How can it be that the US, with its long history of elections, its wealth, and technological prowess runs elections that many developing countries would be ashamed of and would result in their election officials being summarily fired? It is unconscionable that in a rich and advanced country like the US, the voting process is so incredibly clumsy and inefficient.
Incredibly, over 300,000 of the votes cast in the state of Arizona votes have yet to counted, a week after the election. Florida’s electoral votes were not certified for president Obama (given him a 332-206 winning margin in the electoral college) until six days after the election. Seven House of Representatives seats are yet to be determined, eight days after the election.
And the corruption is appalling. In every US election there are widespread allegations of attempts to influence the outcome by dishonest means such as tampering with the voting machines, intimidating voters, placing onerous burdens on them such as identification, purging them from voter rolls, misleading voters as to when and where they can vote, and so on. And many of these things are done by the very election officials who are supposedly entrusted with running fair elections.
And then there are the long lines to vote, with people sometimes waiting for hours. It is truly absurd that a rich country like the US cannot provide enough polling places, voting machines, and election staff to enable people to vote quickly and easily. I suspect that this is just another attempt to discourage people from voting.
And this is on top of the distortions introduced by gerrymandering. For example, in the election just completed, the Democratic party won a bare majority of votes cast in elections for the House of Representatives 48.8-48.5% but Republicans retained their comfortable, though reduced, majority. This supports what Sam Wang pointed out, that due to gerrymandering after the 2010 census, Democrats need to win the popular vote by 2.5% in order to break even in the number of House seats.
Ohio is one of the most extreme examples of gerrymandering and it is getting steadily worse. In the 1980s, the seat distribution matched the vote distribution. But last week, the popular vote was 51-49% in favor of Republicans but they won 75% of the Congressional seats (12 out of 16). This was done by drawing districts so that the Democratic constituency was concentrated in just four districts where they won by margins of 100% (uncontested), 73%, 73%, and 68%, while they got less (often much less) than 45% in 10 districts. Only two seats could be considered competitive.
Almost all these problems can be traced to one source, and that is that elected officials with a strong vested interest in the outcome, usually the secretary of state in the individual states, are given the task of conducting the elections. This allows people like Ohio’s Jon Husted this year and Katherine Harris in Florida in 2000 to try to rig the process in favor of their party.
Most democracies usually hand over the running of the process to an agency that has professionals and career people working in it and have a considerable degree of independence from political influence. While the head of the agency is often appointed by an elected official, once in office he or she has considerable autonomy and can only be removed for serious offenses by an onerous process like impeachment that provides them with considerable independence and freedom from political meddling, somewhat like federal judges. The current system in the US should be replaced so that each state in the US has one such statewide official to oversee the election process and ensure uniformity and fairness across the entire state.
The reason that the current system is not seen to be the scandal it is is because few presidential elections are that close. The election of 2000, in which Florida’s secretary of state Katherine Harris’s meddling in the process was brought to light, was an anomaly. In most cases, the final outcome is so clear that the shenanigans in any one state are quickly forgotten after the election because it does not affect the outcome. In this year’s election, Ohio’s Husted tried all manner of things to influence the outcome that should be investigated (and for which he was blasted by federal judges) but it will not happen because Barack Obama won by a margin that makes the state’s 18 electoral votes not critical. Similarly most people did not pay much attention to the fact that Florida’s 29 electoral votes were not awarded for so long because it did not matter this year.
But, like in 2000, one day it will matter and the resulting mess will be huge.
The other problem is that we have now reached a stage where the presidential election is being decided by less than ten states that have less than a quarter of the electorate. The rest of the country was pretty much ignored, which does not seem fair to the voters in those areas. It is possible that in the future, the list of battleground states will get even smaller with just about 15% of the total voters in them.
One solution is to abolish the electoral college altogether and have a direct popular vote for president, which makes sense since the president is supposed to represent the entire nation. But that does have its downside. One can imagine the nightmare if a very close election takes place and there are allegations of fraud. One would have to have a nationwide recount. This is one reason that the electoral college system has some advantages in electing a president than by a nationwide vote, because any problems can usually be contained to one or a few states.
One Democratic congressional leader has suggested a hybrid system, in which the electoral college is retained but a bonus of 29 electoral votes is given to whoever gets the majority of the nationwide vote. This would improve things somewhat by encouraging candidates to campaign at least in the more populous states, whether they are likely to win there or not. The smaller non-swing states will likely continue to be ignored.
But the serious structural issue is the length of the campaigns and the vast amounts of money that are now pouring in. It was bad enough before but with the Citizens United decision, it has got immensely worse. These two problems are, of course, related. The more time you have to campaign, the more money that can and will be spent. The basic problem will not go away as long as election day is known well in advance, allowing people to plot long-term strategies and raise huge sums of money.