By Marianne Pratt
Americans have long believed that our democratic election process is the gold standard—a model for existing and emerging democracies around the world. And while our elections are more open and fair than many nations around the world, we aren’t exactly the shining city on a hill when it comes to elections.
Recent elections have brought out just how many flaws there are in our system. Voters are increasingly concerned about the integrity of the election process as well as the results. They are frustrated and many feel powerless to bring about meaningful changes.
Public debate has grown louder, and the “discussion” as well as campaign rhetoric has become increasingly polarized. Is there a way forward people can believe in? Almost everyone has an opinion, although specifically what is wrong with our elections depends on who you ask. Nonetheless, there are common themes that come up over and over again.
Key Concerns Aren’t All that New
Almost a decade ago, Heather K. Gerken published an article titled, “Why America’s Election System Is Failing.” At the time, she was a Professor at Yale Law School, now she also serves as Dean.
“Glaring evidence of dysfunction emerges every election year,” she wrote. “Ballots are discarded, poll workers are poorly trained, registration lists are not up to date, machines malfunction, and long lines discourage voters. Worst of all, obviously partisan officials change the rules to try to help their party in coming elections. Bit by bit, our country is losing its reputation for fair elections.”
Part of the problem, she said, is that voters never even hear about many of the failures, only “high-profile snafus” that threaten to affect the result of an election. Since citizens don’t realize the scope of the problem, they don’t demand that officials take corrective action. And when attempts are made, partisanship overrides the collective best interest.
Around that same time, the Electoral Integrity Project released a report, “Why American Elections Are Flawed,” which cited multiple major concerns, including:
- Deepening party polarization over voting procedures
- Significant risks from hacking and inadequate cybersecurity
- Consequences of campaign spending deregulation
- Lack of professional and impartial electoral management
A follow-up article published by Harvard’s Kennedy School noted, “Without reform, these problems risk damaging the legitimacy of American elections—further weakening public confidence in political parties, Congress, and the U.S. government, depressing voter turnout, and exacerbating the risks of mass protests.”
Fast-Forward to Today
Just last year, Laura Thornton expressed similar concerns. As a long-time advisor to international democracy organizations, she believes Americans need to “step back and view democratic procedures through the lens of global standards.” She says that, too often, no one questions the US (and other well-established democracies) “despite the practices and controversies that we would condemn swiftly in less established democracies.”
She is particularly concerned by “partisan obstruction of expanding mail-in ballots” in the most recent election, something she says should have been a logical measure due to the pandemic. She also worries about:
- Unfounded narratives of widespread voter fraud
- US Senate efforts to block election integrity measures
- The Electoral College, which dramatically alters the supposed “one man, one vote” concept by giving vastly disproportionate electoral votes to small-population states. (The number of electors equals the state’s number of seats in the House, but then each state gets two more electors for their two Senators.)
- Gerrymandering, the epitome of conflict of interest where elected officials draw the maps that get them elected
- The partisan nature of election administration—elected or appointed officials are responsible for oversight, and there is no uniformity from one place to another
- Discrimination, in areas where rules are deliberately convoluted to discourage voting, primarily on the part of minorities
How can we fix what is wrong with our elections?
Laura Thornton says more scrutiny is needed. “The U.S. can no longer glide by on its laurels,” she asserts, “assuming election observation and democratic reform is only for ‘others.’ We must be held to the same standards.”
Yale Law’s Heather Gerken suggested a Democracy Index—a system designed to focus public attention on the process by ranking states and localities on how well they run their elections. With this system in place, people would not only know the truth, they would have data needed to make needed reforms or improvements. And, nationally, election administrators could develop a set of standards and best practices.
Consistent and fair processes are critical. But many legislators tend to instill election measures designed to keep their party in power. By creating a more even playing field through reforms like Ranked Choice Voting, American could simultaneously eliminate many, if not all, of the problems most concerning to voters. By promoting greater candidate diversity, more likely “majority rule” and fairness within each race, ranked choice voting may help to allay the fear and polarization that now characterize our election process.
Marianne Pratt is a freelance writer experienced in organizational management, marketing, public policy, grassroots volunteer development and building lasting public-private partnerships. She views the world through an entrepreneurial lens and believes that working together works better.