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The Democracy Index: Why Our Election System is Failing and How to Fix It—A book by Heather Gerken

Election Reform by the Numbers
Professor Heather K. Gerken lays bare her plan for data-driven election reform

On November 4, 2008, Professor Heather Gerken started her day at 4:30 a.m. in a dusty industrial warehouse. As one of the ninety-six members of then candidate Barack Obama’s election day “boiler room,” Gerken had an unmatched window on what was happening at polling places across the country.

“We immediately saw huge problems,” Gerken says. “Six-hour lines in places in Virginia. Places just ran out of ink for pens to fill out the ballots. Plenty of machines, but just one poll worker—so the lines are 500 people long because there is only one poll worker to check people in…The reporters got none of it.”

The fact that reports of widespread problems at the polls were largely invisible, Gerken argues, is part of the challenge that election reformers face today. Problems only become obvious to the public when elections are close. Until we fix our election system’s underlying problems, debacles like Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004, she says, will continue to happen.

Election reform is a subject that Gerken has written extensively about—her proposal for a “Democracy Index” to rank states  and localities based on how well their election systems perform won national attention when first proposed in Legal Times in 2007. Then Senators Hillary Clinton ’73 and Barack Obama both took up the idea in proposed legislation. Within a year, Congress had set aside $10 million to fund model data-collection programs.

Now Gerken has published The Democracy Index: Why Our Election System is Failing and How to Fix It, a 192-page book that lays out her vision of what a Democracy Index could achieve and how to implement it.
“[The Democracy Index] is a data-driven, information-forcing device designed to generate pressure for reform while helping us make more sensible choices about which reforms to pursue,” Gerken writes in the book’s introduction. “It is time to think less about the end game and more about the interim strategies and institutional tweaks that will help us get from here to there. The Democracy Index is just such a solution.”

Gerken begins her book with a look at problems in today’s election system, and the root causes of those problems. From there she explains why her Democracy Index would alter political incentives and argues that election reform is hungry for real data and quantitative analysis. The Democracy Index also explores potential problems (and strategies for mitigating them) and outlines a plan for how to make the index a reality.

The book concludes with an afterword that describes Gerken’s day in the boiler room, and exonerates partisanship for the majority of our polling problems.

“What I saw in the boiler room was, in some ways, comforting,” she writes. “It seemed clear that most of the problems were caused not by partisan mischief, but by neglect—too little funding, too few resources devoted to planning, even something as simple as not enough poll workers showing up. It confirmed my view that we should never attribute to partisanship that which can be adequately explained by inadequate resources. It also became clear to me that it is possible to collect the data we need to build a Democracy Index.”

Listen to a podcast interview of Professor Gerken speaking about The Democracy Index.