Lessons Taken from the Recent U.S. Election Mess

By Wallace Bruschweiler & William Palumbo.

Another November, another Election Day debacle.  Leave it to the State of Florida to once again (think Bush v. Gore) expose the severe shortcomings of the American election system.  Though, to be fair, it isn’t only Florida; Arizona and Georgia are also in the proverbial “big soup” this time around.

The point of this article is not to systematically condemn the American election system, nor detail its deficiencies.  As any observer is painfully aware, there are legal, partisan, and political reasons why the system remains – basically – broken.  Nor shall we evaluate any contemporary claims of voter fraud; for these arguments will be lost and won by an army of lawyers, sent from D.C. to the states which have bungled yet another political election.

For the sake of both completeness and brevity, listed below are some broad complicating factors of the U.S. electoral system:

  • Generally speaking, states establish their own election laws – subject to Federal oversight – essentially creating fifty different regimes, each with their own idiosyncrasies and complications.
  • Gerrymandering, which allows the creation of customized electoral districts to the benefit of one party or the other.
  • Voter participation in the United States rarely exceeds 50-55%%, which is amongst the lowest in the so-called developed world. Therefore, approximately just 26-28% of eligible voters determine the direction of the entire country.
  • Electoral College: In Presidential elections, electors (not voters) ultimately decide who wins the office. This is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.  Wow!

Rather than focus on the various problems, we seek here to present examples from other countries where the election systems do work, for context and fermentation of ideas domestically.

A Look around the World

Australia

  • Population: 24.6 million
  • Voter participation: Greater than 90%
  • Nota Bene: Voting has been compulsory since 1924. Non-voting results in a fine, and elections are typically held on Saturdays.  Voters are not required to present identification.

Brazil

  • Population: 209.3 million
  • Voter participation: 79.54% (2016)
  • Nota Bene: Compulsory voting for all “literate” citizens between the ages of 18-70 years old, dating back to 1932.  Consequences of non-voting include exclusion from government funds, and potentially being prohibited from obtaining a passport.  Identification is required and voting is entirely electronic.

France

  • Population: 67.12 million
  • Voter participation: 67.9% (2017)
  • Nota Bene: France is one of the most centralized countries, administratively, in the world. Voters use paper ballots and are required to show identification.  Presidential elections are every five years, and it is typically a two-round process, assuming that no candidate receives more than 50% in the first round.

Germany

  • Population: 82.79 million
  • Voter participation: 76.2% (2017)
  • Nota Bene: Germany has a two vote system, in which votes are cast for both candidates and for party (for representative purposes in the Bundestag (i.e., federal parliament). Elections are managed by the Ministry of Interior which sets forth regulations, which includes presenting identification.  There are election management bodies, primarily the Federal Returning Officer, who is appointed by the Ministry of Interior.

Italy

  • Population: 60.59 million
  • Voter participation: ~73% (2018)
  • Nota Bene: Italy has a “parallel” voting system, in which 37% of seats are allocated by “first past the post,” and the remaining 63% are allocated proportionately. On a paper ballot, the voter can cast his ballot in three different ways: basically, different combinations of candidates and parties.  Voter identification at the polling station is required.  Representatives of the two leading parties then decide how to form the coalition.  Finally, the Italian President first validates the proposed coalition, and secondly the list of ministers, to form the government.  The President is an unelected official who, with respect to the formation of a government, is somewhat comparable to the power of the Queen of England.

Israel

  • Population: 8.71 million
  • Voter participation: 72.36% (2015)
  • Nota Bene: Voters in Israel vote for a party, not the candidate. The Knesset, Israel’s parliament, is proportionally representative of the votes cast.  Voters present their national identification card, complete a ballot, place it in an envelope, and slip it into a blue ballot box.

Japan

  • Population: 120.8 million
  • Voter participation: 53.83% (2017)
  • Nota Bene: Japan’s voter participation rate is on-par with the United States’. Voters must present voter cards.  Ballots are completed by writing in the candidate’s name.  Elections for the House of Representatives involve two votes: one for the district candidate, and one for the party.  Electronic voting first occurred in 2002, and early voting was introduced in 2003.

United Kingdom

  • Population: 66.02 million
  • Voter participation: 68.8% (2017) ; 72.21% (“Brexit” referendum, 2016)
  • Nota Bene: Registered voters can vote either in person, by post, or by proxy. Except in Northern Ireland, it is not required to show identification.  Voters complete a paper ballot and drop it into a ballot box.  Follow the close of polls (10 pm), the ballot box is immediately taken to a central counting location.

Conclusions

With the notable exceptions of Australia and the United Kingdom (two English-speaking countries), each one of the above countries requires a form of identification to be presented by the voter.  With the exception Japan, voter turnout is significantly higher in these countries than in the United States (25-35%).  Countries with compulsory voting – Australia and Brazil – unsurprisingly have the highest voter participation – 90% and 79% respectively.

Furthermore, the authors searched for recent examples of voter fraud in these countries, and were unable to find any eminent instances.  Unlike the United States, which has had multiple prominent election problems that have made international news, a comparable example among the countries analyzed cannot be readily identified.  Indeed, a U.S. level of election shenanigans seems to be reserved for what we typically call a “banana republic.”

A Divided Country, Embarrassed on the World Stage

Ever since the Greeks invented democracy in ancient times, societies have been voting.  From a technological standpoint, it is a very basic procedure.  Even Iraq, practically ravished by wars since the 1980s, votes using a straightforward and understandable process: ink on the index finger identifies each one who has cast a vote.

Not only do contested and contentious elections further exacerbate an already divided country, but they are a black mark on the reputation of the United States on the international scene.  Allegedly the leading country in the world today, it is almost impossible, for our allies and foes alike, to comprehend how we cannot even master a task so simple as a routine election.

Perhaps instead of sending two opposing battalions of lawyers to litigate the vote counting, it is time for meaningful reform that addresses both voter participation and the integrity of each and every vote.

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in the USA Transnational Report. It is republished with permission. The featured photo is by Casey Robertson on Unsplash.

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