Harvard Study Says Michigan Elections Less Democratic Than Cuba, North Korea, Iran

Former Federal Elections Commission Chairman calls study 'absurd'

A former head of the Federal Elections Commission says an academic study on elections that recently made national news is “absurd” and subjective.

The study ranked Michigan’s elections as less democratic than those of Cuba, Iran and North Korea. It reports the perceptions of 726 election experts about the electoral integrity — or how ethical the democratic process is — in each state. Michigan is one of several states that is ranked lower than some authoritarian countries.

Michigan’s Perception of Electoral Integrity index score, which the project complied by using survey methods and 49 measurements, was 57 out of 100. The Great Lakes State was ranked ahead of ten other states, including Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

A 2014 study by the project used the same scoring criteria to rank countries by evaluating their presidential and parliamentary elections. Some of the countries that ranked higher than Michigan were Iran (64), Cuba (66), and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (65). Venezuela’s had an index score of 57, tying Michigan.

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Bradley Smith, a law professor at Capital University and an adjunct scholar with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said the study is “absurd” and not based on objective criteria.

“Isn't a study that ranks Cuba, North Korean and Iran higher on a democracy list than half of the United States — from conservative Georgia to liberal New York, from tiny Rhode Island to giant Texas, self-evidently absurd?” said Smith, a former chairman of the FEC who now specializes in election law and campaign finance. “That should be enough to dismiss this silly study.”

The study made national news in December after an op-ed was published in the Raleigh News & Observer highlighting a claim that North Carolina is no longer democratic.

Andrew Reynolds, the author of the op-ed, helped establish the system used by the Electoral Integrity Project.

“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 wrote.

Reynolds then explained North Carolina “can no longer be classified as a full democracy” because of the GOP’s legislative dominance, the limitation of transgender rights in the state, and the government’s detachment “from popular will.”

Smith responded by saying, “The rankings are based not on objective criteria, but on a poll of ‘social scientists,’ ‘who ha[ve] demonstrated knowledge of the electoral process in a particular country.’ One can meet this vague criteria merely through ‘membership of a relevant research group or network, or university employment.’” He added, “In other words, it's not necessary that the ‘experts’ have actually done research in the field, if they are employed by a university or join the right group.”

Smith also said the study’s sample sizes are “ridiculously small in most cases” and can be easily swayed by biased respondents. “For example, Cuba's ranking is based on 3 responses; North Korea's on two; even the 2014 U.S. elections were scored by just 8 people,” he said. “Nor should we assume that these ‘experts’ in repressive countries felt free of pressure on how to respond.”

“The criteria is subjective, and often ideological highly contested — for example, U.S. scores were lowered in the latest survey because of recent deregulation of the campaign finance in the United States — even though those who have argued for such deregulation believe it is a huge plus for democracy,” Smith continued.

Smith also pointed out that Brazil, Tunisia, Turkey, Rwanda, Georgia (the former Soviet Republic), Bhutan and Serbia outscored a one-fourth or more of U.S. states.

“This ‘study’ is not only not worth the paper it is printed on, it should irritate honest election specialists because it is the type of bogus study that makes people skeptical of ‘experts’ who purport to know what is best for them,” he said. “Is there a person in the state of Michigan who really believes that Cuba and Iran are more democratic than Michigan? I didn’t think so either.”

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