Shallow State

Inefficient, inequitable, and maddeningly slow, America’s fragmented administrative institutions are saving the Republic before our eyes.

American elections are run by a messy mish-mash of local, state, and federal agencies. That’s a feature, not a bug. Photo: WHYY

The American administrative apparatus is an astonishing jumble. Scores of federal agencies, fifty states (plus D.C.), 14 territories, hundreds of tribes, and tens of thousands of local governments share responsibility for domestic public policy in the United States. Beyond its inelegance, this mind-boggling fragmentation is a recipe for waste, confusion, and contradiction. No sane person would design a system like this if the goal was efficient, equitable regulation or delivery of public services. It’s a hot mess.

But by brilliant design or happy accident, America’s confusing and convoluted administrative institutions simultaneously allow for and defend against electoral abuse. The slow-rolling drama of this year’s federal elections is a dramatic case-in-point.

Frustrating fragmentation

Federalism—a model of governance that shares authority between a central government and regional subunits—gets a pretty bad rap in political science and economics. Federalism generates inconsistent, often contradictory policies. The whole apparatus is inequitable, as citizens in different parts of the country experience government in very different ways, often with troubling racial or ethnic biases. Administrative systems are redundant, bloated, and sometime work at cross-purposes. Our system of government isn’t Schoolhouse Rock, it’s a Hieronymus Bosch painting.

Every time I move from one state to another and wait in line at the DMV, I wonder: does America really need more than fifty driver’s licensing regimes and insurance regulators? Do we really need to track births, deaths, marriages, and land ownership through 3,000 county governments? Does it really make sense to parcel out responsibility for firefighting and law enforcement and education and health care and trash disposal across tens of thousands of governments?

Brilliantly efficient policies conceived on drawing boards in think tanks, seminars, and congressional hearings slam into this amorphous, chaotic intergovernmental blob. Look no further than the COVID-19 vaccine administration to see what I mean.

Baffling, byzantine, brilliant elections

Disorder and fragmentation also afflict American democracy. Election administration is intensely local in the United States. Elections in this country aren’t run by the Federal Election Commission. In most of the U.S., county and town governments organize and administer elections with state oversight. The work of issuing and counting ballots falls to tens of thousands of local officials and poll workers. Votes are cast and counted with a bizarre mish-mash of technologies. Vote counting is slow, reporting of results is haphazard, and when presidential elections are close, the delays are maddening. Even worse, all this fragmentation can allow state or local authorities to make voting difficult when it’s politically advantageous. Our country has a troubled history of voter suppression and disenfranchisement. The 1965 Voting Rights Act was a landmark step toward addressing those problems, and over the years there have been calls to nationalize voting administration completely.

Voting booths look deceptively elegant.

But ironically, fragmentation of our electoral system is also a safeguard against tyranny. Over the past month we’ve seen a remarkable federalist drama play out in Georgia. Georgia’s top election official and Secretary of State have publicly clashed with President Trump’s obdurate refusal to accept the outcome of the Peach State’s elections. The audio recording of Trump’s phone call with Georgia Secretary of State Raffensperger leaked last week is a testimony to the surprising strength of the nation’s fractured electoral systems.

Raffensperger, an elected official and life-long Republican, steadfastly refused to use his administrative authority to change his state’s election results, despite the President’s cajoling and vague threats. Raffensperger could show this kind of fortitude because he was selected by and is responsible to the voters of Georgia, not to the President of the United States. Raffensperger works in Atlanta alongside other Georgia officials; to capitulate to Trump’s demands would be to dishonor the public servants he sees every day. Just so, elections administrators in each of Georgia’s 159 counties are responsible to their own communities, not the President.

Hard to manage is also hard to hack

It is easy to imagine an alternative world in which Congress sets detailed rules for elections, the President appoints a Secretary of Elections, and a U.S. Department of Elections operates the whole system. Certainly, election administration would be more uniform, and we’d likely get results much faster. But uniform technology for casting and counting votes would make our elections far more vulnerable to electronic mischief. Whatever its other drawbacks, the Rube Goldberg Machine that is our election administration system is reasonably immune to concentrated attack. No vast right-wing conspiracy is possible, no deep-state conspiracy is possible, no national electoral conspiracy of any kind is really possible because our nation’s whole electoral apparatus is so convoluted.

Most of all, locally-managed elections form an inelegant but potent check on executive power. A U.S. Department of Elections staffed by presidential appointees would be glaringly vulnerable to presidential meddling. Would a U.S. Secretary of Elections appointed by President Trump resist manipulation the way that Georgia’s Secretary of State did?

As I write this, Georgia is in the throes of managing its special senate election. The polls suggest a close race, so it’s likely going to take elections officials a while to complete and validate everything. Angry, impatient cries will erupt from every ideological corner, just as they did in the ten days after last November’s federal elections. That’s OK. Our crazy quilt electoral system isn’t pretty, it isn’t quick, and it isn’t particularly fair; but it’s awfully hard to break. At a moment when our institutions are under stress, that is some comfort.

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