Americans take pride in having the world’s oldest constitutional democracy. But even if Donald Trump’s threats to challenge the count or its outcome should go unfulfilled, the 2020 presidential election has cruelly exposed structural flaws that mark the U.S. electoral system as among the weakest of any advanced democracy. If that sounds unduly harsh, it shouldn’t. A surprising amount of data gets collected on the wider process of holding elections, and for Americans, it makes brutal reading.
The most detailed index, by a Harvard-based nonprofit called the Electoral Integrity Project, ranks elections based on 49 criteria—including dispute resolution and the accuracy of voter rolls—as perceived by a mix of local and foreign election specialists. The latest 2019 index placed the U.S. 57th in the world. Among core Western democracies, it came in at rock bottom. As older and newer democracies have raced ahead, “America hasn’t wanted to learn and hasn’t felt the need to learn,” says Pippa Norris, a lecturer in comparative politics at Harvard, who runs the project. “It doesn’t even look across the border at Canada or Mexico, at how other countries have run elections very efficiently.”
For sure, there’s no such thing as a perfect electoral system, and the U.S. is hardly alone in struggling to manage challenges to its democracy right now. Yet improving the way U.S. presidents and legislators are chosen matters for more reasons than just ensuring the majority of voters get the leaders they want. A stronger electoral system would make the U.S. less vulnerable to manipulation by Russia and other geopolitical adversaries as they exploit weaknesses to destabilize and distract what remains the world’s only military and economic superpower.
A better system would also help cement trust in state institutions, the essential element without which governments tend to fail, says Ivan Krastev, a Bulgarian political scientist whose book on the Covid-19 pandemic, Is It Tomorrow Yet?, was released on Oct. 29. Many of the Western democracies that score worst for their electoral processes—including the U.S., the U.K., Italy, and Spain—also score poorly in terms of their handling of the coronavirus, as measured by deaths per 100,000 of the population to date. “If there is no trust, you can achieve nothing, because politics is about collective action,” Krastev says, pointing to the resistance many Americans have shown to advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on wearing masks.
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