The Democracy Index: A new idea develops into innovative public policy

In April 2009, Heather Gerken (Yale Law School) released The Democracy Index (Princeton University Press), in which she proposes a straightforward, innovative solution to improving the U.S. elections system: an index that would rate and compare the performance of elections systems at the state and local levels. The book has its genesis in a paper Professor Gerken developed at a Tobin Project working group meeting with Congressional lawmakers in 2006. In 2007, less than a year after being proposed by Professor Gerken, the creation of a Democracy Index was included in legislation introduced by then-Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and then endorsed by the General Counsel of both the Obama and McCain presidential campaigns. Then, in 2009, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that New York City would create the nation’s first Democracy Index, and Congressman Steve Israel put the bill into legislation in 2010. In 2013, the Pew Charitable Trust released the Elections Performance Index report, which grew out of Professor Gerken's Democracy Index. 

“The Tobin Project played a crucial role in helping get the idea for the Democracy Index out. I'm not sure that I would have written up the paper were it not for the conference we had on the Hill. The conference forced me to think in more pragmatic terms than I usually do, and once I started thinking harder about the issue the idea just took off.”
- Heather Gerken (Yale Law School) 



June 2006: The Tobin Project holds a democracy working group meeting in Washington, D.C. with members of Congress and legislative staff.

The Tobin Project holds a democracy working group meeting in Washington, D.C. with members of Congress, including Senator Russ Feingold and Representatives Rosa DeLauro and Mel Watt, and legislative staff. Participants are asked to offer a "modest proposal" to improve democracy in America. Professor Heather Gerken, then-Chair of Tobin’s Institutions of Democracy working group, writes a paper for the meeting proposing that Congress instruct the U.S. Election Assistance Commission to devise a national ranking system of voting practices to pressure local outliers to improve their voting practices.

January 2007: Professor Gerken revises her paper from the Tobin Project meeting and publishes her proposal in the Legal Times.

Encouraged by interest from both her colleagues and lawmakers, Professor Gerken revises the proposal for publication, with assistance from the Tobin Project. It soon appears in the Legal Times and is later picked up in Capitol Hill’s Roll Call. Professor Gerken explains how the Democracy Index, if implemented, could help drive reform and improve democracy: put simply, a ranking system would work to motivate reform because no one wants to be at the bottom of the list. Moreover, Professor Gerken notes that the Democracy Index would give reformers a new language to work with:

“It would offer cold, hard numbers and comparative data in place of atmospherics and anecdotes. It would provide bottom-line results in place of subjective judgments. It would let reformers talk like corporate executives, not starry-eyed idealists. And, most important, it would enable the voters to hold election officials accountable for their missteps."
- Heather Gerken ("How Does Your State Rank on 'The Democracy Index'?" Legal Times January 2007)

March 2007: Policymakers express interest in drafting legislation inspired by Gerken’s ideas, with then-Senator Barack Obama introducing the Voter Advocate and Democracy Index Act of 2007.

After reading the Legal Times article, staff for Senators Clinton and Obama call Professor Gerken with an interest in drafting legislation. Within two months, two separate bills are introduced in the Senate proposing a national ranking of states by election practices. Senator Obama cites Professor Gerken by name on the Senate floor as the inspiration: “I am proud to introduce the Voter Advocate and Democracy Index Act of 2007 ... The concept is based on a proposal that Yale Law School Professor Heather Gerken published this January in Legal Times. It focuses on issues that matter to all voters: How long did voters spend in line? How many ballots got discarded? How often did the balloting machinery break down? The Act would constitute an important first step toward improving the health of our democracy ... In short, the Democracy Index will empower voters and encourage States to work toward the goal we all share: an election system that makes us all proud.”

April 2007: Professor Gerken leads a discussion on election reform hosted by AEI-Brookings and the Pew Center on the States.

The Democracy Index gains currency. AEI and the Brookings Institution co-host a conference with a consortium of foundations, including the Pew Center on the States, that are interested in new proposals and ask Professor Gerken to lead a discussion on election reform.  Three months later, Professor Gerken sends a proposal to Princeton University Press to publish a book arguing for creation of the Democracy Index.

April 2009: The Democracy Index is published by Princeton University Press.

Professor Gerken releases The Democracy Index (Princeton University Press), in which she proposes a simple, innovative solution to improving the U.S. election system: an index that would rate the performance of election systems at the state and local levels. The Democracy Index would give voters, policymakers, and election administrators reliable and comparable data on how well our democracy is working, which will then enable the identification of reforms to improve the functioning of our democracy.     

May 2009: Campaign lawyers for President Obama and Senator McCain publish an op-ed in Roll Call endorsing the Democracy Index.

Robert F. Bauer, General Counsel to the Obama Campaign, and Trevor Potter, General Counsel to the McCain Campaign, co-author an op-ed in Roll Call in support of Professor Gerken’s Democracy Index.

“As the general counsel to the Obama and McCain campaigns, we had our disagreements — a fair number of them, as a matter of fact. But we share a deep commitment to fair and well-run elections in which all qualified voters have the opportunity to vote, and all the votes that they cast are accurately counted.”
Robert F. Bauer and Trevor Potter ("Next Phase of Election Reform: Start With Facts" Roll Call May 2009)

September 2009: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announces that NYC will create the nation’s first Democracy Index.

Mayor Bloomberg announced that New York City will create the nation's first Democracy Index as part of a comprehensive package of election reform, “Easy to Vote & Easy to Run.” In addition to the Democracy Index, the plan includes a special voting hotline and calls on Congress to move Election Day to the weekend and to support the automatic registration of all voters. “For far too long, our election system has been plagued with antiquated rules and procedures that effectively limit its fairness and effectiveness,” said Mayor Bloomberg. “This plan will enable more New Yorkers to engage in the democratic process by making it easier for them to run for office and easier for them to vote.” 

November 2009: Representative Steve Israel (D-NY) introduces legislation to create an American Democracy Index that is built on the research of Heather Gerken.

Rep. Israel introduces the American Democracy Index Act, which seeks to improve election administration throughout the United States by ranking states on election performance and by comparing best and worst practices. Informed by Professor Gerken's research, the American Democracy Index Act requires that the Election Assistance Commission contract with an entity to collect voter data and publish the American Democracy Index for the federal election cycle of 2012. The American Democracy Index (ADI) will present voter and election administration data on a state-by-state basis in a manner designed to demonstrate the effectiveness of election administration practices.

2010: The Pew Charitable Trusts begins to explore methods for creating a nationwide Democracy Index.

Starting in 2010, the Pew Charitable Trusts begins work to explore how to create a nationwide Democracy Index, which would provide election officials, policymakers and citizens the data and tools they need to assess how well the nation’s democracy is working and identify specific improvements that can be made in the way elections are conducted.

2013: The Pew Charitable Trusts releases the Elections Performance Index report, which grew out of Professor Gerken's Democracy Index.

The report examines election administration performance across all 50 states and the District of Columbia and includes a new online interactive tool, which allows users to see where their state stands based on the indicators of their choice.