Among its dubious distinctions, 2016 will be remembered as the year U.S. electoral integrity came under suspicion from threats both real (Russian hacking) and imagined (rampant voter fraud). While a survey out earlier this year rated the U.S. ballot process more reliable than about two-thirds of 150 other countries, it still ranked the U.S. lowest among such Western democracies as Canada and the United Kingdom — even Brazil and Greece.
Break the U.S. result down farther, though, and you’ll see that Idaho’s electoral integrity comes highly regarded. Political scientists, surveyed for their perceptions, ranked it second among states, behind only Vermont.
The survey is the work of the Electoral Integrity Project, an independent effort run out of Harvard University and the University of Sydney in Australia. Since its founding in 2012, EIP has had experts rate election integrity in 153 countries based on 49 measures across 11 categories.
The top U.S. state rankings are tight — the Top 10 are separated by just four points on a scale of 0-100. Essentially tied with Idaho are New Hampshire, Iowa and New Mexico; Maine, Washington and Hawaii are just a point behind. At the bottom of the list is Arizona, with Wisconsin, Tennessee and Oklahoma just slightly better.
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“A small difference doesn’t mean anything,” said Pippa Norris, a Harvard political scientist who directs the project. “On the other hand, a big difference, say between Arizona and Idaho, is something that you can take to the bank.”
Idaho was rated near perfect, with a score of 98, in electoral procedures, based on factors such as whether elections are well-managed and information on voting is widely and freely available. Its lowest score — a category in which all but four states did poorly — involves election district boundaries, which are evaluated for fairness and competitiveness.
Norris said 700 political scientists were surveyed nationwide; roughly 40 were contacted for Idaho’s results. The methodology is by necessity subjective, based on perception in the absence of measurable data. No strong regional or political trends appear in the state-by-state results, although Southern states fare somewhat worse.
More useful for state elections officials, Norris said, is to look at what highly rated states are doing right and adopt those practices.
“Officials get a lot of blame when things go wrong, but not a lot of praise when things go right,” she said.
Idaho Secretary of State Lawerence Denney, Idaho’s top elections official, said he didn’t generally put much stock in such surveys but welcomed the EIP’s findings, however volatile they might be.
“Certainly we’re happy to be rated up there at the top, but at the same time you can change a couple things, or a couple things happen, and we could be right the bottom,” Denney said.
He agreed that Idaho’s election district boundaries, redrawn most recently under a 2012 state Supreme Court ruling, made some of the districts “huge and probably unwieldy to try to represent.” But given the court’s edict and the state’s geography and population spread, “I don’t know how you get around that.”
As for Idaho’s procedural fairness, lauded in the survey, he noted that state elections are decentralized, run under the jurisdiction of each of the state’s 44 counties. Paper ballots are in use statewide, preserving a paper trail should a recount be necessary.
Thirteen counties still count ballots by hand, Denney said.