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The Hidden Costs of Clean Election Reform

Frederic Charles Schaffer

Publication Year: 2008

American voters are increasingly aware that the mechanics of elections matter. The conduct of elections-how eligible voters make it onto the voter rolls, how voters cast their ballots, and how those votes are counted-determines the degree to which the people's preferences are expressed freely, weighed equally, and recorded accurately. It is not surprising, then, that attempts to "clean up" elections are widely applauded as being unambiguously good for democracy.

In The Hidden Costs of Clean Election Reform, Frederic Charles Schaffer reveals how tinkering with the electoral process can easily damage democratic ideals. Drawing on both recent and historical evidence from the United States and countries around the world, including the Philippines (where Schaffer has served as an election observer), Venezuela, South Africa, and Taiwan, The Hidden Costs of Clean Election Reform investigates why citizens sometimes find themselves abruptly disenfranchised. Schaffer examines numerous incidents in which election reforms have, whether intentionally or accidentally, harmed the quality and experience of democracy.

These cases include the introduction of secret balloting in 1890s Arkansas, which deliberately stripped black citizens of the power to vote; efforts to insulate voters from outside influences in nineteenth-century France; the purge of supposed felons from the voter rolls of Florida ahead of the 2000 presidential election; and current debates over the reliability and security of touch-screen voting machines. Lawmakers, election officials, partisan operatives, and civic educators, Schaffer finds, can all contribute to the harm caused by improperly or cynically constructed election reforms. By understanding how even good-faith efforts to improve corrupt or flawed electoral practices may impede the democratic process, The Hidden Costs of Clean Election Reform suggests new ways to help prevent future breaches of democracy.

Published by: Cornell University Press


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pp. 1-2

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. iii-iv


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p. v-v

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pp. vii-xv

It was three o’clock in the afternoon when a crackling voice announced over tin-pot loudspeakers that the polls were now closed. I was sitting in the courtyard of Barangay Commonwealth High School, located in a poor and crowded section of Quezon City, the largest city in the Philippines and a part of Metro Manila. The school was serving as a polling place for the 2004 ...


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pp. xvii-xviii

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1. When Good Reforms Go Bad

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pp. 1-20

Poll fraud and error take a variety of forms. Ineligible voters can register illegally. Eligible voters can register in more than one locale. Spurious voters can impersonate registered ones, often those who died recently or are out of town. Campaign operatives can intimidate voters, buy their votes, or commandeer polling stations. Poll workers can stuff ballot boxes or miscount ...

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2. Lawmakers: Legal Disenfranchisement

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pp. 21-60

Lawmakers sometimes enact clean election measures that cause vote depression. Typically, this depression occurs when legislators impose regulations upon people who differ in their ability or disposition to comply with those regulations out of fear, distrust, embarrassment, political conviction, fi nancial constraint, or the like. These differences effectively put up obstacles to ...

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3. Election Officials and Poll Workers: Administrative Exclusion

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pp. 61-97

Clean election laws, as we have seen, sometimes become vehicles of disenfranchisement. But the depressive effect of new clean election measures can crystallize not only at the moment of formulation but also at the stage of implementation. In an effort to clean up elections, lawmakers often legislate new rules with no obvious disenfranchising import. Nevertheless, election ...

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4. Parties, Candidates, and Their Agents: Partisan Demobilization

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pp. 98-124

Sometimes clean election reforms damage the quality of democracy directly. When lawmakers enact restrictive voter registration procedures, participation rates decline as a direct result. When election administrators remove eligible voters from the registry, people are immediately excluded. Sometimes, however, the damage to democracy is indirect. Lawmakers and election officials ...

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5. Civic Educators: Disciplinary Reaction

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pp. 125-149

Election watchdog groups, public-minded corporations, government election bodies, reformist political parties, and other civic educators sometimes try to clean up dirty electoral practices by teaching ordinary voters to change their behavior. The goal of this education, typically, is to convince people to obey existing election laws, whether it be to vote secretly, to refrain ...

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6. Remedies

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pp. 150-196

In this book I have explored how clean election reforms—reforms designed to reduce fraud and error in the casting and counting of votes—have sometimes damaged the quality of democracy in a range of cases, both historical and contemporary. I found, in fact, three broad ways in which reform can harm democracy. Clean election reform can result ...


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pp. 197-215


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pp. 217-233


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pp. 235-243

E-ISBN-13: 9780801461798
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801441158

Page Count: 264
Publication Year: 2008

Edition: 1