“The system that we use to administer elections is clunky at best and dysfunctional at worst,” asserted Heather K. Gerken, J. Skelly Wright Professor of Law at Yale Law School, as she delivered the Annual John L. Gedid Lecture on Thursday, March 12th. Her talk was entitled The Invisible Election: Why Our System Isn't Working and How to Fix It
The program opened with a video introduction from Dean Linda Ammons
, who said, “Good evening ladies in gentlemen in Harrisburg and here in Wilmington, Delaware as well, and on behalf of the faculty, students, and staff of the Widener University School of Law, I welcome you to the 3rd Annual John L. Gedid Lecture,” adding, “in the John Gedid Lecture, the Widener faculty recognizes the contributions of Professor John Gedid
to this law school and to the legal profession.” She noted that Professor Gedid is “a valued mentor and an esteemed colleague” and thanked him for all that he does before turning the event over to Assistant Professor Michael Dimino
, who introduced Professor Gerken.
“She is among the foremost election law authorities in the country, and is perhaps the foremost authority in election law in the country,” offered Professor Dimino in introducing featured speaker Heather Gerken, adding that “Those of us who are personally acquainted with her know that she is far more than this set of amazing accomplishments.”
“Well, I will just tell you that there is no way that any of this is going to live up to that introduction,” joked Professor Gerken as she took to the podium. She discussed a proposal made by President Barack Obama when he was a Senator to create a “Democracy Index” that would serve as a ranking of states and localities “based on how well their elections are run.” She said of the proposal, “In my mind, this is the first and most useful step that we could take to improve our badly administered election system.”
Professor Gerken described the election problems encountered in Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004 as fundamental. She labeled those problems the “Invisible Election.” She indicated that too much time was spent thinking about the flaws and coming up with theoretical solutions, and that not enough time was devoted to making practical changes in the system. Enumerating some of the problems, she discussed the variety of mistakes that lead to votes being discarded as well as the potential for malicious voter fraud.
“Despite all this, nothing has happened since 2000 to make our election system better,” asserted Gerken after noting that the events in Florida and Ohio should have served as the necessary impetus for change. “Even a debacle like the 2000 election prompted only the most modest of changes,” she noted, adding, “If that’s not a sign that we need a new approach to election reform, I don’t know what is.” She discussed the factors working against reform, citing partisanship and localism as the two biggest culprits.
Professor Gerken concluded her talk with the affirmation that a system liked the one proposed by Obama would be a modest first step that would help begin reform in the election system. She took questions from the audience following her lecture, addressing measuring counties in addition to states, the potential for disagreement about what data to collect, and using the adversarial nature of partisanship to spark reform.
A graduate of Princeton University and the University of Michigan Law School, Professor Gerken specializes in election law, constitutional law, and civil procedure. An expert on voting rights and election law, she served as a law clerk for Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and for Justice David H. Souter of the United States Supreme Court. Before joining the Yale faculty in 2006, she served as an Assistant Professor at Harvard Law School. She has frequently served as a commentator for national media outlets including The New York Times, NBC News, the Lehrer News Hour, CNN, NPR, The New Yorker
, and MSNBC.
Widener Law began the John L. Gedid lecture series in April 2007 to honor Professor John L. Gedid, who has been a leading figure on the Harrisburg campus since it opened in 1989. Gedid served as the vice dean for the Harrisburg campus for the first six years of its existence, a role he has again filled for the last two years. A beloved professor and active public servant, he also directs the school’s Law & Government Institute