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Guest Post: Metrics for Election Success

A Gentle Reader who wishes to remain anonymous has contributed the following note. My own response will be posted, as is appropriate, in the comments. Here, I would just like to publicly thank the writer for contributing, and encourage any similarly inclined Gentle Reader to go ahead, anonymous or no.

Thank you,

How do you determine if an election is a success? You need both a metric and a way to evaluate the results.

In the United States, a successful election is defined as an election in which (1) candidates were allowed to communicate with potential voters, (2) those who wanted to vote were able to vote without unfair or undue obstacles, and (3) the vote count accurately reflects the intent of those who chose to vote. Federal and state election laws (and court decisions) exist primarily to ensure those three criteria are met, and the public generally accepts them. We do not measure the success of an election qua election on the basis of how many candidates there were, or how many viewpoints those candidates represented and how well those viewpoints corresponded to the viewpoints of potential voters, or how well candidates communicated with potential voters, or how many people voted, or how many people made positive choices rather than negative choices, or how informed those people's choices were, or how many people are satisfied with the outcome of the election. These additional concerns might be important to rendering the phrase "representative government" meaningful, but we accept the idea that market forces will take care of most of these additional concerns. We say that an election was successful even if there was only one candidate, even if that candidate didn't campaign, even if nobody really liked the only candidate, and even if most eligible voters didn't turn out to vote.

That's the metric. The evaluation method in the United States is correspondence with expected results as determined by polls, verified by media scrutiny and challenges in appropriate courts.

So what should be the metric and evaluation methods for Iraq?

The Bush administration would define the election as successful if there are multiple candidates/parties, ballots, and voters. It is hard for the Iraqi election to fail against such a metric, so there is no need for an evaluation method. While that's consistent with the administration's anti-scientific approach to the world, we might wish for other metrics and functional evaluation methods.

We must accept fairly low standards for a successful election in a country dealing with a violent foreign occupation, a brewing civil war, a long history of violently non-democratic minority rule, and tremendous obstacles to both campaigning and voting. But surely we could establish some rudimentary metric, made substantive by the results being meaningfully evaluated.

A modest proposal for a successful Iraqi election: there should be candidates who have different points of view, those points of view should reflect the varying points of view held by large numbers of Iraqis, those points of view should be communicated in attempts both to inform and persuade, voters should have some reason why they are choosing one candidate over another (i.e., there should be some voter intent), many of those who are eligible to vote should want to vote, and those who want to vote should be able to vote without unfair or undue obstacles.

The rate of voter participation is important because it demonstrates that there is some belief that the election is free, fair, and meaningful both in terms of expressing voter intent and in affecting the governance of the country. It is also a metric which can easily be evaluated, and at least among Iraqi expatriates, the rate of voter participation is appallingly low. News coverage from Iraq suggests that candidates were afraid to campaign (or even announce who they were), and that obstacles to voting were enormous and uneven across both geography and ethnicity. On the positive side, there were multiple candidates/parties which did vary and reflect varying points of view held by large numbers of Iraqis.

Faced with these realities, the world press is largely evaluating the success of the election by whether the proportions of the Iraqi vote corresponded to the proportions of the Iraqi population along geographic and ethnic lines. This evaluation is only appropriate if you assume that the election was intended to be a form of census. (Worse, the evaluation is only meaningful if you already have a reliable census to compare against, in which case there was no particular reason to hold an election which was both bloody and expensive.) That metric is hardly more appropriate than that put forth by the White House, though it at least allows the election to be called either a success or a failure.

Perhaps we should measure the success of the election by whether the machinery (both physical and societal) for holding elections was at least partially put in place. The new Iraqi government is not likely to be substantially less representative than the previous several, nor substantially more effective in maintaining civil calm. But someday peace may come to Iraq, and because of this election-like exercise the Iraqi people may have an easier time holding a free, fair, and meaningful election. Then it would be right to call the January 2005 exercise a success, even if it could not truly be an election. For the sake of giving purpose to the sacrifices made so this exercise could be held, I hope that turns out to be the case.


...at least among Iraqi expatriates, the rate of voter participation is appallingly low.

Just a footnote: my partner, her siblings, and her father were eligible to vote but decided against it. It certainly would have been possible to make the long trip to Irvine to register and again to vote, but they all had a sense that this election should be for the people who will be living with its results. To them, allowing American-born, -raised, and -resident children of Iraqi men (but not women, interestingly) to vote smelled a bit too much like stuffing the ballot box.

One difficulty with picking criteria for deciding whether an election was successful is that it’s difficult to define what democracy is or what it’s for. If democracy is a method of finding out (and potentially implementing) the policy preferences of the citizens then the metric you start with is a good one. That is more or less what we, on a day to day basis, think of elections as accomplishing.
If, on the other hand, we agree with Spinoza that the first purpose of government is to avoid civil war, the purpose of an election is to convince disgruntled residents that their interests are being looked after, or at least that they will be at some time in the future, without any need to resort to violence. In this view, the actual policy debates that accompany elections only matter inasmuch as they give the authorities a purchase on the way to accommodate or mollify the electorate. This gives rise to a metric that can only be applied well afterwards. By this metric, of course, the US Presidential Election in 1860 was a failure, despite being (broadly speaking) fair and free, and the US Presidential Election in 2000 was a success, stolen or no.
We can extend that last metric to say that not only should the institutions of government work without violence in the wake of an election but that they should work well, and be influenced by the electorate appropriately and so on. I’d be careful extending it too far, though, because it’s easy to wind up saying the election is only successful if the resulting government is good, and then you are getting into real trouble. So I’m inclined, myself, to stick to the violence definition of this metric.
There is another way to look at democracy, which is to say that elections are part of a civic process in which everyone can play an equal part. That process is more important than the elections which give it shape, and therefore the important thing is not who votes or for whom, but who converses with whom. It’s much harder to gauge this, particularly in a large country and at a distance. Clearly a free and fair election helps this process, and a bad election hurts it, so it’s in a way helpful for this metric to judge the election by free-and-fair standards. On the other hand, perhaps the important question is not how many people vote against what obstacles, but how they feel in the voting booth. Do voters feel that they are working with or against supporters of other candidates or parties? Do I cast my ballot knowing that I may lose, and willing to support the legitimacy, if not the policies, of the winners? Does an election loss lead me to further engagement or withdrawal? We don’t know this about our own elections, so comprehensively studied, so I don’t know how useful a metric this can be in a ‘new democracy’.
Last, at least for now, is the totally irrational attitude held by Your Humble Blogger, which is that contested elections are Good Things and they are successful if they lead to more contested elections, which are also Good Things. On the other hand, if the electoral victors set fire to the parliament building, that’s a bad thing. But that hasn’t happened (yet), and my gut instinct tells me that most and possibly nearly all the residents of Iraq are feeling, at least today, that a whole series of these contested elections would be nice, particularly if interspersed with periods of actual governance of some kind. Which, I think, is where my guest ended as well.
Thank you,

Dan, I'm glad to hear about the reasoning of your partner and her family -- it's responsible and heartening.

V, The Soviet Union held elections without an ensuing civil war (assuming you differentiate civil war from frequent and brutal repression). Spinoza would not call those elections a success, he would call them a sham or a misnomer.

I'd say that in an established democracy, a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for calling an election a success is if it has some effect on the ensuing government that correlates with the percentage of voters who chose each of the options presented in the election. In other words, it should matter who gets how many votes. But I may be an idealist.

success, failure. these elections could have been held a year ago, without the ensuing loss of life. and sunnis would have participated.

rather than evaluating the success of the election, i'd rather look at how all the evaluations of the election put the cart a mile and a half in front of the horse. is there a civil structure? is there a sense of equal civil justice? is there a desire to work together, without coercion, without fear of retaliation? no, none of those things are true.

therefore the election doesn't reflect some sudden achievement of maturity by an independent civilian government. it reflects the will of the shi'a population to fulfill their contractual obligations and get americans the hell out.

It's hard to tell with Spinoza, but I don't think he would have considered the Soviet elections a failure. A sham, certainly, and probably a misnomer as well, but a success. Unless, of course, Soviet repression caused him to rethink the whole business, but we can't allow him credit for that. On the whole, the Soviets achieved something not altogether unlike peace for seventy years. Well, not much like peace, but not much like either total lawlessness or civil war, which were Spinoza's fears. To the extent that the sham elections helped avoid those, I have to think he would have approved them.

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