Study ranks best, worst states for electoral integrity

Study ranks best, worst states for electoral integrity
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The integrity of America’s electoral system lags far behind other Western democracies, according to a new report by the Electoral Integrity Project.

Overall, the U.S. electoral system has about as much integrity as those in Argentina, Mongolia and Rwanda, according to the joint project from Harvard University and the University of Sydney shows.

The findings come amid an increasingly partisan debate over election laws and electoral boundaries that is undermining the perceived integrity of American elections, as Republicans and Democrats set up rules — which vary widely between states — governing everything from access to the ballot box to campaign finance.

The study surveyed more than 700 American political scientists on the perceived integrity of their states' electoral systems. The experts were asked to rate the state's performance on everything from election laws and procedures to district boundaries, voter registration and campaign finance laws.

Unlike many other Western democracies, there is wide variance in the integrity of individual systems in American states, which have the constitutional authority to administer elections, draw their own district lines and set rules that govern voter access.

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The survey found Vermont has the best electoral system in the United States, while Arizona and Wisconsin ranked at the bottom of the pack.

 

Globally, the Electoral Integrity Project rates Denmark and Finland as the strongest electoral systems in the world, followed closely by Norway, Iceland and Sweden. The United States scores a 64 out of a possible 100 points. The lowest-ranked nations in the world include dictatorships such as Syria, Ethiopia, Burundi and Equatorial Guinea.

Pippa Norris, the Harvard political scientist who runs the study, said the difference between the United States and other Western democracies is that debates over everything from early and absentee voting to voter identification laws and poll closing times have become partisan footballs here.

In other countries, those questions are purely administrative issues.

"Particularly since 2000, what's been happening is increasing partisan polarization in American elections," Norris said. "Those are the sort of issues that in most countries are administrative issues. What's happened since 2000 is the lawyers have thrown their hats in the ring."

In recent years, Democrats and Republicans have battled in state legislatures over virtually every aspect of election administration.

Many of the states that scored lowest in the Electoral Integrity Project's report have been at the heart of those battles over election rules.

After taking over a number of legislatures in the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans led the charge to require voters to show identification at the polls in states such as North Carolina, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, among others. Democrats have sued over many of those laws, which they say unfairly affect older and low-income voters who might not have access to identification documents or the money to obtain them.

Democratic-led states such as California and Oregon, on the other hand, have passed laws that aim to register more voters. In California, a universal voter registration law led to a surge of new voters ahead of November's elections.

Arizona scored particularly badly in categories involving electoral laws, district boundaries and the efficacy of electoral authorities. The Supreme Court in 2013 struck down a state law that required voters to show proof of citizenship when registering, and the chief election official in Maricopa County lost her job this year after a debacle at early voting sites led to long lines during the presidential primary.

Wisconsin scored particularly low in the district boundaries category. A panel of three federal judges ruled last month that the state's legislative district lines unfairly benefitted Republicans. The state also scored dismally on election laws, after court battles over voter identification rules.

North Carolina, where legislative Republicans passed a sweeping election reform measure in 2013 and subsequently redrew district boundaries after courts ruled the old lines unconstitutionally violated minority rights, scored lower than any other state when it came to district boundaries.

"America is particularly bad in terms of gerrymandering of political districts," said Pippa Norris, the Harvard political scientist who runs the Electoral Integrity Project. "That's a problem for voter choice. It's also a problem of course for voter turnout."

Of the 15 lowest-scoring states, Republicans control both state legislative chambers in 14. And in most of those 14 — including Texas, Florida, North Carolina, Michigan, Ohio, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Arizona — the Republican-led legislatures have made significant changes to state election laws in recent years.

Rhode Island, where Democrats control both chambers of the legislature and the governor's mansion, is the lone state near the bottom not controlled by Republicans.

On the other end of the spectrum, researchers gave the highest marks to smaller states with few electoral controversies, as well as those that conduct their elections largely by mail.

Along with Vermont, Idaho, New Hampshire, Iowa and New Mexico ranked among the best-run states. Washington and Colorado, which conduct their elections by mail, ranked in the top 10 as well.

The report finds states in the South are generally seen as having more troubled electoral systems than Northeastern and Western states.

The political scientists pointed to the 2013 Supreme Court decision striking down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, ruling that states with histories of racial discrimination no longer needed to seek Justice Department approval before changing election laws. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that racial discrimination in election laws was no longer a pervasive problem.

"Evidence from these expert evaluations ... suggests that this may have been unduly optimistic," the researchers wrote.