we have a means of making these problems visible to voters. Virtually every media outlet has reported that the election ran smoothly, but recent experiences in Florida, Ohio and now Minnesota demonstrate that voters learn about problems only when an election is so close that the outcome is in doubt and reporters devote the time necessary to investigate what actually happened. We need to make objective, consistent data available to the public so they can properly assess the efficiency and outcome of elections.

Second, we need to make the invisible election visible to policymakers. Most of the problems I saw from the vantage point of the campaign's boiler room seem to have been caused not by partisan mischief, as many would claim, but by neglect -- too little funding, too few resources devoted to good planning, even something as simple as not enough poll workers showing up. Blaming partisan politics for the shortcomings of election practices obscures the real causes and prevents even basic reform measures.

Third, election administrators should have been able to see the same kinds of information that I saw on Election Day. The information that scrolled across my computer gave me a tantalizing glimpse of how useful a tool data can be for management. There were many, many problems that could have been fixed quickly and easily if election administrators had the type of real-time monitoring capacity that the Obama campaign had.

There are glimmers of life in the quest to make this invisible election visible. Maricopa County in Arizona has a real-time troubleshooting system. Forsyth County in Georgia has precise information on turnout patterns and voter dispersion, something that has allowed it to deploy resources wisely and ensure that every community has equal access to the polls. Maryland has used its electronic poll books to figure out precisely how many poll workers, poll books and machines it needs at every polling place. The Pew Center on the States has been doing extremely important work identifying "data for democracy" -- the basic information we need if we are serious about how our election system performs. But what is missing from these efforts is a nationwide emphasis on collecting and reporting data.

I have recently proposed that we create a Democracy Index that ranks states and localities based on how well they run elections. This would be an important step in making the invisible portion of our elections visible and would help us assess problems that occur routinely, before they cause what elections expert Rick Hasen has called an "electoral meltdown."

Heather K. Gerken is a professor at Yale Law School and author of "The Democracy Index: Why Our Election System is Failing and How to Fix It."