By Thomas Murphy, guest blogger
If the United States were a Third World country would it pass basic tests for democratic best practices?
When international observers watch on the sidelines of elections in Africa, Asia, or Latin America they look for two things: commitment to democracy and the transparency of the electoral process.
The United States would be in trouble on both counts.
Turnout in the 2016 U.S. presidential election was only 55.7% of eligible voters. By contrast, in the final round of France’s 2017 presidential race, 74.6% of those eligible came out to the polls; in Brazil’s 2018 presidential contest, 78.7% showed up.
Low turnout raises a number of issues. If only 55.7% vote for president, how many turn out in off-year and local elections? The answer: not many. A multitude of America’s “elected” officials are, in fact, being chosen by a small minority of voters.
Americans should be asking themselves why. Is there intimidation? Excessive bureaucracy? Voter cynicism? Why the lukewarm commitment to the democratic process?
The Latinate word “transparency” suggests two elements: clarity and credibility.
According to the criterion of clarity, voters should know exactly what their ballots stand for. But clarity is lacking in any U.S. presidential election. Most voters think they are choosing between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, for example, but they’re not.
Actually, they’re voting for a group of electors who promise to vote for Trump or Biden at a series of secretive conclaves held at state capitals about six weeks later. Twice in the past 20 years this process has led to election of the candidate who received fewer popular votes than his rival.
Nor is the Electoral College itself very transparent. While many voters have some general ideas about it, almost no one understands fully the many nuances of its functioning. Even scholars disagree on key points, such as the powers of state legislatures over electors, the role of Congress in choosing between competing slates, or the degree of independence electors have in departing from the expressed will of the voters. Indeed, in 2016, seven of the 538 electors cast ballots for candidates other than Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.
When it comes to credibility, there are abiding concerns, ones made increasingly urgent by systematic efforts in recent years at voter suppression. In most U.S. localities, the process, including voter registration, rules and restrictions on voting, ballot box accessibility and the vote count itself, is managed by elected officials, in other words, the politicians themselves.
The most glaring example of this conflict of interest was the disputed Florida vote in the 2000 presidential election in which the highest elections official, state Secretary of State Katherine Harris, also served as co-chair of the George Bush presidential campaign. This would be roundly, and rightly, condemned in any Third World election.
A similar abuse involves politicians drawing the lines of their own election districts. Known as gerrymandering, this is an ancient art designed to produce legislative majorities from a minority of votes. The most egregious recent example is Wisconsin, where the Republican Party gerrymandered itself into a near permanent State Assembly majority. In 2018, for example, Republicans won 64 of the Wisconsin State Assembly’s 99 seats while garnering only 45% of the popular vote.
What to do?
- Scrap the Electoral College. It serves no useful purpose. It distorts the popular will and can endanger democracy itself by producing a deadlocked election (this has happened three times in American history, 1800, 1824 and 1876; it almost happened in 1968).
- Put elections in the hands of civil servants. No one with a partisan affiliation should get close to any ballots. In Brazil, for example, a specialized branch of the judiciary is responsible for managing elections. Their job is to facilitate voting, resolve disputes objectively and produce a timely, accurate vote count.
- End gerrymandering. The House of Commons in the United Kingdom is comprised of 650 members elected from single-member districts. The districts are drawn by four independent Boundary Commissions. In the United States, only six of the 50 states have established such commissions for drawing up congressional districts.
- Separate federal from local elections. Voters in most countries are not faced with a myriad of local offices and complicated referenda when they vote in national elections. France, for example, even separates presidential from parliamentary elections. A separate federal election would make it possible to adopt a uniform national ballot, easy to cast and easy to count.
- Facilitate voter registration. Excessive bureaucracy is one of the reasons for low turnout in the United States and is one of the chief instruments of voter suppression. In many countries, citizens are invited to register to vote any time they come in contact with a government service. Buy stamps and register to vote. Renew a driver’s license and register as a voter. In some countries, citizens are even obliged to register and vote under penalty of a fine.
- Vote on Sunday. The Tuesday election day is a bitter reality for those Americans who hold minimum-wage jobs, rely on public transportation, and lack child-care facilities. To cast ballots when schools, factories and offices are open shows a fundamental disrespect for the public and is one of the reasons for low turnout. Most countries hold elections on Sundays. Some countries reserve two or more days for voting out of consideration for religious observances.
- Such recommendations are not revolutionary. On the contrary, they represent best practices in most democratic countries today. Their aim is simple — to make the United States as democratic as other Western, and increasingly many Third World, nations.
Thomas Murphy is a long-time journalist and foreign correspondent. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Government and a master’s degree in Comparative Government from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Now semi-retired, he worked for Knight-Ridder, Associated Press, Dow Jones, and other news-gathering organizations. He lives in São Paulo, Brazil. He is author of the novel Deadlock: What happens if no one is elected president? available on Amazon.com.