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-fundedthan 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 U.S. 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.
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 which 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. [i] 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: Perceptions of electoral integrity in the selected U.S. states, 2014
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.