The American Meaning of Democracy

I am sure we all have encountered someone somewhere saying that the USA is the greatest and oldest running democracy in the world, yadda yadda yadda. But what does “demo” in this word actually mean, in America?

Let’s grant that the US democracy is the oldest continuously running one in the world. I have no idea if that is actually true and I am too lazy to try and find out, but whatever. Is that a good thing?

When I look at the spectacle that is the US voting, I do not think so. Even without such obsolete carryovers from a different era like the second amendment, two senators per state regardless of its size or the electoral college, it does not look like the American democracy is very much democratic.

Take voter registration for example. What the fuck is that? Many of my friends in Europe are constantly dumbfounded by how elections in the USA (and to an extent in the UK) work. The “first past the post” system is generally viewed as idiotic and Gerrymandering makes most people to say “wut???”, however, the existence of voter registration is something that, so far, surprised everyone. And if you told anyone that there is a ruckus now about sending people voting ballots in advance, they would look at you as if you told them that in the USA “water is wet” is seen as controversial.

In CZ, the mailing of ballots in advance is completely normal. Every citizen is registered at birth, issued a state-paid ID at the age of 15, and gets ballots in the mail for each and every election once they turn 18. During the pandemic, the ballots came with full instructions on how to cast the vote if you are in quarantine or cannot legitimately go to the voting place.

Whether the citizen then actually decides to use said ballots as anything else than highly uncomfortable toilet paper or very good kindling is completely up to them, but they get them, always. We are so used to this system that most people here take it as normal and are completely taken by surprise when they hear how the US goes about this.

Vote on working day and kilometers long waiting lines for voting are another hoot. Here the vote is on Friday/Saturday, the whole day, so everyone has a chance to find a few minutes to cast their ballot, either on a trip to/from work or whilst going shopping. Because – and that is real funny, I tell ya – the longest I have ever waited to cast my vote was maybe a minute when there was someone in the booth and I had to wait for them to finish casting their vote. It might be a bit worse in a big city, I have occasionally seen 10-15 people long lines in TV, I think. But the only big lines are those reported from ‘Merica.

What I want to say is, the country with the highest GDP in the world finally should pay for a full-feature version of government, they are trudging by on an un-updated trial for way too long.


  1. anat says

    A couple of clarification questions: When you say that every citizen is ‘issued a state-paid ID at the age of 15’ -- do you need to send an application for that? Go somewhere to apply in person? Also, you do need to keep your address current somehow, so your ballot is sent to the correct place when you move, right?

  2. says

    @anat, you are required by law to apply for the state ID once you turn 15 years of age. The ID has time limited validity and once it expires, you are required to get a new one. The same if you change your residence. The only expense other than time used to be a photograph, which is not the case anymore since the offices take your picture nowadays with digital photography for free.

    There can be expenses -- one is required to pay for the ID when one fails at requesting a new one in a timely manner (express fee) or loses a valid ID or needs replacement because you have grown/shaved a beard and thus no longer look like your picture (there is some leniency about the beard).

    But replacement when ID expires or when you change your residence are free of charge.

    Do not ask me about fines for non-complying with the law, I have no idea and such cases are really, really rare.

  3. says

    To be fair to the USA, since voting is handle by States, and people are free to move between states, requiring them to register to vote in the State in which they reside isn’t unreasonable.

    It’s the same in the UK -- you have to make sure you’re on the electoral roll of the local authority in which you reside.

    But I completely agree that the lines outside polling stations in the US are insane. In the UK one very rarely has to queue up to vote, and even then only for a minute or two at most.

    I suspect that one reason for the long queues for US elections is that they involve choosing people for everything from President to dog catcher. It takes a significant length of time to sensibly fill in a US voting form, which can (I’m told) be pages long.

    However, the real reason must be that those in power want to discourage people from voting. At least, those people who can’t afford to take several hours to vote, i.e. the working poor.

  4. says

    @Paul Durrant, requiring people to register in the State in which they reside is not unreasonable. What is unreasonable is to not have an efficient, universal and easy to understand system in place to do so.

  5. lumipuna says

    In Finland, my “voter registration” is that when moving to a new place, I’m legally required to update the address to a central database by an online form or phone call. The database contains other personal data such as birth date and citizenship, and is used for all kinds of nanny state purposes, and makes census unnecessary. There’s very precise knowledge on which people are eligible voters and what their current official address is.

    Before elections, I’m mailed a slip that contains a reminder and instructions for voting, like for example where my polling station is. I think it’s not called a “ballot” because it’s not used in voting. The ballot is a blank slip on which you scribble a single number. We only vote for one thing at a time, on average about once a year (president, parliament, local council, EU parliament).

  6. Gelaos says

    All that Charly mentions in the article can be brushed off in a “Different country, different rules, mate!” manner. Democracy is about people having a say about how things are/will be governed. In my opinion, waiting in a long line or registering are “just” a secondary, technical problems (although definitely not insignificant).

    The main reason why I don’t like electoral college system in its current implementation is that it is mathematically possible to be elected as a president with less than 25 % of popular vote (, time 4:15). I did my own calculation with 2016 election data and got to the result that even if only 24 % of eligible voting population vote for you, you can still win thanks to the electoral college winner-takes-all system. It’s unlikely scenario, true, but still… wining the election despite 76 % voting against you doesn’t seem very democratic.

  7. says

    @Gelaos, “…secondary, technical problems…not insignificant…” -- that is actually the whole point of the article. I am sorry that this is not apparent enough, I was trying to summarize this in the last sentence.

    Regarding the numbers w.r. to electoral college, I came made my own calculations too in 2016 and I was amazed that a prezident can get decisive majority of electoral votes with such small minority of actual votes.

  8. Allison says

    When the federal government of the USA was first formed, most people could not vote. States generally required citizens to own land and/or be paying taxes in order to vote (it varied from state to state.) According to Wikipedia, that amounted to around 6% of the population. The eligibility for the right to vote was and still is evolving and we don’t have universal suffrage even now — for example, most states do not allow people in prison to vote, and a number don’t allow them to vote even after they serve their sentence. I believe Florida only granted ex-convicts the right to vote because of a ballot initiative this year.

    As for automatic registration: the USA does not have a universal nationwide ID, the way most European countries have, nor do the states, and a lot of people have the attitude that such a universal ID would be a step towards tyranny. Most people have a driver’s license (or a non-driver ID, issued by the motor vehicle office), but there are plenty of people who have neither.

    BTW, I lived in Germany for a few years, and while they require everyone to be able to produce a government ID (my US passport qualified), I got the impression that there are a fair number of people who are “under the radar” — they don’t have any ID, or don’t register with the government when they move, assuming they even have a fixed place of residence. So I suspect that every country has some people who aren’t registered with the government.

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