Andrew Reynolds's political science research doesn't principally focus on the US; his specialty is democratization in countries emerging from dictatorship, often countries with weak state institutions. His CV lists co-authored articles with titles like “Parties and Accountable Government in New Democracies,” and “The Impact of Election Administration on the Legitimacy of Emerging Democracies.” His faculty page at the University of North Carolina notes he’s consulted on election and constitutional design in countries like Afghanistan, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kenya, South Africa, Sudan, Syria, and Zimbabwe.
So when he says a country or region’s electoral procedures and government structure fall short of democratic standards, he speaks from no small amount of experience. And so it’s notable that, this past Friday, he declared that his state of North Carolina “can no longer be classified as a full democracy.”
He cites a number of factors, including entrenched gerrymandering that has guaranteed Republicans a veto-proof legislative majority despite winning a "tiny advantage in the popular vote." But specific problems that have arisen in 2016 have further damaged the state's legitimacy, notably the legislature's efforts to strip the governor of a number of different powers in the wake of Democratic candidate Roy Cooper's election.
“When, in response to losing the governorship, one party uses its legislative dominance to take away significant executive power, it is a direct attack upon the separation of powers that defines American democracy,” he writes in Raleigh’s News & Observer newspaper. “When a wounded legislative leadership, and a lame-duck executive, force through draconian changes with no time for robust review and debate it leaves Carolina no better than the authoritarian regimes we look down upon.”
How to measure democratic decline
Here, Reynolds is drawing on research he’s conducted alongside Aarhus University's Jørgen Elklit and Harvard/University of Sydney's Pippa Norris through the Electoral Integrity Project. The cornerstone of the project, which Norris and two other collaborators described for Vox here, is the Perceptions of Electoral Integrity survey, which asks political experts in each country where it's conducted a battery of questions about each stage of elections, from whether ballots are fairly tallied to whether newspapers provide voters with adequate information to whether districts are divided fairly. Their responses are then tallied into ratings on a 0 to 100 scale: 100 indicating electoral processes with the most integrity, 0 with the least.
It’s fair to question whether or not these experts — political scientists, in the case of many countries like the US — are reliable, but Norris and her collaborators Holly Ann Garnett and Max Grömping note that the ratings jibe well with those from Freedom House and the Polity dataset, two other widely used metrics of how democratic a regime is.
North Carolina’s score is 58 out of 100, slightly above Cuba (56) and Indonesia (57) and below Rwanda (64) and Georgia (59).
“If it were a nation state, North Carolina would rank right in the middle of the global league table — a deeply flawed, partly free democracy that is only slightly ahead of the failed democracies that constitute much of the developing world,” Reynolds concludes.
Particularly poor is North Carolina's performance on voter registration and districting issues. Gerrymandering in the state is so bad that, "when it comes to the integrity of the voting district boundaries no country has ever received as low a score as the 7/100 North Carolina received,” Reynolds writes. “North Carolina is not only the worst state in the USA for unfair districting but the worst entity in the world ever analyzed by the Electoral Integrity Project.”
North Carolina also gets points off for poor electoral laws (such as the recent ID requirement for voters), voter registration rules, and state behavior regarding the official declaration of results (given that the poll was taken two weeks after Election Day, when North Carolina Republicans were still fighting their obvious gubernatorial loss, this might have affected that dimension).
It’s not just North Carolina
Reynolds focuses on North Carolina, but it's not even the worst performer in the US, overall, on this metric. Eleven states perform worse: Michigan, Ohio, Georgia, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Wisconsin, and Arizona, which brings up the bottom with a measly 53.
Norris, Garnett, and Grömping note that “states controlled by Democrats usually had significantly greater electoral integrity than Republican-controlled states, across all stages except … the official declaration of the results.” And so, unsurprisingly, a poor performance on electoral integrity measures was correlated with a higher vote share for Donald Trump. That doesn’t mean Trump won because of poor electoral procedures, of course. But the partisan gap on electoral performance is nonetheless striking, and alarming.
This is one dataset, and it’s important not to treat it as definitive, especially in attempting comparisons between polities. For instance, the US’s overall rating (62) is below that of Rwanda, a full-on autocracy under strongman Paul Kagame; it seems foolish to infer from that that the US is less of a democracy than Rwanda.
But the research of Reynolds, Norris, and their colleagues at the Electoral Integrity Project does point the way for some sensible policies that improve democratic participation and are implemented by some of the best-performing states in the US. Iowa, which tops the nation when it comes to drawing district boundaries, draws its maps using the Legislative Services Agency, a team of civil servants assisted by a partisan-balanced independent commission. Colorado, Washington, and Oregon, all of which use voting by mail exclusively, all rank relatively highly. Vermont, which leads the nation overall, is, along with Maine (another top performer), one of only two states that lets all felons, including prisoners, vote.
Adopting policies to reduce disenfranchisement, make districting fairer, and make registration and voting easier and more accessible may hurt one or another party in the short-term. But in the long-run, it can prevent the kind of degradation of democratic procedures that Reynolds, Norris, and their team have highlighted.
Update: Andrew Gelman, a statistician and political scientist at Columbia, has a thoughtful critique of the Electoral Integrity Project’s measures, focusing on strangely high scores for authoritarian regimes. Much like Rwanda, North Korea’s score appears far too high. Norris has a rebuttal to Gelman that he generously posted. It’s worth reading both. The international comparison element definitely seems like the research’s weakest component.