Electoral Integrity In The U.S.

by John Weckerle

In an op-ed piece published in North Carolina’s The Observer, co-designer of an approach used to measure the integrity of elections worldwide, presented a case for concluding that North Carolina is no longer a functioning democracy. The approach, according to Dr. Reynolds, was used as “the cornerstone of the Electoral Integrity Project” (EIP), a joint academic program operated by Harvard University in the U.S. and the University of Sydney, Australia since 2012.  Dr. Reynolds, an international consultant on democratic design and Professor of Political Science at the prestigious University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, uses the recent analysis by the EIP to make the case that North Carolina, with an electoral integrity score of 58 out of 100 in the EIP’s recent analysis of the 2016 U.S. election, ranks alongside Cuba, Indonesia, and Sierra Leone, and with respect to legal framework and voter registration, alongside Iran and Venezuela. He then examines non-electoral issues associated with the state. The article is relatively short and an easy read, and we recommend that our readers give it a few minutes.

The op-ed was picked up and reported on by a number of Internet news outlets, both mainstream and otherwise, but few if any provided links to the actual study.  A little searching brought us to two articles on the EIP website addressing the 2016 U.S. election: one containing the featured dataset, and another, Why It’s Not About Election Fraud, It’s Much Worse (referred to as “the article,” below), containing an analysis of the results. The latter article examines potential issues with the 2016, including fraud (noting that there was “next to no credible evidence for cases of voter fraud); suppression of voting rights (noting that there was evidence that stricter registration rights was clearer but that the magnitude of the effects is under debate); maladministration; and cybersecurity, among others.

The good news for New Mexicans is that our state ranks among the highest in the nation for electoral integrity, coming in fifth with a score of 73 out of 100 – only 2 points behind Vermont, which had the highest score. Our lowest scores were in the areas of electoral laws, district boundaries, voter registration, and media coverage.

The bad news for all of us is that, at least in terms of the parameters analyzed in the report, there are some serious potential problems with the way the U.S. electoral process functioned in 2016.  The article discusses the lack of substantive policy discussion, the role of fake news, false equivalency standards of journalism, and issues associated with party control of states. As discussed in the article:

In terms of campaign communications, the impact of fake news and Russian meddling in the campaign have both emerged as major issues of bipartisan concern after November 8th, despite some poo-pooing by Trump.

By contrast there are other broader issues about campaign media which should raise serious concern, as reports by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center have highlighted, including the lack of substantive policy discussion during the campaign, the false equivalency standards of journalism, and the overwhelmingly negative tone of news coverage.

Moreover the issue of gerrymandered district boundaries, regarded by experts as the worst aspect of U.S. voting procedures, was never seriously debated throughout the campaign. The practice ensures that representatives are returned time and again based on mobilizing the party faithful, without having to appeal more broadly to constituents across the aisle, thus exacerbating the bitter partisanship which plagues American politics. Gerrymandering through GOP control of state legislatures has also led to a systematic pro-Republican advantage in House districts which is likely to persist at least until 2022.  In 2016 House Republicans won 241 seats out of 435 (55%), although they won only 49.1% of the popular vote, a six-percentage point winners bonus.

The article also examines the influence of party dominance (Democrat vs. Republican) within states with respect to the parameters assessed, noting:

The results clearly demonstrate that, according to the expert evaluations, Democratic-controlled states usually had significantly greater electoral integrity than Republican-controlled states, across all stages except one (the declaration of the results, probably reflecting protests in several major cities following the unexpected Trump victory).  The partisan gap was substantial and statistically significant on the issues of gerrymandered district boundaries, voter registration, electoral laws, and the performance of electoral officials.

Noting that Mr. Trump won more states with electoral malpractices and Ms. Clinton won more states with better scores, the article states:

We do not claim, as we do not have sufficient evidence, that Trump won these states because of malpractices. But the correlation is clear. Thus, throughout the campaign, and even afterwards, it was Donald Trump who repeatedly claimed that the election was rigged and fraudulent. In terms of votes being intentionally cast illegally, the strict meaning of ‘voter fraud’, there is little or no evidence supporting these claims. But if the idea of integrity is understood more broadly, there is indeed evidence from this study that US elections suffer from several systematic and persistent problems –  and Donald Trump and the Republican party appear to have done well in states with the most problems.

Overall, the article, along with the associated publications, is very informative, and reveals substantial issues associated with partisan gerrymandering, campaign communications, campaign finance, and fake news/junk reporting. It ends with a caution, and one which we would do well to heed: “…countries which fail to reach a consensus about the legitimacy of the basic electoral rules of the game, especially those with deeply polarized parties and leaders with authoritarian tendencies, are unlikely to persist as stable democratic states.”

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