US Elections Ranked Worst in World
August 25, 2017
Pippa Norris / FairVote
As one of the oldest democracies, Americans often like to think that the US provides an influential role model for how elections should be run in other countries. At the same time, a long series of vulnerabilities in the conduct of US elections was documented by the 2014 report of the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration. In addition, there is systematic evidence that US elections are so flawed that the US now rates poorly compared with other long-standing democracies worldwide.
US Elections Ranked Worst in World
American elections ranked worst
among older democracies. Here's why
Pippa Norris of Harvard University and The University Of Sydney / FairVote
(March 25, 2016) -- The world is currently transfixed by the spectacle of American elections. From New York, London and Paris to Beijing, Moscow, and Sydney there is endless heated debate in the news media and across dinner tables about the factors fuelling the remarkable success of Donald Trump, speculation about a brokered convention shattering the old GOP, and the most likely outcome of a polarizing Trump-Clinton battle in the fall.
This contest matters, not just because this is the election for the most powerful leader in the Western world, and some like the Economist Intelligence Unit regard Donald Trump as a major risk to global prosperity and stability, but also because, as one of the oldest democracies, Americans often like to think that the United States provides an influential role model for how elections should run in other countries.
At the same time, in practice, recent years have seen a long series of vulnerabilities in the conduct of American elections, as documented by the 2014 report of the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration.
These issues have been under close scrutiny ever since the notoriously flawed ballot design in Florida in 2000. Since then, the Commission reported wait times in excess of six hours to cast a ballot in Ohio, inaccurate state and local voter registers, insufficiently trained local poll workers, and the breakdown of voting machines in New York have continued to put the quality of American elections in the headlines.
Standards remain uneven across the country; the Pew Center's 2012 Election Performance Index suggests that states such as North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin performed relatively well against a range of quality indicators combing voting convenience and electoral integrity, but others, including California, Oklahoma, and Mississippi demonstrated noticeable short-falls.
It was no different during the 2014 midterm elections. The news media reported a range of problems on polling day, some trivial, others more serious, though it is unclear whether these arose from accidental maladministration or intentional dirty tricks. At least 18 state election websites were reported to have experienced disruptions on election day, preventing voters from using the sites to locate polling places and ballot information.
In Hartford Connecticut, voters were turned away from polling places which did not open on time due to late arriving polling lists. The Chicago Board of Election Commissioners reported that more than 2000 election judges did not turn up at their polling stations after receiving erroneous information from 'robocalls'. In Virginia, a State Department of Elections spokesman said that 32 electronic voting machines at 25 polling places experienced problems.
In both Virginia and North Carolina, the Washington Post reported cases of electronic polling machines which recorded a vote for the Democratic candidate when the screen was touched to cast a vote for the Republican. The state-wide voter registration system crashed in Texas forcing many to complete provisional ballots when poll workers were unable to confirm voter eligibility.
Meanwhile new state laws requiring electors to present photo identification were reported to cause confusion in several states, including Texas, Georgia, and North Carolina.
These problems are not fading away. The 2016 caucuses and primaries were also reported to have experienced several problems, for example confusion about new photo ID requirements and long lines in North Carolina. Court decisions over voter identification laws currently remain pending in states such as Texas and Virginia.
As well as repeated procedural flaws, there has been speculation that public disgust with the role of money in politics, and the role of major donors in buying access to Congress, is one of the major factors driving the primary campaigns.
Much of Trump's visibility comes from exploiting his mammoth advantage in attracting free social media, spending less on TV airwaves than any other major candidate, and, as he commonly claims, his organization it is more self-funded than most presidential campaigns, without support by a super-PAC.
This may be appealing to those voters who are suspicious of the role of money in American elections and the probity of politicians who are seen to be in the pockets of rich donors and corporate interests.
Similarly, Bernie Sanders has campaigned on his ability to raise funds from multiple small donors, while he claims that Hillary Clinton has been more beholden to establishment donors and fat fees from corporate speaking engagements.
Suspicion of the role of money in politics does seem widespread; in the 2012 National Election Survey, for example, when the public was asked whether 'Rich people buy elections', two-thirds of Americans agreed with this statement.
Comparing the Performance of
US Elections with Other Democracies
Nevertheless, despite all these reports, media headlines could exaggerate the true extent of any problems in America, by highlighting negative cases which are actually fairly isolated.
Is there more systematic evidence suggesting that American elections are indeed flawed? Does the US rate poorly compared with other long-standing democracies -- and indeed worldwide? And, if so, why do problems arise in US elections?
New evidence to give insights into this issue has been gathered by the Electoral Integrity Project. The 2015 annual Year in Election report compares the risks of flawed and failed elections, and how far countries around the world meet international standards.
The report gather assessments from over 2000 experts to evaluate the perceived integrity of all 180 national parliamentary and presidential contests held between 1 July 2012 to 31 December 2015 in 139 countries worldwide, including 54 national elections held last year.
Forty experts are asked to assess each election, using 49 questions, with an average response rate of 30%. The overall 100-point Perceptions of Electoral Integrity index is constructed by summing the responses.
Figure 1: Electoral integrity in Western democracies
Note: Countries rated on the expert Perceptions of Electoral Integrity (PEI-4.0) 100-point Index. Source: www.electoralintegrityproject.com
To summarize the evidence, Figure 1 illustrates the contrasts in the overall 100-point PEI index for all elections held since 2012 in the Western democracies covered in the survey. In the US this covers both the 2012 presidential elections and the 2014 Congressional contests.
The results confirm that according to domestic and international experts, US elections are rated as the worst among all Western democracies. Thus at the top of the expert ranking, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden all score over 80 on the 100 point PEI Index.
Several democracies from diverse regions and cultures are ranked in the middle of the pack. But the US scores 62, a full 24 points lower than Denmark and Finland. The UK also performs fairly poorly, along with Greece and Malta.
Comparisons can also be drawn with all 180 parliamentary and presidential elections included in the latest report, covering 139 countries worldwide. The 2012 US presidential election ranks 60th out of 180 elections worldwide, close to Bulgaria, Mexico and Argentina. This is no accident; the 2014 US Congressional elections rank slightly worse, 65th out of 180 worldwide.
By contrast, elections in many newer democracies are seen by experts to perform far better in the global comparison, such as in Lithuania (ranked 4th), Costa Rica (6th), and Slovenia (8th).
What Stages of US Elections are Weakest?
But what are the underlying weaknesses [that] produce these figures? To explore this issue, EIP also conducted a second survey with almost 200 experts to compare the performance of the 2014 Congressional elections across 21 US states.
The results in Figure 2 show that the worst performing stages across most states were those involving whether district boundaries discriminated against some parties, favored incumbents, and failed to be impartial (with a mean score of 42), whether electoral laws were unfair to smaller parties, favored the governing party, or restricted voter's rights (51), campaign finance (such as whether parties/candidates had equitable access to public subsidies and political donations), and voter registration (including whether some citizens were not listed on the register, whether the register was accurate, and whether some ineligible electors were registered).
Yet, by contrast, voting processes were rated more favorably, (including whether any fraudulent votes were cast, whether the voting process was easy, whether voters were offered a genuine choice at the ballot box), along with the vote count (85) and post-election results (85). Although much debate in the US focuses upon potential risks of fraud or voter suppression at the ballot box, in fact experts rate earlier stages of American elections more critically.
Why Are American Elections So Bad?
Why are American elections particularly vulnerable to these sorts of problems? It is a complex story. In my book, Why Elections Fail (Cambridge 2015), a large part of the blame can be laid at the door of the degree of decentralization and partisanship in American electoral administration, where key decisions about the rules of the game are left to local and state officials with a major stake in the outcome.
For example, processes of drawing district boundaries are usually in the hands of state politicians, rather than more impartial judicial bodies. Moreover, the role of money in American campaigns has become progressively deregulated in recent decades, such as through Citizens United, while costs have spiraled. (1)
Finally, the extreme level of party polarization, which afflicts contemporary American politics means that several aspects of voting procedures, such as the use of voter identification requirements, where there should be a widespread consensus, have unfortunately become bitterly divided.
For all these reasons, when we add the fuel of an inflammatory campaign by Donald Trump, the prospects for widespread agreement about the outcome of the 2016 election become more remote.
Table 2: The partisan and decentralized nature of gerrymandering district boundaries in the United States (Scroll to see entire chart)
Source: Electoral Integrity Project sub-national expert survey of Perceptions of Electoral Integrity (PEI-US 2014) in 21 US States, ranked by the overall 100-point PEI index.
(1) See Pippa Norris and Andrea Abel van Es. Eds. May 2016. Checkbook Elections. New York: Oxford University Press.
Pippa Norris is the McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics at Harvard University, ARC Laureate and Professor of Government at the University of Sydney, and Director of the Electoral Integrity Project.
Turnout in the 2016 Presidential Election
(November 20, 2016) -- Contrary to early projections of sharply lower turnout in this year's presidential election, the final numbers will show the most ballots cast in American history and a modest decline in voter turnout of eligible voters. That said, just over 58% of the voting eligible population (VEP) will have voted, far lower than many other democracies around the world.
As of November 11th, Michael McDonald of the United States Elections Project had estimated voter turnout (total ballots counted divided by the VEP to be at roughly 56.9 percent - a number is almost two percentage points lower than the 58.6 percent turnout estimated in 2012 and more than five points lower than the 62.2 percent record high turnout of 2008. However, as more mail ballots trickle in, turnout estimates are rising.
The Project now estimates 2016’s presidential turnout to be around 58.4 percent, which puts 2016 results on par with the 2012 presidential turnout. As ballot counting continues into December, turnout estimates may change.
By October 31st, over 22 million people had cast early votes for the 2016 presidential election. In some states, like Texas and California, the number of early votes was up substantially from 2012. That fact, combined with high viewership of debates, led to expectations that turnout might rise in share of VEP.
Then, early numbers from the November 8th election suggested turnout was actually sharply lower, with some outlets reporting that voter turnout was nearly the lowest it had been in a presidential election in 20 years. The truth turns out to be in the middle.
Unlike local and state elections where citizens directly elect officials, voters in the United States indirectly elect the President and Vice President by casting ballots for members of the Electoral College. Members of the Electoral College (as determined by Article Two of the Constitution) directly elect the President and Vice President on Election Day. While these members, called electors, are free to vote for the candidate of their choosing, typically they are designated to vote for one particular candidate.
The presidential nomination process is a combination of presidential primaries and caucuses in each state and political party nomination conventions.
FairVote's analysis of presidential elections has found that a majority of states have become more and more predictable, to the point that only ten states were considered competitive in the 2012 election.
The Electoral College
The Electoral College was established in Article II, Section I, of the United States Constitution, and was later modified by the Twelfth and Twenty-third amendments, which clarified the process.
When US citizens vote for president and vice President every election cycle, ballots show the names of the presidential and vice presidential candidates, although they are actually electing a slate of "electors" that represent them in each state. The electors from every state combine to form the Electoral College.
Each state is allocated a number of electors equal to the number of its US Senators (always two) plus the number of its US House representatives (which may change each decade according to the size of each state's population as determined in the census).
Presidential Election 2016: "Halftime" Report
(June 10, 2016) -- The political marathon to determine the major parties' presidential nominees this November is effectively over.
Donald Trump cleared the Republican field on May 3rd after winning the Indiana primary, while Hillary Clinton is now the presumptive Democratic nominee after securing large leads in pledged delegates and super delegates.
The Libertarian Party has nominated former governor Gary Johnson and fellow former governor William Weld as his running mate, the Constitution Party has nominated Darrell Castle and Scott Bradley, and Jill Stein is poised to be the Green Party nominee. Despite much speculation, no major independent bid for president looks likely.
The political world will be turning to obsessive talk about Ohio, Florida and a handful of other swing states that will decide any close presidential election. We'll hear about relatively few Senate races in play and how nine in ten House races are already decided. General elections aren't what they should be in the United States until we enact the National Popular Vote plan for president, ranked choice voting ("instant runoff voting") and fair representation in multi-winner congressional districts.
But before we leave the primary season behind for the sad realities of winner-take-all politics in America, I wanted to share a few highlights from our analysis this year of the primary season.
Helping Better Understand Voter Preferences
National ranked choice voting survey of the GOP presidential candidates
In January, FairVote partnered with the College of William and Mary to conduct a national YouGov poll of the views of 1,000 Republicans and independents about the nation, the Republican presidential field and electoral reform. See our comprehensive report and an interactive presentation of the ranked choice results.
More than nine in ten of those polled ranked all 11 candidates in the race, underscoring voter readiness to indicate support for more than one candidate. As reported in the latest New York Review of Books, the data showed that Donald Trump's lead effectively vanished against Ted Cruz in the ranked choice voting tally -- but also foreshadowed his ability to win the nomination. Looking to the future, majorities of respondents favored changes to the process, including ranked choice voting.
Simulating Head-to-head "Instant Runoffs"
Scholars like Princeton's Sam Wang rightly lament polling methods that fail to ask and report fuller information about voter preferences. FairVote's blog series on better policy holds up very well. Using the rare polls (with a hat tip to Public Policy Polling for its release) that reported a full array of voters' second choice preferences and theoretical head-to-head comparisons, FairVote's simulations showed that a number of Republican primary contests would have changed winners with ranked choice voting -- a finding highlighted in publications like the Washington Post.
Getting out the Facts: Primary Voter Turnout and Popular Vote Tracker
Popular vote totals: FairVote has been reporting vote totals in every primary and caucus during the presidential nomination process. Our spreadsheet tracking popular vote totals -- which has been widely cited, including by Politifact and the Washington Post -- shows how many votes each candidate garnered in each state.
One feature is the number of votes counted for candidates after they had dropped out of the election -- nearly 750,000 such votes were cast in nomination races that were still being contested. If those voters had been able to cast a ranked choice ballot, they could have exercised the option to vote early without sacrificing their power to make a difference. We also show just how few eligible voters it takes to win a party nomination.
Primary Focus and Rurnout
Demarquin Johnson and Molly Rockett -- two 2015-16 democracy fellows who are both heading to Harvard Law School this fall -- co-authored a blog series, "Primary Focus," that highlighted primary and caucus rules, structural flaws in the nomination process, and FairVote solutions to give voters a stronger voice in presidential primaries.
The latest installment of the Primary Focus series provides in-depth analysis of voter turnout and presents highlights of our upcoming report on voter turnout in the 2016 presidential primaries. Bottom line: primary turnout was less than a third of eligible voters, just as it was in 2012 and 2008.
Highlighting Reforms for 2020 -- and Maybe Sooner!
Our communications team, led by Michelle Whittaker, helped draw attention to our reform views and analysis throughout the spring. Here are examples from just the past couple of weeks, most of which featured shout-outs to FairVote or quotes from our staff:
Ryan Teague Beckwith in TIME writes about Maine’s innovative solution to crowded fields of candidates: Ranked choice voting. "But some voters in Maine who have wrestled with a similar problem think they’ve hit on a simpler solution: let voters rank their favorite candidates.
"In November, Maine voters will decide whether they want to become the first state in the US to implement ranked-choice voting. If a ballot initiative is approved, future Maine voters in primaries and general elections will be allowed to rank their choices for governor, Congress and statehouse races instead of voting for just one."
Emily Cadei writes about the barriers facing third-party candidates in Newsweek: “There are changes afoot to break down some of these barriers at the state and local level. Cities like Minneapolis, St. Paul, Minnesota; San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley California, now select some local officials via what’s known as "rank choice voting," where each voter ranks their top three choices for an office, and if no candidate win a majority of first choice votes on the first ballot, then the number of second and possibly third choices are added in, until someone reaches a majority.
That eliminates the concern about "wasting" a vote on an independent candidate, because if they lose in the first round, your votes goes to your second choice pick."
Joel Bleifuss of In These Times backs ranked choice voting and the Fair Representation Act to give voters more choice and fight voter apathy: "RCV allows the voter to vote their conscience without worrying about being so-called spoilers.
"For example, if the US president were elected through RCV, Bernie Sanders could run as an independent, and the white working-class Democrats, young folks and independents who make up his base could vote for him as their number one choice -- and then list another candidate, such as Hillary Clinton, as their second, just in case Sanders didn't win."
FairVote Board member Mike Lind writes in the New York Times that America needs more democracy, and advocates for greater freedom to experiment at the local level as a means to achieve that: "At the level of local government, electoral reforms like ranked choice (instant runoff) voting, which transfers the second-choices of voters who backed losing candidates when there wasn't a clear winner, can give all voters more influence than standard winner-take-all rules. A number of cities, including San Francisco and Oakland in California and Takoma Park, Md., have adopted ranked choice voting in recent years."
My commentary lays out a plan for ending the state-by-state nomination process with a national primary day as published in In These Times: "With RCV [ranked choice voting] ballots, voters would never be punished for voting early . . . After the state contests winnow the field, that party's backers would pick their nominee in a single day of contests among the finalists. While a party might choose to let each state hold its own contests under its own rules, it would do well to embrace a full-fledged national primary, with every voter in every state and territory casting an equal vote."
Ramesh Ponnoru writes in National Review on reforms for future Republican presidential nominations: "There are, however, two changes to the primaries that I think Republicans should consider. One would be for some states to use an instant runoff or a similar mechanism to make sure that the person who wins the most delegates from the state reflects the preference of most primary voters.
"A second would be for states to refrain from allocating all their delegates to a mere plurality winner. Both reforms would be designed to push a little bit more than the current process does toward a consensus nominee."
Conor Lynch writes in Salon that Bernie Sanders can use his platform to advocate for bold electoral reforms that would empower voters: "Some worthy proposals include introducing an instant-voter runoff system for presidential and senatorial elections, and . . . replacing the current winner-takes-all congressional elections with a form of proportional representation would create a congress that better represents the population, while virtually eliminating gerrymandering."
Likely Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein touts ranked choice voting in Rolling Stone: "We are in a damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don't situation right now, which should be fixed by a simple legislative reform -- that could be passed right now, by the way, for anybody who is concerned about wanting to change this rigged political system:
The state legislatures can simply pass ranked-choice voting, which gets rid of the fear factor. It is used in many cities around the country from San Francisco to Portland, Maine, and many in between, and in many countries around the world."
Looking to Maine for the Way Democracy Should Be
We continue to be thrilled to see the energy and excitement building around the Maine ballot measure to adopt ranked choice voting for all primary and general elections for governor, U.S Senate, US House and state legislature. Check out the campaign leading the effort and read the steady stream of thoughtful commentaries in Maine publications like these ones here.
As we welcome a terrific team of 15 energetic interns to join our staff team this summer, it’s easy to feel optimistic about chances to win reform. To help out, make donations, share your ideas and read the latest blogs and updates, please visit our website today.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.