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Measuring the integrity of elections

Harvard Kennedy School Lecturer Pippa Norris is director of the Electoral Integrity Project.
Martha Stewart
Harvard Kennedy School Lecturer Pippa Norris is director of the Electoral Integrity Project.

The Boston Globe presents the Harvard Kennedy School PolicyCast, a weekly podcast on public policy, politics, and global issues. HKS PolicyCast is hosted by Matt Cadwallader.

How do we measure and ensure the integrity of elections?

It’s certainly a relevant question as we enter a presidential election year here in the United States, but it’s also important from a global perspective.

“Despite the fact that elections have spread worldwide . . . the quality of elections is really bad in many, many places,” according to Harvard Kennedy School Lecturer Pippa Norris, who is director of the Electoral Integrity Project. “And that has consequences.”

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Norris came on the Harvard Kennedy School PolicyCast just over a year ago to explain why she was drawn to the subject for both theoretical and practical reasons.

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From a theoretical standpoint, no one had yet devised a way to measure the integrity of a country’s elections. And from a practical perspective, having this information was key to developing policy recommendations for leaders who wished to improve the quality of elections in their countries.

To accomplish the task, Norris and her colleagues devised a 49-point questionnaire for election experts around the world, called the Perceptions of Electoral Integrity (PEI) survey.

At the time of the interview, the United States’ PEI ranked just 26th in the world. A subsequent report published in 2015 had us sliding even further down to 35th, one below Mexico.

Discussions of electoral integrity in the US often revolve around voter fraud. Legends abound of stuffed ballot boxes, voter rolls packed with the deceased, and noncitizens impersonating citizens to cast their votes.

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But when it came to naming her project, Norris purposefully avoided the term.

“Even though that’s the way we always talk about it in the United States, it’s certainly not the key thing,” Norris said, “and indeed I’d argue, even in the United States, it’s not necessarily the most important problem.”

Instead, Norris cited several factors, including campaign finance, voter registration, and how we structure election laws.

The US is a bit of an odd duck when it comes to elections. While most countries centralize the process of voting in order to ensure equitable access, the US leaves those responsibilities up to state and local authorities.

“I’d argue very strongly that we need to actually, if we could, reform the process to have more regulation which is more standardized at a higher level.”

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In the full interview, which you can download on iTunes or listen to up above, Norris goes into more detail on:

• 0:29 — Why establishing a measure for the quality of elections was an important step in bringing about global improvements.

• 1:55 — Why nondemocracies hold elections at all.

• 2:50 — Why voter fraud is a “relatively minor issue” when it comes to the integrity of elections.

• 3:48 — How elections can be influenced well before ballots are cast.

• 5:12 — How the Electoral Integrity Project ranks countries.

• 6:18 — Why the US ranks comparatively low among democracies.

• 7:24 — How the decentralized approach in the US to election laws has become a problem.

• 8:38 — Which countries set the bar for well-run elections.

• 10:01 — How problems with elections can be predicted with the right data.

• 11:50 — The policy and analytical tools that can help countries with poorly run elections.