America is amid the most bitter, divisive election of its recent history which has led many to ask how this could happen in the “world’s greatest democracy”. But is it right to bestow this title on America? Moving past the current candidates, a racist megalomaniac and a lying career politician, these heady claims about America’s national political system are deeply flawed. Turnout at national elections is not the highest in numbers nor percentage, the Electoral College voting system has deep, ingrained issues, and huge voter suppression presents itself in both direct and indirect way across the country.
Neither America’s number of eligible voters nor voter turnout help the claim that the United States is the world’s greatest democracy. According to census data, the number of possible voters in November 2012 was 215 million, with 154 million registering to vote. Turnout in that election was around 57%, or around 126 million voters. These numbers highlight two major issues in the claim for the world’s greatest democracy. First, in terms of pure numbers, India stakes a much stronger claim to the title, with 814 million eligible voters in its most recent election, a growth of 100 million from the previous election. Since its last election, the United States can only claim to have added around a tenth of that number. The more shocking fact here though, it America’s incredibly low voter turnout. The 2011 average for OECD countries was 70%, with South Korea being the only developed nation with lower turnout than the United States. Compared to other major political powers, America’s numbers are embarrassing, in 2015 the UK saw voter turnout of 66% with over 70% of Scots turning out to vote, Germany’s 2013 election saw 71% of voters turn out and was seen by many Germans as a ‘threat to democracy’, while Australia, whose mandatory voting system has been praised by Barack Obama, saw turnout of a huge 91% in 2016. To call America the world’s greatest democracy on the back of this evidence is an insult to voters worldwide, who vote in droves in their apparently inferior democracies.
America’s political system is also arguably undemocratic. The Electoral College, a system dating back to the founding of the United States when the quickest way to send information was on horseback, has number of deep flaws. Firstly, due to how votes are distributed, votes in smaller states are worth more than votes in larger states. Wyoming, the smallest state by population, has one Electoral College vote for each 192 thousand residents, while California, the largest, receives one vote for every 691 thousand residents, making one vote in Wyoming worth three and a half votes in California. This leads to a second issue; candidates can lose the popular vote but still win the presidency. The most recent time this happened was in 2000, in the election contested by Al Gore and George W. Bush. Al Gore won 50,999,897 votes and 266 Electoral College votes, this was 543,895 more votes than Bush, but 5 less College votes. This election also saw an example of another flaw in the Electoral College, the electors that the population are voting for are not bound by any laws to vote how the state has. 82 of the 157 so called ‘Faithless Electors’ have changed their vote on their own accord, and this has happened as recently as 2004. A system in which some votes are worth more than others, the popular vote does not always decide the winner of the election, and indirectly unelected officials can vote against the population of the state sounds less like the world’s greatest democracy and more like a corrupt dictatorship.
A major part of being a great democracy is surely making voting easy and fair for everyone. Again, America has a chequered past in this respect. Women gained the right to vote in 1920, two years later than in the UK, and five years later than in Germany. There was also the ‘Three-Fifths Compromise’, a law that regarded each Black person in a state as worth three-fifths of a person in political representation from 1787 until 1861. While the situation has Obviously improved since then, voter suppression in both its direct and indirect forms continues to be an issue in American elections. New Voter ID laws introduced in 10 states since 2012 mean 32 states now require some form of identification before your vote can be cast. The American Civil Liberties Union points to several issues with these laws. Many states do not issue permitted ID for free, meaning these laws are effectively a poll tax. When Margret Thatcher introduced a poll tax in 1990, there were riots in the streets yet these laws are passively accepted in the USA. Yet these laws target ethnic minorities, the poor, and young people a disproportionate amount, unfairly disenfranchising millions of Americans. The ACLU also points to issues with reductions to early voting in many states. This direct voter suppression issue is worsened by a more indirect one, voting on Tuesdays. Tuesday voting again affects poorer workers, and women who are less likely to be able to drop responsibilities to go and vote. This leads to another indirect form of voter suppression, long lines to voting places, including early voting stations. While voters in line cannot be turned away after polls close, many voters cannot afford to spend hours of their day stood in line. And while lines as short as an hour have been found unlawful by courts, this does not stop polling stations being understaffed or too few to deal with the number of voters sent to it. To call a country where voting is made harder for hundreds of thousands of people, especially those already under-represented by government, the world’s greatest democracy is an insult to democracy itself.
So, how can we call the United States the world’s greatest democracy without a tinge of sarcasm or disbelief. One important and easy change would be to make voting easier for everyone. Relax Voter ID laws, open more polling places for both early and on the day voting, and move election day to a weekend or make the day a national holiday. A more drastic change to improve America’s elections would involve a shake up in the electoral system. A more direct, proportional system could be implemented with ease in this age of technology. Allowing every vote to count equally is hardly a radical concept. Mandatory voting could see the voices of close to 200 million being heard to elect the most powerful leader on the planet. With changes that would bring America into line with most of modern democracies, let’s make America the world’s greatest democracy (again?).