Konopasek and Newby on the Importance of Imperfection


[Image courtesy of jameswoodward]

We’re in the inauguration season – with legislators, Presidents and other officials formally installed in their positions – and it got me to thinking about the beauty (and occasional imperfection) of the system of elections that puts these women in men in positions of authority.

Scott Konopasek had a really nice refection on his blog last week about the role of imperfection in elections – especially the need to acknowledge it exists and use it for continuous improvement.

Here’s the key excerpt:

[I]t is understandable for election officials to conscientiously set a high yet unobtainable standard of perfection and to choose not to see or admit to ever falling short of that standard. The price is too high. Yet the adoption of this seemingly noble and highly responsible standard -perfection- has two paradoxically negative and unanticipated outcomes. First, it reinforces an unreasonable and unattainable expectation, among the public, media and politicians, that an election is only acceptably “good” when conducted without issues or errors. Second, the façade of perfection often adopted by election administrators truncates the feedback loop that is a necessary part of the cycle of learning and improving.

The personal cost of publicly acknowledging “learning moments” can be unnecessarily high and painful. The unrecognized organizational cost of ignoring or hiding the “learning moments” is even higher.

Back to the point I want to clarify; errors and mistakes in elections seldom affect the outcomes and should not be considered inherently fatal to acknowledge. The healthy and constructive approach, which I am advocating working toward, is one in which it is safe to acknowledge mistakes and failures for the purpose of learning and improving from them. To do otherwise casts unjustified suspicion on elections and election administrators and inhibits a culture of continuous learning and improvement from which the profession can greatly benefit.

What’s interesting is that as I reviewed this post I *thought* it was (slightly) at odds with a similar meditation by Brian Newby that I highlighted here almost a year ago. But as I went back and read that piece, I discovered that Brian was embracing the same kind of hopeful realism that Scott suggests, even as he commits himself to striving for perfect elections:

A defect doesn’t mean the commitment ends.

I think the emergence of voices like Konopasek’s and Newby’s signals a healthy understanding of imperfection in election administration; namely, by seeing it not merely as something to fear but rather as something to acknowledge and embrace even as we seek to eliminate it.

Elections never stop, after all – so the effort to improve them shouldn’t either.

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