Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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How Free Are American Elections?

by Micah Zenko
November 6, 2012

Voters cast their ballots on November 6, 2012 (Chris Keane/Courtesy Reuters). Voters cast their ballots on November 6, 2012 (Chris Keane/Courtesy Reuters).


“When a nation begins to modify the elective qualification, it may easily be foreseen that, sooner or later, that qualification will be entirely abolished. There is no more invariable rule in the history of society: the further electoral rights are extended, the greater is the need of extending them; for after each concession the strength of the democracy increases, and its demands increase with its strength. The ambition of those who are below the appointed rate is irritated in exact proportion to the great number of those who are above it. The exception at last becomes the rule, concession follows concession, and no stop can be made short of universal suffrage.”

—Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ch. IV, “The Principle of the Sovereignty of the People of America” (1835)

In his excellent historical survey, The Right to Vote: The Contested History Of Democracy In The United States, Harvard professor Alexander Keyssar wrote of a flawed “progressive presumption” of America’s road to universal enfranchisement. In reality, he contends: “The evolution of democracy rarely followed a straight path, and it has always been accompanied by profound antidemocratic undercurrents.” Of course, the United States has a long history of voter suppression, with the most recent group disenfranchisement in the United States stemming from the 1974 Supreme Court decision Richardson vs. Ramirez, which held that states may bar convicted felons from voting. (Currently, all states but Maine and Vermont do this.) The number of convicted felons prohibited from voting is estimated at 5.85 million, up from 1.17 million in 1976. (For how the United States compares with forty-four other democracies in the disenfranchisement of convicted felons, see here.)

In response to invitations from the U.S. government, the Organization for Security and Co-operation (OSCE) has monitored U.S. national elections since 2002. In 2004, ninety-two observers from thirty-four OSCE participating states were deployed; in 2008, there were thirteen core team experts in Washington, DC, and forty-seven observers deployed to forty states. This year, the OSCE sent fifty observers to monitor and report on the elections—including in Texas. After the 2010 elections, OSCE found:  “Attempts to introduce new voter identification and proof of citizenship requirements are heavily politicized, split on the issue of enfranchisement versus integrity of the vote. A broad variety of procedures exist within and between states which has, at times, resulted in an unequal treatment of voters.”

At the same time, compared to other wealthy democracies, the U.S. voting rate is a dismal 48 percent (compared to the OECD average of 70 percent). Moreover, voting rates in the United States have declined by 32 percent since 1980—more than any other OECD country that existed at the time. With most prospective voters heading to the polls today—and charges of “voting irregularities” and inexplicable delays already reported in several battleground states—it is worth a closer look at how U.S. electoral freedoms compare with other countries.

Economist Intelligence Unit 2011
Ranked nineteenth under full democracies with a score 8.18 (out of 10)

  • Electoral Process and Pluralism: 9.17
  • Functioning of government: 7.5
  • Political Participation: 7.22
  • Political Culture: 8.13
  • Civil Liberties: 8.53

Transparency International 2011
Corruption Perception Index: 7.1 (out of 10)

World Press Freedom Index 2012
Ranked forty-seventh with a grade of 14.00

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Peter Duveen

    Of course voting election manipulation can be detected as far back in the process as media manipulation in the early stages of a campaign. We saw how the Republican nomination rules were changed on the spot to exclude Ron Paul, who had a substantial following. The media publicized political victories in several states that were later found to have been misappropriated. Third parties are not generally covered at all by the media, even though Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, for example, is polling at five or six percent. Thus, a kind of duopoly of two parties is enforced, and so-called third parties are scripted out early on. No substantial debate exists between Republican and Democratic parties regarding the Middle East wars, although a majority of Americans oppose participation in these conflicts.

  • Posted by Matt714

    Voting is compulsory (and enforced) in Australia, and compulsory but not enforced in Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, and Chile (until recently); all countries that lead turnout in the link you provided. The sanction of the law, even when not enforced per se, undoubtedly makes voters more likely to show up at the polls.

    Further, voter turnout has declined in the U.S in part due to methodological changes; officials used to calculate the number of votes cast compared to the number of people aged 18 and up, rather than eligible electors.. (non-felons, full-citizens)

  • Posted by Sandra L Streifel

    Other countries (such as Canada) calculate their voting rates as a percentage of total adult citizens (all citizens, including incarcerated prisoners), and we consider a horrible turnout (60%, say) in a federal election what would be a huge turnout for one of your federal elections.

  • Posted by Sandra L Streifel

    I meant to remark that our laws require employers to allow time off work, unpaid, on election day sufficient to vote, and that lines at polling places are unusual; more than 1/2 hour long unheard of. We require identification, or the testimony of a witness with photo identification who can attest to the voter’s residency, so that persons of no fixed address can also vote.

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