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What America’s embarrassing election system can learn from voting around the globe

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
Voters wait outside at sunrise in Billings, Montana, to cast their ballots. Is there a better way?
  • Tim Fernholz
By Tim Fernholz

Senior reporter

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

If you’ve followed social media in the US today or seen the images, you know that voting here is a laborious process, with some citizens waiting five or seven hours to cast their votes. The clunky American election system has had some serious consequences, most recently in 2000’s controversial recount that led to George W. Bush being elected president without winning the popular vote.

Many other countries are more advanced in independent election administration and new technology that helps protect wide participation and accuracy. America comes in 138 out of 169 in terms of global voter participation [pdf], dead last among G8 nations. Heck, US astronauts can vote from the International Space Station. If some Americans can vote electronically from orbit, why not in their home precincts?

The first challenges are legal.

The problems with the US election system start at the bottom: Each state organizes its own voting, and often elected politicians are in charge of setting up procedures; there’s no single national standard, as in France, or a non-partisan independent agency in charge of elections, as there is in countries like Canada, France and Mexico. Laws on what kind of identification you need for voting, for example, vary from strict (only certain kinds of photo ID) to lax (none needed at all).

The obvious temptation is to create an electoral system that favors the party of your choice. That results in both allegations of vote suppression, like a new lawsuit by Florida Democrats filed against Governor Rick Scott in an effort to extend early voting, and admissions of it, as when a Pennsylvania state legislator announced that a law requiring voters to present photo ID would “allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.” The myth of widespread voter fraud has led to even more paranoia around the election process.

In Ohio, arguably the most pivotal state in the 2012 election, there is already controversy because Secretary of State Jon Husted is embroiled in legal controversies over his management of elections there. Setting basic standards for things like provisional ballots, voter identification and registration could go a long way toward clarifying American democracy.

Then there’s technology.

Hypothetically, new technology should make voting more convenient and more accurate. But though some US jurisdictions have adopted computerized voting, many are reluctant. Other countries are far ahead of the United States when it comes to electronic votingBrazil, for instance, has relied entirely on electronic voting machines since 1996. Thanks to a investments in e-governance infrastructure and a national ID card (an fairly common idea globally that’s probably verboten in the US) Estonia has electronic voting, too. A chip in the ID allows citizens to electronically sign not just their votes, but also financial transactions and bus tickets. In the 2011 parliamentary elections, nearly 25% of Estonians actually voted over the internet.

Still, electronic voting doesn’t solve every problem: Estonians and Brazilians alike have complained about fraud and the “black box” nature of the electronic vote. And have we mentioned hackers? Without print-outs (which have been a source of controversy in Brazil and the United States) and given the malleability of software, preventing tampering with the results or the source code could be nigh on impossible.  One Australian territory solved the problem by making the software open source and simply reloading the program for each new voter, with keystrokes logged so that election administrations can double-check for instances in voter fraud, but the organizers don’t expect the somewhat costly system to spread across the country.

The challenges of creating reliable, trustworthy e-voting system have even technologists concluding that “old-fashioned paper ballots are a more affordable, reliable, and secure way to conduct elections.” Technology that works turns out to be less about voting electronically than reading paper ballots more effectively; this MIT study (pdf) notes that since 2000, 60% of American counties have replaced punch-card machines (remember Florida’s “hanging chads”?) with optical readers for reading ordinary ballot papers.

And then there’s getting to the polls.

If dragging America’s electoral infrastructure into the 21st century might be a bridge too far, perhaps bringing it out of the 19th would be a good start. American elections are held on Tuesdays because that was when horse-and-buggy driving farmers could get to the county seat and back before market day. That’s not really an issue anymore.

Many countries hold elections on weekends or designate election day as a national holiday and have higher turnout, including France, Germany, Thailand, Russia, and Japan. Some countries, including much of South America, Australia, and India, even have compulsory voting, which certainly gets people to the polls, but political theorists disagree about whether forced participation is ideal for free democracies.

Another low-tech idea is no-excuse vote-by-mail, which allows citizens to mail in ballots for a period of several weeks before the election. The United Kingdom and Switzerland both allow postal voting, as do 24 American states. But where some studies see increases in turn-out, others note that mail-in ballots tend to have more errors, setting up a trade-off between convenience and accuracy.

Why is America’s electoral machinery so backward? One reason is that any 246-year-old system will have quirks that newer democracies can leapfrog. Another is the federal system and the emphasis on states’ rights, which breeds resistance to uniform measures. But a third is, hopefully, temporary: The nature of American politics today, with an extremely close balance of power between the parties, means that elections are closer and decided in small jurisdictions. That magnifies the risk that miscounting, error or fraud, could tip the result, which in turn further heightens the partisan paranoia.

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