'Bad News Bears' of elections

The Election Assistance Commission (EAC) may be one of the most beleaguered administrative agencies in the country, with many a Washington politician trying to axe it. If Keith Olbermann were running a “worst agency in the world” contest, the EAC might even get more votes than its sister agency, the ever-so-dysfunctional FEC (the Federal Election Commission). 

The EAC has been under attack from its inception – the National Association of Secretaries of State called for its destruction even before it was up and running. Two full years after the Help America Vote Act created the agency, the commission did not even have an office, let alone a mailing address or a phone number. The EAC’s first commissioners held their meetings in a local Starbucks. 

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The EAC, however, has turned out to be the Bad News Bears. It had a rocky start, and still looks a bit ramshackle to the outside world, but, while almost no one was looking, the agency has initiated a major, positive shift in how American elections are run.

How has this flawed and often-vilified agency managed to make good? By doing something very simple. It asked questions. The EAC created and administered a biennial survey of state elections practices. Before the EAC survey, election administration across the United States was a world without data. Even though elections are inundated with numbers, election administration has always lagged far behind both the private sector and most other government agencies on the data front. As a result, over the past two decades, even as data-driven management became the mantra in field after field, decisions about how best to run elections (and how to protect one of our democracy’s most sacred rights) have often based on atmospheric judgments and anecdote.
 
Enter the EAC. In 2004, the Bad News Bears agency began asking the states for basic information on how they run their elections systems. The Pew Charitable Trusts used the EAC’s databank to build the Elections Performance Index, which ranks states based on how well they run elections. Thanks to Pew and the EAC, we can now, for the first time, benchmark state performance, track states’ progress over time, and tell which state policies are working and which aren’t. (Disclosure: in 2009, I published a book (The Democracy Index) proposing just such a tool).

We’re already reaping the rewards. The Pew Index numbers — mostly provided by the EAC – are lighting a fire under policymakers. Just days after the Index's 2012 release, Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted noted that one reason his state didn’t rank higher was its failure to keep up with other states in creating an online registration system and urged his legislature to take up the bill.  Iowa is paying special attention to military and overseas balloting, which pushed its rankings down. Georgia insists that it’s going to do a better job on data collection in the future, and has modernized its voter registration system, in order to increase its score. The list goes on and on.

As Congress debates the EAC’s fate, we should remember how important the EAC’s data-collection efforts have been. Justice Brandeis once noted that states could serve as laboratories of democracy. But laboratories can’t function unless someone is recording the results. The EAC’s efforts embody the role that the federal government should play in state-focused system – helping states do their job better. Abolish the EAC? No. To steal a line from The Bad News Bears, let them play.

Gerken, a professor at Yale Law School, specializes in election law. She is a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.