Why is the quality of US elections ranked 26th out of 73 contests worldwide?
New evidence from the Perceptions of Electoral Integrity (PEI) index highlights the quality of elections. The expert survey provides a standardized way to compare 73 elections held around the globe from 1 July 2012 to 31 December 2013. One of the most striking observations is another example of American exceptionalism - unlike most Western democracies, the United States ranked exceptionally poorly - 26th worldwide, similar to countries such as Mexico and Mongolia. By contrast, countries such as Norway, Germany, the Netherlands, and Austria were all ranked in the top ten.
What explains this rating? The results suggest that the United States suffers from several fundamental flaws of electoral governance and voting administration, and a complex series of partial policy reforms which have sought to address concern. Problems in electoral administration were exemplified most dramatically by Bush v. Gore in Florida in 2000; since then several new initiatives, notably the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA), have sought to ensure that every eligible citizen can register and that every vote will be counted accurately.[i] Yet many deep-rooted structural problems have not been tackled, indeed some have probably worsened since Florida as issues of electoral rights and voter fraud have become increasingly partisan, litigious, and contentious during the last decade.[ii]
Estimates about the quality of the 2012 US election are illustrated in Figure 1, showing the evaluations provided by experts in the Perceptions of Electoral Integrity survey. For comparison, the figure also includes estimates for the Netherlands, selected as another long-established democracy but one with a far more positive rating. As the radar-gram shows, across nearly all dimensions, the United States consistently scores less well than the Netherlands, with the exception of media coverage and party and candidate registration. The evaluations of the Unites States is particularly critical in terms of electoral laws, redistricting, and voter registration procedures, all reflecting contemporary controversies and partisan divides in American politics. Campaign finance regulations were another weak area, although here the gap between the countries was less marked.
Source: Electoral Integrity Project. 2013. the expert survey or perceptions of electoral integrity, PEI2. www.electoralintegrityproject.com
What has contributed towards this performance? Most democracies have established an independent national election management body, accountable to the legislature, with primary responsibility for registering citizens and managing the electoral process.[iii] In America, however, electoral administration remains highly decentralized, fragmented, partisan, and often under-resourced. The Federal Election Commission’s role is limited to making campaign finance contributions and spending more transparent, and in this regard they do a fine job, although transparency per se does not necessarily lead to greater accountability. The Electoral Assistance Commission was created under the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002 as a new federal agency tasked with overseeing and monitoring certain minimum standards of electoral administration, but primary responsibility for conducting elections is specified in the US constitution as a state-level responsibility.[iv] The 2000 Florida contest in Gore v. Bush spurred changes in voting technologies and voter registration laws, but the effectiveness of these developments has been patchy. Little attention has been paid to the ground troops manning the local polling places, although the quality of American elections rests ultimately in the hands of partisan local officials, “frequently ill-equipped, poorly trained, part-time administrators”, and paid day-volunteer poll workers.[v]
U.S. citizens are required to mail their registration form to counties, cities and townships, in most places usually well ahead of polling day. One in four eligible electors — at least 51 million Americans—fail to do so. Complex rules and deadlines for registering vary across states, as do facilities for early and absentee voting.[vi] Despite the e-governance revolution, citizens resident in the United States continue to submit hand-written registration forms, vulnerable to problems of legibility, missing information and processing errors.[vii] Party activists and voluntary organizations handle, collect and submit bundles of forms, as do officials of the Registry of Motor Vehicles. The official forms also collect information on party affiliations, released as part of the public record, a potential violation of basic rights to confidentiality. The Pew Center estimates that about 24 million names on the electoral register are invalid or inaccurate.[viii] This includes about 1.8 million dead and some 2.8 million who have duplicate registrations in more than one state. The Pew report suggests that about 12 million registrations have errors serious enough to make it unlikely that citizens can be contacted by mail. In addition, some 3.3 million Americans with felony convictions remain disenfranchised, in some states for life, due to prohibitive legal regulations or burdensome procedures for reinstating voting rights.[ix] Another 4.1 million citizens resident in US territories such as the US Virgin Islands, Guam and Puerto Rico are ineligible to vote in presidential elections.
Far from making citizen participation easier, during the last decade many American states have passed laws requiring voters to show photo identification at polls, cutting back early voting periods, or imposing new restrictions on voter registration drives. In mid-2012, legislation of voter ID requirements is pending in around two thirds of all US states, including new voter ID proposals in fourteen states, proposals to strengthen existing voter ID laws in ten states, and bills in nine states to amend the new voter ID laws passed in 2011.[x] It is estimated that the effect of implementing these requirements in several key states depressed turnout in the Obama v. Romney contests by around one to two percent.[xi] Republican legislators claim that the new rules preserve the integrity of the ballot box. Democrats argue that the changes discourage turnout, especially among minorities and young people. Overall the immense hoopla about potential fraud in U.S. elections seems largely manufactured rhetoric; a study analyzing criminal cases and prosecution statistics from 2000-2005 concluded that, according to this evidence, actual cases of election fraud explicitly intended to affect the outcome of a federal election are almost nonexistent.[xii] Another detailed account arrived at similar findings: although millions of Americans cast ballots, almost no one knowingly and willfully casts an illegal vote today, so that voter fraud is a ‘politically constructed myth’.[xiii] Where restrictive voter identification requirements generate a systematic suppression of disproportionately Democratic voters, including the poor, African American and Hispanics, then this also goes beyond maladministration to raise fundamental questions about the violation of human rights.
The problems of maladministration at the ballot box are substantial; however they pale into insignificance compared with challenges caused by the pervasive role of money in American politics. Spending is unlimited during the long campaign; in the 2008 Obama v. McCain campaign, for example, over $1.7 billion dollars was raised by all the presidential candidates, a ten-fold increase since Carter v. Ford in 1976.[xiv] The 2012 electoral cycle is estimated to have cost more than $6 billion in total, the most expensive elections yet.[xv] The total costs during presidential electoral cycles has risen steadily from 2000 to 2012 by around one billion per cycle, far more than the cumulative rate of inflation. [xvi] Financial donations to candidates and parties are monitored and regulated by the Federal Election Commission. Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United vs. FEC in January 2010, however, individuals, corporations and unions can make unlimited donations to independent super PACs supporting particular candidates. Citizens United has reinforced concerns about fairness and equity although in the United States, unrestricted campaign spending is equated with the right to free speech and others defend unlimited contributions. [xvii] Spending by outside groups aligned in support of a specific presidential candidate is estimated to have more than doubled during the 2012 primary and pre-convention period, compared with the equivalent months during the previous presidential contest.[xviii] Inequalities in financial resources can reinforce, in turn, imbalanced media coverage, both through the capacity to purchase paid TV spots and also through reporters’ assessments of candidate credibility during the early stages of primary races.[xix] There are also many residual issues which recur concerning the accuracy and security of the final vote counting process, due to voting machines. State laws governing candidate ballot access are also usually highly restrictive for third party challengers, while the manufactured majority in the Electoral College used in presidential contests penalizes third parties which fail to gain a popular plurality of the vote in every state.[xx]
Partisan gerrymandering by state legislatures is the norm for redistricting, reducing the number of competitive districts, in contrast to many other democracies which use more impartial judicial or independent electoral or boundary commissions.[xxi] The consequences of partisan gerrymandering have caused concern because of the potential consequences of this policy in exacerbating polarized partisan politics. In particular, during the October 2013 budget stalemate in Congress, a relatively small number of members of the House of Representatives proved intransigent by shutting down the federal government and budget negotiations for three weeks in an abortive attempt to de-fund the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).[xxii] Although ultimately defeated, the effort proved highly damaging for confidence in the American economy and for the U.S.’s international credit rating. One factor contributing towards the rise of Tea Party members has been partisan gerrymandering, allowing Republican-dominated states to draw ultra-safe boundaries which safeguard conservative members and which thereby weaken the electoral incentives for representatives to make broader appeals likely to win support across a broader and more diverse range of constituents.[xxiii] Gerrymandered house districts are not necessarily a fundamental cause for the rise of the Tea Party, which reflects the success of the radical right parties and discontent with more centrist parties found in many other established democracies, but partisan redistricting can be a facilitating condition, by limiting the traditionally moderating effects of majoritarian electoral systems.
In short, American elections continue to face major challenges when administering accurate and fair voter registration and vote counting processes, as well as facing broader structural problems concerning the regulation of campaign funding, ballot access, and redistricting. The Presidential Commission on Electoral Administration, appointed by President Obama in May 2013, was established to examine bipartisan ways to shorten lines at polling places, promote the efficient conduct of elections, and provide better access to the polls for all voters. [xxiv] But the Commission is not designed to address the more deep-rooted and enduring challenges to American electoral integrity.
[i] R. Michael Alvarez, Lonna Rae Atkeson and Thad Hall. 2012. Evaluating Elections: A Handbook of Methods and Standards. New York: Cambridge University Press.
[ii] Richard L. Hasen, 2012. The Voting Wars: From Florida 2000 to the Next Election Meltdown. New Haven: Yale University Press.
[iii] Louis Massicotte, Andre Blais and Antoine Yoshinaka. 2004. Establishing the Rules of the Game. Toronto: University of Toronto Press; Alan Wall, et al. 2006. Electoral Management Design: The International IDEA Handbook. Sweden: International IDEA.
[v] R. Michael Alvarez and Thad E. Hall. 2006. ‘Controlling democracy: the principal–agent problems in election administration.’ The Policy Studies Journal 34(4): 491-510; Thad E. Hall, J. Quin Monson and Kelly D. Patterson. 2009. ‘The human dimension of elections: How poll workers shape public confidence in elections.’ Political Research Quarterly 62(3):507-522.
[vi] See Chapter 2 in Brian L. Fife. 2010. Reforming the Electoral Process in America. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.
[viii] Pew Center on the States. 2012. Inaccurate, Costly, and Inefficient. http://www.pewstates.org/research/reports/inaccurate-costly-and-inefficient-85899378437
[ix] Michael P. McDonald. ‘2010 general election turnout rates’ available at http://elections.gmu.edu/Turnout_2010G.html. See Table 2.6 in Brian L. Fife. 2010. Reforming the Electoral Process in America. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger. For a discussion, see Michael P. McDonald and Samuel Popkin. 2001. ‘The Myth of the Vanishing Voter.’ American Political Science Review 95(4): 963-974. Higher estimates (5.3 million) are provided by the Sentencing Project http://www.sentencingproject.org/template/page.cfm?id=133
[xi] Nate Silver. July 15 2012. ‘Measuring the effects of Voter Identification Laws.’ New York Times.
[xii] Delia Bailey. ‘Federal election fraud cases.’ In R. Michael Alvarez, Thad E. Hall and Susan Hyde. Eds. 2008. Election fraud: detecting and deterring electoral manipulation. Washington, DC: Brookings Institute. For an alternative view see, however, John H. Fund. 2004. Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy. San Francisco, CA: Encounter Books.
[xiii] Lorraine Carol Minnite. 2010. The Myth of Voter Fraud. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
[xiv] See Table 5.1 in Brian L. Fife. 2010. Reforming the Electoral Process in America. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.
[xvi] If the estimated total costs of the 2000 electoral cycle are calculated in constant prices, taking account of the cumulative rate of inflation (33.3%) from 2000-2012, the equivalent total cost of the 2012 electoral cycle would have been $4,109bn, not $6,285bn. http://www.usinflationcalculator.com/
[xvii] Robert G. Boatright. 2012. ‘The end of the reform era? Campaign finance retrenchment in the United States and Canada.’ The Forum 10(2): 1-30; Glenn Hubbard and Tim Kane. 2013. ‘In defense of Citizens United: Why campaign finance reform threatens American democracy.’ Foreign Affairs 92(4): 126-133.
[xix] For a discussion about the broader consequences for American politics, see Lawrence Lessig. 2011. Republic, Lost. New York: Twelve.
[xx] Steven J. Rosenstone, Roy L. Behr and Edward Lazarus. 1996. Third Parties in America: Citizen Response to Major Party Failure. 2nd ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press; Donald J. Green. 2010. Third Party Matters: Politics, Presidents and Third Parties in American History. New York: Praeger.
[xxi] David Butler and Bruce E. Cain. 1992. Congressional Redistricting: Comparative and Theoretical Perspectives. New York: Macmillan; Michael P. McDonald. 2008. ‘United States redistricting.’ In Redistricting in Comparative Perspective Eds. Lisa Handley and Bernard Grofman. New York: Oxford University Press.
[xxii] The New York Times estimated that around 42 members of the House of Representatives were affiliated with the Tea Party Caucus, although another 38 members supported tying the budget to attempts to defund the Affordable Care Act. http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/10/20/us/politics/the-factions-in-the-house.html?hp
[xxiii] Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson. 2013. The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism. New York: Oxford University Press.