THE CURRENT ELECTION SEASON in the United States has highlighted many of the problems with the country’s current election system; from convoluted campaign finance practices to stringent voter identification requirements, the process is fraught with complications. As the presidential election draws closer, many Americans are reluctant to trust the electoral process at all. In a new working paper published in the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) Faculty Working Paper series, Pippa Norris, the Paul F. McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics at HKS, offers some potential solutions to the many challenges plaguing American elections.

Norris is founder of the Electoral Integrity Project (based jointly at Harvard and Sydney University in Australia), which she established in 2012 following several contentious election cycles in the early 2000s. The project seeks to assess and analyze electoral problems and gather systematic evidence about the quality of electoral processes around the world.

Assessing the U.S. elections in 2012 and 2014, the EIP found that those elections displayed the worst performances among Western democracies. Norris cites multiple reasons for this, such as increasing polarization of the two major political parties, the deregulation of campaign finance contributions by individuals and corporations, and a general lack of public confidence in the electoral process and its outcomes.

“Without urgent reform, these problems risk damaging the legitimacy of American elections—further weakening public confidence in the major political parties, Congress, and the US government, depressing voter turnout, and exacerbating the risks of contentious outcomes fought through court appeals and public protests,” Norris argues.

Norris offers several potential reforms to address these problems, beginning with an overhaul of the regulations surrounding voter registration and balloting, and the presence of “independent, impartial and professional” electoral management.

She also questions the existing infrastructure for implementing electoral laws and regulations. In the U.S., voter regulations are mostly handled at the local level, but Norris argues that strengthening the role and responsibilities of the U.S. Electoral Assistance Commission could do a better job of managing electoral processes. After new regulations are put into place, the process would need to be monitored and revised as necessary, she says. In any case, Norris argues, a thorough reimagining of the electoral process is the best hope for reversing the decline of confidence in U.S. elections and their outcomes.

“Piecemeal reforms will not be adequate to compensate for growing party polarization and declining public confidence,” Norris writes. “Matters of electoral governance should not be determined through laws enacted by self-interested partisan representatives in state houses -- the equivalent to putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop. Instead, the reform process needs to engage us all.”

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