By Jeremy Woo
Is America truly the world’s great defender of democracy? In many ways, Canada’s southern neighbour models the democratic principles that give power to the people. However, the recent presidential elections in the United States raise some concerns about the state of American democracy. The integrity of the electoral system has been damaged this election by incidents of voter confusion, partisanship and voting irregularities. A few changes to electoral laws could vastly improve the fairness of American democracy, including the elimination of the confusing electoral college system, the creation of a federal standardized election commission and the replacement of troublesome electronic voting methods.
In presidential elections, the U.S. uses the confusing electoral college system that serves as an impediment to fairness. In short, Americans do not vote directly for a president but, rather, the candidate with the greatest number of votes in each state receives a proportional number of electoral college votes. The candidate with the most electoral college votes becomes the president. This has numerous disadvantages. Firstly, the system confuses voters because of its sheer complexity. Secondly, voters in states where one party is heavily favoured may cast a ballot that is virtually thrown away. For example, a few Democratic voters in Republican-leaning Alabama will have no effect on the election’s outcome, as their rivals would carry the state anyway. Finally, the system pushes presidential candidates to effectively meld their campaigns to only a handful of swing states, taking for granted states that are secure or clearly out of grasp of winning. California was virtually ignored by Republican candidate Mitt Romney, while Democrat Barack Obama was hardly seen in Texas. Instead, the campaign focused on the voters of the few swing states that would decide the election.
It would be more effective for the U.S. to adopt a simpler system based solely on the popular vote. Eliminating the complex electoral vote and replacing it with a popular vote system ensures that every vote from every person nationwide truly counts.
Additionally, an unbiased federal election commission is required to ensure the future integrity of American democracy. In the most recent election, individual state governments altered the voting process in a way that could be interpreted as biased towards one party. For example, Republican Governor Rick Scott of Florida was accused of shortening the early voting period and cutting polling stations in Democrat-heavy areas to discourage Obama supporters from voting. Whether or not Scott’s electoral law changes had partisan undertones to support the Republican Party is unclear, but the controversy could have been prevented with the simple creation of a national, non-partisan electoral authority.
Additionally, a national body could standardize and simplify ballots across the nation, shortening long ballots in states such as Ohio, where the ballot was up to 12 pages in length, confusing voters with many lengthy questions. In fact, 65 per cent of ballots were rejected in one county in Florida because they were filled out incorrectly. Clearly, standardization at a federal, non-partisan level is necessary to preserve democratic integrity in the U.S.
It seems that the American electorate has a short memory in regards to automated voting stations. Despite numerous electronic voting irregularities in the controversial 2000 presidential elections that led to the election of George W. Bush, many American states such as Florida and Pennsylvania are still utilizing voting machines. The irregularities were still prevalent in the most recent elections, with reports of voters not being able to vote for their candidate of choice because of problematic machines. Additionally, voting machines raise concerns that malicious programmers or elections officials could tamper with the devices, causing biased results. The convenience in counting the votes is not worth the potential for problems and the damage to democracy. However, there is a simple, easy solution: paper ballots with pen markings. The re-adoption of pen and paper would take any doubt out of the voting process.
It is clear that election results must be conclusive and definitive without error or tampering. Voting machines have proven to be problematic too many times and must be eliminated in favour of paper and pen for the sake of integrity.
Unfortunately, no democracy is perfect. The U.S. is no different. A confusing electoral system, inconsistent voting procedures, extreme partisanship and irregularities in electronic voting have all damaged the integrity of the American democratic system. However, these problems are far from irreparable.
The implementation of a simple popular vote for presidential elections, the creation of a standardized, non-partisan election commission and using paper ballots could improve the battered electoral system. With a few simple steps, the world’s self-proclaimed defender of democracy can truly place power back into the hands of the people.