“There is probably no other phase of public administration in the United States which is so badly managed as the conduct of elections.”
What a harsh and critical statement of the state of affairs in election administration. This bold assertion, however, is not regarding the current state of elections although it may be true enough. This is the opening sentence of the 1934 book by Joseph Harris on election administration. Like many scholars and administrators, I was aware of the book and recall seeing this quote appear occasionally in journal articles but had not taken the time to read the book. I am guessing that may be the case as well for the readers of this blog so I thought I would share some more nuggets from the book that resound just as sharply in today’s administration and study of elections. Even though I just picked up and read the book this week as part of the research for my dissertation, many of Harris’ critiques and themes have interestingly appeared in my previous blogs and writings. I guess this is evidence of the French proverb, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”
What is a “good” election?
“The ideal election administration is one which uniformly and regularly produces honest and accurate results. There should never be the slightest question about the integrity of the ballot box or doubt cast upon the honesty of the elections.” (Harris, p. 1)
“The conduct of elections is marked throughout by obsolete procedures and methods…The personnel of the election office is usually concerned only with carrying out the provisions of state law, never giving thought to any matter concerned with improving the administration.” (Harris, p. 5)
“The attempt is made now to secure uniform and satisfactory election administration throughout the state by statutes, without any effective administrative supervision, and without using rules, regulations, and instructions issued by an administrative office. In no other phase of public administration do the statutes bulk so large and administrative control and supervision so little.” (Harris, p. 7)
On complexity and efficiency:
“It is very common for useless forms and records to be made out, many signatures required, and other forms of red tape, which are not only unnecessary, but actually defeat their own ends.” (Harris, p. 5)
On discretion and decision making:
“The election statutes are so detailed that the precinct officers cannot know the law. Often the procedure set forth in state law is so cumbersome and unsound that the election officers make no pretense in complying with it.” (Harris, p. 6)
“The remedy lies not so much in putting pressure upon the precinct officer to comply with the law, but rather in a revision of the election statutes so that the temptation to take short cuts will be largely eliminated. The procedure at the polls should be simplified and regularized. When a sound procedure has been established, the office in charge of elections should take greater pains to instruct the precinct officers and to inspect and supervise their work.” (Harris, pp. 6-7)
With all due respect to my legislator friends and colleagues, you have been and still are (co)responsible for the state of affairs in election administration. It is clear that the “Shrek Effect” has quite a history when it comes to elections:
“Patchwork upon patchwork will not remedy the situation. The deluge of election laws, with constant revisions, has produced in many states an election code not only of voluminous size, but also with many conflicting and uncertain provisions. Wholly aside from fundamental improvements which are necessary, most states are greatly in need of a revision of the election laws in order to clarify and codify the existing statutes.” (Harris, p. 7)
“Election statutes are greatly overworked at the present time. No sound, efficient, economical, and satisfactory administration can be secured so long as it is the practice to prescribe in minute detail every operation in the conduct of elections.” (Harris, p. 7)
“The constant revision of election laws which is taking place in most states is designed in practically every case to rectify some abuse which has sprung up. These alterations deal with minor details of administration and do not involve any fundamental changes. They have led to more and more cumbersome procedures and records. Most of the election records and methods are antiquated, expensive in operation, and require a thorough revision.“ (Harris, p. 20)
“The constant flood of election bills which is introduced in practically every state indicates the present unsatisfactory condition of election administration. Every bill is designed to correct an evil, to prevent a sharp practice which has sprang up. The election laws are being constantly changed, but without any fundamental revision or improvement. Many of the principles which now govern the conduct of elections and guide the framing of election statutes are unwise, and must be discarded before a sound system can be established.” (Harris, p. 7)
There have been radical social, political and technological changes in the 80 years since this book’s publication but the problems and challenges to American election administration are remarkably unchanged. Are the problems of election administration so intractable? Are the politics of election administration so strong that the system cannot evolve? Are election administrators too resistant to learning and practicing effective public administration?
I think it is a little of “all the above.” Harris proposes a remedy that is still appropriate to us today:
“There is needed for the administration of elections: (1) a revision of the state election laws similar to the revision which has already take place in many states in the administration of the registration of voters, (2) a reorganization of the election machinery, and (3) many improvements in election management. “ (Harris, p. 20)
What do you think? I am interested in your reaction to the realization that election administrators (and legislators) might be just like gerbils running endlessly inside the wheel–maybe picking up speed but still not making progress.
Harris, Joseph. Election Administration in the United States. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1934.