“Good” Election? What’s that?

Everyone wants a “good” election but what does that really mean?  The notion of  a “good” election is discussed by administrators, media, candidates, pundits and scholars as if everyone knows what a “good” election looks like.  That is far from the case as each evaluates the “goodness” of an election by different criteria and standards. 

To candidates and parties, any election that results in their victory is a good election.  To the losers, the election was, by definition, NOT a “good” election.  To administrators, a “good” election is one in which there are no close races and in which no embarassing information is publically disclosed.  To county legislative bodies, a “good” election is a cheap election (and one in which they and their friends win- of course.)  To the media and pundits there is probably no such thing as a “good” election for if there were, it could put them out of business.  Scholars believe that there should be “good” elections and the key is to collect data to prove (or disprove) the “goodness” of an election.

Am I oversimplifying or exaggerating?  I don’t think so.  The notion of a “good” election is very elusive and very much in the eye of the beholder yet so very central to improving or reforming our electoral processes.  The absence of a common definition inhibits our ability to establish any meaningful criteria or standards for evaluating how well managed any given election might be. How can we develop performance metrics, evaluate elections or offer advice for improving performance if we don’t have a clear picture of what an ideal election looks like?

I have spent many hours working with election administrators, as a peer and as a consultant, to define this ideal. Although several jurisdictions have been able to arrive at their own operationalized definition, there is no concensus across jurisdictions or in the election community. Nonetheless, the Election Center formed a group several years ago to develop election benchmarks, presumably to develop metrics for an undefined “good” election. Its is not surprising, then, that the Election Center has not found agreement or released the results of their work.

Scholars recognize the need for a definition and some like Alvarez, Atkeson and Hall in their recent book “Evaluating Elections: A Handbook of Methods and Standards” even address the conundrum and the various vague definitions election officials offer for a “good” election. Similarly Heather Gerken’s “Democracy Index” is all about telling election officials to develop a defintition in the form of a quantifiable scoring rubric for a “good” election. Both books acknowledge the issue and, each in their own way, kicks the can down the road but neither offer a definition.

When legislative bodies add, change or reform election laws and statutes they are, almost always, doing it with a narrow perspective intent on solving a specific problem without knowledge or consideration of the impact on other aspects of election law. One can argue that that is what legislators do. Its not their job to see the big picture, its the administrators’ job to articulate the larger perspective. Similarly, when the courts interpret election law, they do it in the absence of an agreed upon standard of what constitutes a “good” or ideal election.

It has always been puzzling to me how this fundamental question has been so consistently pushed aside.  It seems to me that this absence of a commonly accepted definition of a “good” election makes it difficult, if not impossible, to effectively manage, improve and reform the administration of elections- kind of like embarking on a road trip without a specific destination in mind.

Next post I will propose my own take on what defines a “good” election. Stay tuned!

Scott O. Konopasek

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4 thoughts on ““Good” Election? What’s that?

  1. Perhaps we should start with the notion of “a good election” that’s implicit in the Constitution.

    The core notion is something like “an election that adequately informs and accurately polls the constituency.”

    We might call this the “statecraft notion” of a good election.

    1. Roy, you are right that the constitution should be the legal and ethical basis of any discussion relating to the administration of elections. The consitution does not say much directly about how elections should be conducted but “accurately polling the constituency” I’m sure can be implied although the constituency in 1789 was much different then than now. I am intrigued by your comment “…adequately informs…” or maybe I don’t understand what you mean. Would you elaborate on that idea?

      1. Scott,

        A good election requires that the voters be informed. When candidates provide information, we call that “campaigning,” and we consider it part of the “election cycle.” Ideally, voters also receive facts and analysis from other, hopefully more objective sources.

        Such information is “adequate” to the extent that a reasonable voter comes away with a good sense of where the candidates stand on the issues that interest the voter.

        In some cases, the voters also need information on what truly is in their best interest. This includes not only the voter’s interest as an individual but also the voter’s interest as a member of the community.

        Whether this gathering of information and intelligence is considered part of the election itself may be a matter of semantics. To my mind, it’s an essential element of a good election.

  2. “A good election requires that the voters be informed.’ I’ll be darned, I completely agree w/ Roy.
    Defining a good election is a whopper of a challenge. I don’t think it can be done right w/o placing it w/in the context of the entire political system and its environment – the voter and the public. I don’t see how you can escape the point of view problem. What’s good for a dictator, a corporate oligarchy, a political party, or an ordinary guy surfing the web, like me, is sure to be different. In some sense, the Framers agreed w/ Roy, too. One reason they devised the Electoral College, and had state legislators elect senators, and federal judges appointed, is that they didn’t want an electorte they regarded as uninformed messing w/ these important offices. Their idea of a good election excludes a lot of people.

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