November 14th, 2012
11:58 AM ET

America’s election process an international embarrassment

By Global Public Square

For more What in the World watch "Fareed Zakaria GPS" this Sunday at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET.

Imagine a country on election day where you know the results the instant the polls close. The votes are counted electronically, every district and state has the same rules and the same organized voting procedure. It is managed by a non-partisan independent body. Sounds like the greatest democracy in the world, right? Try Mexico. Or France, Germany, Brazil. Certainly not the United States of America.

America has one of the world’s most antique, politicized and dysfunctional procedures for its elections. A crazy quilt patchwork of state and local laws with partisan officials making key decisions and ancient technology that often breaks down. There are no national standards. American voters in more than a dozen states, for example, don’t need ID. But even India, with a GDP just 12 percent that of ours, is implementing a national biometric database for 1.2 billion voters. The nascent democracy in Iraq famously dipped voters’ fingers in purple to ensure they didn't vote again. Why are we so behind the curve?

The conservative columnist David Frum recently wrote an excellent article for and he tells a story about the 2000 presidential election. The city of St. Louis, Missouri had outdated voting equipment. So there were long delays in voting. But St. Louis was heavily democratic, so Al Gore’s campaign asked a judge to extend voting by three hours.

The judge agreed. But then George W. Bush's campaign protested, and the judge was overruled. Meanwhile voting had already continued 45 minutes past the legal time.

More from CNN: Election day should be a holiday

Is that how elections should work in the world’s greatest democracy? In most other democracies, an independent national body would make the big decisions. There would be non-partisan observers at the polls. And of course, there would be modern, functioning equipment. Even Venezuela, which had elections last month, had electronic voting booths with biometric technology across the country.

We’ve been criticized around the world for this. I saw a scathing 116-page report about our electoral process published by, of all places, Russia. Here’s the Wall Street Journal’s translation of it: “The electoral system and electoral laws of the United States are…contradictory, archaic, and, moreover, do not meet the democratic principles that the U.S. proclaims are fundamental to its foreign and domestic policy.”

I hate to say it, but Moscow has a point. (On the other hand, we do have one thing the Russians don’t: actual free elections.)

This election season we’ve seen attempts to shorten the early voting period to further one party’s chances of victory. Our ballots can be as long as a dozen pages. In some places they are paper ballots, and in some they are electronic. And Election Day always falls on a Tuesday – a working day. Every four years we see the chaos of American elections, but nothing changes.

Last week, international election observers were banned from nine states. Some of these men and women were threatened with arrest. Maybe we should start learning from election officials from abroad, not try to throw them into jail.

soundoff (550 Responses)
  1. zaglossus

    Every two years (and I'm no spring chicken), I have voted in cities, suburbs, and exurbs, red and blue, East Coast and West Coast, always in person on Election Day, and never have I had to wait more than a few minutes to cast my ballot. I just don't get these long lines. How is this possible?

    November 14, 2012 at 1:14 pm | Reply
  2. joe

    So who did you steal that idea from?

    November 14, 2012 at 1:14 pm | Reply
  3. db

    Farad, the whole point is that every vote counts. If it were by popular vote only, the election would be determined by the top 30 cities and nobody else. Nobody would go to NH or Maine or Vermont or Wyoming etc. because the populations are so small. The electoral college offers them, a small one, a chance to be heard. Your drive to make us some nationalistic model of europe is stupid as you are. States are the only hope against consolidation and concentration of power that lead to what. You know the answer. I have traveled much of the world. Good people in most places, but I would keep our system as problematic as it is. An example, should a NY Mayor – because he has a population bigger than Vermont, be deciding what people from Vermont want – or how big their cup should be – and we have the evidence that he would if he could, wouldn't he. All these obstacles and irritations are a good thing, not bad.

    November 14, 2012 at 1:15 pm | Reply
    • Amniculi

      That's a bunch of hooey. The electoral college needs to be done away with. Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000. If that had mattered we wouldn't still be dealing with all the problems caused by the Bush administration.

      November 14, 2012 at 1:24 pm | Reply
  4. doug

    Sadam Barak, only guys named Hussien get over 100% of the vote, Sadam in Baghdad, Barak in hundreds of inner city districts.

    Amazing isn't it, the USSR could only get 99%, so The Democrats have out done their heros and role models.

    November 14, 2012 at 1:18 pm | Reply
    • cedar rapids

      tell you what doug, lets wait and see if the gop has any issues with the results and file official complaints about same.
      if you want to hold your breath whilst you wait, please be my guest.

      November 14, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Reply
  5. zaglossus

    Why does Fareed Zakaria stay in the United States? He's always going on about how better it is someplace else. I will agree here though: something is corrupt or broken about the way we manage elections.

    November 14, 2012 at 1:18 pm | Reply
    • karen

      So just because Fareen Zakaria shows examples of other working, voting systems outside the USA he should go home? Just because he tells us things that are difficult to hear.Believe it or not we aren't the only developed country in the world and others have worked out some of the difficulties in their voting systems. This is how we improve, by looking at alternatives, discussing the pros and cons like adults and coming to an informed decision. Maybe congress should try it instead of scoring points against one another so they can pound their chest and say they stood for their "pricipals".

      November 14, 2012 at 1:38 pm | Reply
    • cedar rapids

      isnt spotting a problem and trying to fix it a good thing to do then?
      is it more patriotic to claim nothing is wrong and just chant USA USA over and over?

      November 14, 2012 at 1:41 pm | Reply
  6. MarkinFL

    Also, I imagine we would need some Consti.tutional amendments to nationalize the election process. THAT is never an easy or likely to succeed process.

    November 14, 2012 at 1:18 pm | Reply
  7. Bob

    I find it even more embarrasing/disturbing that we have so called presidential debates where legitimate presidential candidates are excluded – with the net result that we are only allowed to listen ( in effect ) to what the two picked ( by who, and why? ) candidates have to say. I would submit that this is hardly democratic and is not challenging to those picked candidates as they are not exposed to the comments and questions which may have come from the excluded candidates. This is wrong.

    November 14, 2012 at 1:20 pm | Reply
  8. doug

    Every single voter in Baghdad voted for Sadam Hussein, every single voter in dozens of Philadelphia districts voted for Barack Hussein.

    Difference, some Sadam voters didn't want their neighbors harmed for their political views, every person who voted for Barack Hussen wants their neighbors rounded up by the government and all of their wealth taken from them.

    November 14, 2012 at 1:22 pm | Reply
    • Booger

      doug I can see you're really having a hard time with this thing that you can't understand. It's okay it will go away.

      November 14, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Reply
  9. Sivick

    As much as i hate to admit it, our system is pretty antiquated. Letting partisan biased officials decide how elections are run, are we crazy? It may be time for a national conversation about updating our elections to the modern era.

    November 14, 2012 at 1:25 pm | Reply
  10. doug

    In America you don't need to be a member of a punk band like Russia, you just need to be a person with morals, values, decency, and integrity (aka not be and support Democrats).

    Dear leader Obama said that every American who doesn't vote Democrat is the enemy and must be punished for their poltical views. Man, I can't believe these Repubicans wont work with our tolerant, open-minded president lol!

    November 14, 2012 at 1:26 pm | Reply
    • cedar rapids

      'Dear leader Obama said that every American who doesn't vote Democrat is the enemy and must be punished for their poltical views.'

      no he didnt.
      see all you are doing doug is exposing yourself to be a serial liar. Eventually you will be the boy who cried wolf.

      November 14, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Reply
      • doug

        Liar, those are Obama's exact words, typical Democrat, trying to rewrite history.

        Obama stated on Univision in 2010 that every American who doesn't vote Democrat is the enemy and that we punish our enemies and reward our friends.

        Obama said it because he knows his lapdogs like you dream of taking out every American right of center, he is not the problem, you are.

        November 14, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • Read for yourself

      Hey Doug, a quick search of the internet brought up the transcript from that 2010 interview, and he did not say what you implied he stated and you took it out of context. His words were:
      "We're gonna see how well we do in this election and I think a lot of it is gonna depend on whether we still have some support not only from Democrats, but also Republicans, but they're gonna be paying attention to this election. And if Latinos sit out the election instead of saying, we're gonna punish our enemies and we're gonna reward our friends who stand with us on issues that are important to us, if they don't see that kind of upsurge in voting in this election, then I think it's gonna be harder and that's why I think it's so important that people focus on voting on November 2."
      And what he's referring to is immigration reform. He was trying to get the Latino community to get out and vote Democrat if they wanted to see immigration reform because so many Republicans were blocking it. Maybe try reading something for yourself before making inaccurate statements.

      November 14, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Reply
      • rhorselover

        Thanks for finding the real quote, but I suspect that you are wasting your time. Reading comprehension is not a strength of the Dougs of the world.

        November 14, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
  11. Reasonably

    Follow the money. Elections are big business now.

    November 14, 2012 at 1:29 pm | Reply
  12. Bubba

    America does NOT have Free Elections. Our elections cost BILLIONS of SPECIAL INTEREST DOLLARS. This is the opposite of FREE, not because of the COST, but because of the corrupt Special Interest Groups who twist the election into something that it was never meant to be, VOTES for Money.
    The Republicans have turned elections into CASH COWS. GOP Politicians cash in directly, while GOP Contributors get their taxes pushed onto the working class for triple digit returns on the contributions they then write off.

    November 14, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Reply
  13. VL

    Huh? I thought voter ID laws were being thrown out by the court. As politicians and cheaters keep saying, why do people need ID? It would discourage people from voting. Right? Mr. Zakaria, you got what you asked for. So what's the complaint?

    November 14, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Reply
  14. Chris

    Embarrasment? Doubtful. Those other countries are not comprised of individual states. In the U.S.A. there is a difference between federalism and states rights. The states can hold elections however they want, within reason. It makes us once again unique and diverse. You don't like how your state ran the election then speak up and vote, or even move. That's your right here. I am not embarrassed to be an American. I have lived abroad and the grass is not greener people.

    November 14, 2012 at 1:34 pm | Reply
  15. Goose66

    What no poster here seems to understand is that the U.S. is a collection of States. If you do away with the Electoral College and go with popular vote, then every election will be decided by California, New York, New Jersey, and other states with large metro areas. The people of smaller states will essentially have no say in the election - their states and their issues won't be discussed, the candidates won't go to the smaller states, and they, in turn, will all stop voting. Is that the democracy that the liberals are going for?

    November 14, 2012 at 1:34 pm | Reply
    • NorCal415

      The same thing happens in the Electoral you not see that? Tell me how the Electoral College in anyway gives a state like Indiana (11) the same power to have their issues recognized that a state like California (55) has! C'mon now! Popular vote, Electoral the end of the day, neither system does anything to level the playing field for the states. The ONLY way to have a level playing field between states, would be if all the states had the same number of electorates...period.

      November 14, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Reply
  16. John-117

    But asking someone for an ID is racist and discrimination. Black and hispanic people aren't smart enough to go to the DMV and get an ID. Its takes someone of at least an IQ of 75 to even read a map to be able to find the DMV. Getting an ID might as well be quantum physics to them.

    November 14, 2012 at 1:37 pm | Reply
    • Bubba

      They are, however, smart enough to take the election away from the dumbtards who tried to suppress them. What does it say about you and your party, when your opponent has a Sub-75 IQ (according to you and your party), and yet manages to beat you by a HUGE margin.
      I think it says alot, but most of it will be above your capacity for grasping it.

      November 14, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Reply
    • cedar rapids

      bet you also moan about the race card

      November 14, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Reply
    • sly

      John, many white people feel just like you.

      It is common for less intelligent white people to feel bitter when they see a minority (or in this case, a white President) who is smarter than them.

      This happened in the South, and in countries like yours (Germany), where there are many uneducated white people. Naturally you look towards other religious or racial groups that are also largely uneducated, and you try to put them down.

      This makes you feel better about your lack of intelligence for awhile.

      November 14, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Reply
    • John-117

      Not my fault the inferiors can't get an ID. Its not their fault either. They lack the mental capacity to conceive things that you and I can understand with no effort. Blame evolution for leaving this sad simple racial groups behind.

      November 14, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Reply
    • John-117

      Obama is a hybrid. Though he is black, he is also half white. The white in him put him above the neanderthals we call black and hispanic people.

      November 14, 2012 at 2:03 pm | Reply
    • John-117

      Expecting them to get an ID is like expecting a chimp to paint Da Vinci's "Last Supper".

      November 14, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Reply
      • Owl96

        If they can figure out how to get the grocery store, pick up food they will eat, along with essentials and other items to indulge their time, and if they can figure out how to register to vote, they can figure out how to get an ID. If community organizers can figure out how to get them registered to vote, the community organizers can figure out how to get them IDs. Its not that hard.

        November 14, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  17. MarkG

    As long as we are in a reform-the-electoral-process mode, maybe it is time we copied another facet of the Mexican political system: the 6-year, one-term presidency. No more re-election worries!!!!

    November 14, 2012 at 1:38 pm | Reply
    • NorCal415

      At face value, not a bad idea.....but I suspect you'd just escalate the re-election worry from the indivual level to the party level. I'm sure the party in power would put tremendous pressure (like now) on the person in office to take actions that show their party in a favorable light.
      I do think the longer term might be a good idea though. Given the complexity of the problems we seem to have these days, 4 years isn't nearly enough time to "right the ship" and solve the issue.

      November 14, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Reply
      • MarkG

        Thanks for the vote of confidence, NorCal415. You make good points as well. Since I am in SoCal maybe we have this state covered as to the idea of a 6-year term. Now to just get the other 40 million or so between us to go along 🙂

        November 14, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
  18. yolanda

    Who REALLY wrote this article?????

    November 14, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Reply
  19. Stop the insanity

    The problem I have is that the President is being paid taxpayer dollars to run around the US to campaign for another 4 years of earning taxpayer dollars. I'd rather he do his job. And while I agree the way the elections work is absurd, I agree more that they way we allow people to campaign is absurd. Months and months of time and over a billion dollars spent so we can finally decide if we're on Team Jacob or Team Edward? Do like other countries do and set a time and spending limitation.

    November 14, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Reply
  20. Stand-Steel

    No ID no vote
    No more electronic voting machines
    No votes counted from counties reporting more votes than registered voters

    November 14, 2012 at 1:49 pm | Reply
  21. Skeptic

    Yawn! That's so the United States of America.

    November 14, 2012 at 1:49 pm | Reply
  22. george thorn

    India has 1.2 BILLION voters,...... I think not, people maybe but not voters.

    November 14, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Reply
  23. Chris

    Some good points, Fareed, and it's getting worse. Most foreigners read/hear about the US system and how it doesn't work, and they just laugh and shake their heads. And world's greatest democracy? The US??? Not even close. It's a plutocracy, run by corporations and the rich for their benefit. Any country that – to all intents and purposes – cuts off the head of any group that tries to start a real third party, an option for Americans, is NOT a democracy.

    November 14, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Reply
  24. hg

    Ya' know what's embarrassing, Zakaria? The fact that CNN is so hard up that they'll actually employ plagiarists.

    November 14, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Reply
  25. Bill

    The electoral college is one of America's great inventions. Sadly, most individuals don't understand what the electoral college is and what the benefits to it are. First, the number of electors per state is determined by congressional representation (i.e. the number of electors is the addition of the state's senators and representatives). So, a small population state like Wyoming get 3 (two senators plus one representative) and a large population state like California gets 55. Second, the true benefit to the electoral college and the "winner takes all" approach is that smaller states have a disportionate advantage over large states (again, Wyoming gets 3 electors for 600,000 people while California gets 55 for 38,000,000 people, now do some math on how many people per elector). Also, the previous situation creates so-called "battleground states". If we based our entire election on the popular vote, do you think anyone would care about New Hampshire and its 650,000 people. No, the candidates would spend their entire time campaigning in states with large populations, encouraging more and more people who live there to go and vote. Smaller states would lose their relative appeal because the candidates knew that those states would offer fewer popular votes.

    Next, assume we have an election based on the popular vote. President Obama wins California by 4,000,000 votes. This would mean that the state of California could essentially erase the effect of other states just by its sheer population.

    In essence, the electoral college benefits smaller states with less people, which at least currently is where Republicans trend to win in elections.

    November 14, 2012 at 1:52 pm | Reply
    • sly

      Yes Bill, the Electoral College system was designed by individuals who were far more intelligent than your average American blogger.

      Good points, and I'm sure some folks here will understand most of them.

      November 14, 2012 at 1:55 pm | Reply
    • Andy Daniel

      @Bill, you are correct that the Electoral College, in theory, gives a little extra power to smaller states on a per-capita basis. But as a practical matter, neither Obama nor Romney did much campaigning in California (large and blue) or Wyoming (small and red). Campaign dollars did not buy ad time here, candidates did not make promises here. The EC does not currently benefit the small states – it benefits the swing states.

      November 14, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Reply
      • Bill

        Andy, I agree 100%. As discussed in my post, this is one of the benefits of the electoral college. The post was primarily to highlight its advantage over the popular vote, one being to create battleground states. Wyoming and California were used since they have relatively small and large populations, respectively.

        November 14, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
      • Charles

        But all that does is shift the focus. A direct popular vote throws the focus into populous states like New York and California while the EC throws the focus into contentious states. How about a system where neither one alone is sufficient? How about three different tallies: the votes as a nation (so every person counts), the votes grouped by district (so every representative district counts), and the votes grouped by state (so every state counts; place DC here among them to provide an odd number). If a candidate can get the majority in two out of the three, then that should indicate true broad appeal and should be declared the winner. It's like the Connecticut Compromise; votes as votes get a say and yet smaller states get more influence as is fair.

        November 16, 2012 at 7:34 am |
  26. PeterD

    CNN is TNN = Tabloid News Network.

    November 14, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Reply
    • MarkG

      And Fixed News isn't? Last time I looked the Murdoch family owned most of the tabloids on the planet. Nothing like Fair and Balanced; NOT! If you keep hearing crazy voices, turn off Fox News.

      November 14, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Reply
      • CurmudgeonTx

        Hrm...seems you are the one hearing voices...Dude didn't even mention Fox News...Axe to grind?

        November 16, 2012 at 5:07 am |
  27. deniz boro

    Election is a huge event to organize. Remember that the Roman Democracy could not get far just because all the Roman citizens can not go to the Seneta square (or whatever it was- not the necrapolis as far as I can remember) to raise their hands. Information technologies are just too young to cover a Nation of more than (let's say) 10 million voters in (let's say) 20-30 cities. Older people (such as my mam-80 years of age) do not trust a machine but has to receive her receipt from a human being to be assured that a deal has been done.
    My personal amazement in USA election process is the money spent on advertisement and the promotion events ran to market THE PRESIDENT. Politics is a respectable action that calls for devotion and noble commitment; not circuit shows.

    November 14, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Reply
  28. RdclCntrst

    Our lagging behind in election policy and voting equipment MIGHT have something to do with a political party that thinks government is bad. The advocates of "Government shouldn't spend money" economics MAY have something to do with why no research is done–and hence, no action taken–to bring the electoral process into the 21st century. But it's POSSIBLE that "'Murica is never wrong!" hyper-partisans think that history stopped in 1789 and hence nothing written before that should ever be changed or updated.

    November 14, 2012 at 1:54 pm | Reply
  29. Jay G

    The key is that election reform needs to be done in the first year or two of a President's administration. Not in the last year when both sides will cry foul at the other side's arguments, no matter what they are.

    And there are so many people at the local, state and other levels that would be impacted by this change.. and they tend to be the most vocal and politically motivated.. so it's no surprise that this time of reform, which is so badly needed, isn't even on the horizon at this point.

    November 14, 2012 at 1:57 pm | Reply
  30. Joe

    I am fairly liberal and I believe an ID must be required. The voting days should be changed. Make the first Friday in November Veterans day and election day and then extend it to election week-end through Saturday and Sunday giving more people time to vote and close the polls on schedule each day.

    November 14, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Reply
    • Owl96

      What are you going to do with Armistice Day then?

      November 14, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Reply
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