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Column: Building an Election System that Works



March 28, 2013 By Susan K. Urahn, executive vice president of the Pew Charitable Trusts

President Obama and leaders in both parties, in calling for improving American elections, point to long lines at the polls last year as a significant problem that needs to be solved. And with good reason: Longer wait times can discourage people from voting and fuel the perception that their right to vote is in jeopardy. A post-election poll by the Pew Research Center found that only 55 percent of voters who waited 30 minutes or more to cast a ballot thought that the election was managed "very well," compared with 79 percent for voters who waited less than a half-hour and 83 percent for voters who had no wait.

Long lines, however, are just the tip of iceberg; much more needs to be done. To achieve an election system that is convenient, accurate and fair, state and local leaders need data to review and track their voting processes--from registration to ballot-counting.

This kind of analysis is not easy. Our nation's locally run elections lack a common set of performance measures and a baseline from which reliable comparisons--between election cycles and across jurisdictions-can be made. Accurate data on what leads to better or worse results in any particular area are often scarce.

Now, state and local election officials--policymakers as well as administrators--can access an online tool to help them meet some of these challenges: the Elections Performance Index. This database provides a means for evaluating the management of elections within and across states and from year to year. An advisory group of election officials and leading academics, convened by the Pew Charitable Trusts and partners at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, guided its development.

The index examines all 50 states and the District of Columbia on 17 indicators of election administration, including polling-location wait times, availability of online voting-information tools, number of rejected voter registrations, percentage of voters with registration or absentee-ballot problems, number of military and overseas ballots rejected, voter turnout, and accuracy of voting technology. While the 17 indicators do not capture every possible measurement of election performance, they do reflect the best currently available data.


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