Get Ready for the Datapalooza of Election Performance!

During the brief time in the election cycle when the voting booths are actually open, we hear a lot how smoothly elections are going—where voters are waiting in long lines, where ballots are getting rejected, and the like. Elections expert Doug Chapin, who heads the University of Minnesota’s Elections Academy, calls it “anec-data”—anecdotes substituting for hard numbers.  In a presidential election, we tend to hear all about problems in swing states, since the national press corps is already there, but we’re less likely to hear about issues in Montana or Connecticut, where the election outcome is almost a foregone conclusion. Good data would make it easy to compare states’ election performance, and more importantly, let us see how states are improving or declining from one election to the next.

That’s why Pew’s 2012 Elections Performance Index is a big deal. Released this week, the index uses standardized data from the U.S. Census, the Elections Assistance Commission, and a major survey to assess states on 17 different variables and judge just how well they are running their elections. Because Pew offered an index for 2008 and 2010, we can now compare two different presidential elections to actually see whether election administration is getting better or worse—rather than just guess. It’s the first time such a tool has been available.

For the most part, the results are encouraging. A quick perusal shows 40 of the 50 states have improved since 2008—wait times are down an average of three minutes and online registration is spreading quickly, with 13 states offering online voter registration during the 2012 election, up from just two in 2008. (Since the election, another five states have started offering it.) Many of the top-performing states in 2008, like North Dakota, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Colorado, stayed on top in 2012 while low performers, like Mississippi, Alabama, California, and New York remained at the bottom.

The process of collecting and analyzing elections data, mundane though it may sound, is extremely important, and relatively rare. Without it, we cannot really assess how elections are functioning. For a long time, there was less pressure on states to fully report on important factors, like the number of returned absentee ballots or access for disabled voters. In the index, states are judged for the complete-ness of their data collection. “States are reporting better quality and more data but that doesn’t mean they’re all the way there,” says David Becker, who, as the director of Pew’s elections initiatives, oversees the index project.

“The fact that we have data as opposed to anec-data is really important,” says Chapin. If state officials take issue with the index, they’re more likely to produce more data to challenge Pew’s conclusions—which only gives citizens more information to use.

But the index is not the be-all-end-all in judging elections. Chapin compares the index to U.S. News and World Report’s ranking of college campuses—useful in broad strokes but certainly not the whole picture. “Not everything that’s good is in the Pew index,” he says. For instance, California, which ranks at the bottom, has a robust elections program for voters speaking different languages. The state offers elections information in 13 different languages, and tries to make sure communities that speak other languages have poll workers available who can communicate. There’s no category in the Pew index for such an effort.

More notable is the absence of the most controversial voting measures that have dominated debate in states—like voter ID and restrictions to early and weekend voting. There’s no mention of “voter fraud” or “voter suppression.” Pew has clearly chosen to steer clear of these issues, in part because we have so little data on their effects (and likely also to avoid a political row). Presumably, the potential ill-effects of such measures—many of which weren’t implemented in 2012—could come out in other parts of the index, like voter turnout next time around.

Meanwhile, Pew gives strong preference to certain reforms, like online voter registration and tools for looking up voting information. There are good reasons for that—online voter registration helps make the voter rolls more accurate while saving enormous amounts of money (as much as two dollars per registrant.) Tools for looking up voting information have obvious positive impact for the millions of Americans who can remember what precinct they’re in or where their polling places are.

But regardless of the methodology, any attempt to bring hard numbers into a field dominated by allegations and unfounded statements is a welcome change.