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 The city of St. Louis, Missouri had outdated voting equipment.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. Stand-Steel

    I do not think the American public will ever know who should have won this Presidential election or the past few elections. It's so messed up I can understand why some people didn't vote. People believe it's fixed. The country is not being run by the voters any more.

    November 14, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Reply
    • doug

      From Sandy we had a cemetery flooded and coffins came up out of the ground and were floating around the street. Really was a shame, all these Democrat voters were about a week too early at the time, they normally wait until the 1st Tuesday in November to come up and vote straight ticket dem.

      To a Democrat, stopping voter fraud with an ID requirement is voter fraud, say 50mil voted Obama, I doubt even a single one of 'dem has a remote trace of morals, values, decency, or integrity.

      November 14, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Reply
      • sly

        Oh dougie pooh pooh, we feel so sorry for you and all those floating coffins.

        But I don't think you quite understand us Democrats: we absolutely have no decency or morals, and we pretty much hate folks like you and wish you would just die and float around in the next hurricane.

        If we can cheat y'alls dumb azes and take your election, all power to us! We rule, you float around amongst all the debris and sewage.

        What's wrong with that? Lovin' life right now, and for 4 More Years!

        Man, haven't seen so many White Men crying in their panties since Dale Earnhart died. Heh heh heh!

        November 14, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
      • Ken Margo


        November 14, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
  2. truth

    I do think we can do better, but our democracy is one of the reasons there are so many differences and issues. We try to let everyone have a voice in the process and people disagree on how things should be done. Much like other national issues, sometimes democracy is it's own worst enemy. Not sure that's a bad thing.

    November 14, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Reply
  3. RinosRwinos

    Our sytem needs to be updated to the 21st century. We are one of the most technologically advanced societies with one of the most antiquated voting systems. Make election day a national holiday so everyone can vote or make it on a Saturday so more people participate.

    November 14, 2012 at 2:03 pm | Reply
  4. fromusofa

    First of all, United States is not a democracy in the word's orional and pragmatic form...leave alone the greatest one. Fom day one, it's been a plutocracy, and actually now not so much hidden under the foolish notion that it's a democracy...I might be able to consider it a democrazy...ok?

    November 14, 2012 at 2:05 pm | Reply
  5. Omar

    Where I voted, everything was smooth at the time I voted. However, filling in so many circles on a large piece of thick paper is ridiculous. Those circles are hard to fill, my fingers were hurting, I am not used to writing with pen, only push keys on a keyboard all day. In a developing country like Pakistan the voter picks up a Stamp and uses a stamp pad to and quickly stamps it next to the symbol of the candidate he or she is supporting.

    Some technology company somewhere must have suggested to the federal government that filling circles like the SATs or MCATs is the way to go. That is why there were huge lines in some states. People should be able to stamp their choices and get out of there quickly rather than filling stupid circles. There were elderly people who had could not keep within the circle and had to go back to get a replacement ballot paper.

    The USA definitely has the technology to make this process extremely faster for the next time. No more filling circles. Also, checking IDs makes sense.

    November 14, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Reply
    • doug

      One dot to fill in where it says steal from my hard working neighbor and gimme their ish, anything less is making it to hard for the Eichmann to vote Democrat.

      November 14, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Reply
  6. fromusofa

    for a typical American (rednecks, hillbillies) the longer the voting line, the strongest our democrazy looks. rest of the corruption before and after the election day, does not matter.

    November 14, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Reply
  7. Stand-Steel

    Demand another election with paper.

    November 14, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Reply
  8. Stand-Steel

    Intimidating people at the poles really makes for a fair election. We saw that first hand in my town. This was not a fair election, just like the last few elections.

    November 14, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Reply
  9. BVN

    Of the 270+ million eligible voters in the USA the President won re-election with the support of 61+ million votes. That's 22.6% of us folks. If that US Census Bureau information isn't astonishingly eye opening for Americans as far as a need for genuine change in our outdated systems go I don't know what would get the job done.

    November 14, 2012 at 2:20 pm | Reply
  10. ConsciousEffort

    Agree or disagree, he has as much right and opportunity to provide criticism of the system as any other extremist or moderate viewpoint expressed by everyone from joe america to the neo-nazi movement. Doesn't mean you have to feel threatened or accept his "ratings" rants. Journalism is about evoking emotional response which brings viewership-readership, raising ratings and increasing advertisement dollars. Mr Zakaria meet Mr Hearst, you have a lot in common.
    Just as you cannot, jingoism aside, expect to imprint American-style Democracy onto a culture who does not share similar development and cultural ideals, so too the justification of imparting foreign election processes on the U.S. because what is here is "wrong" or "archaic", is incorrect as well. The current process is not without challenges, but the cotinuous practice of politicizing everything, liberal or ocnservative, shadows the real solutions.

    November 14, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Reply
  11. Stand-Steel

    People don't want to waste their time voting because they believe it's all rigged. From what I see, it may have been rigged.

    November 14, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Reply
    • sly

      Absolutely rigged.

      Ever since the CIA developed the 9/11 plot and flew agents into the World Trade Center, politics has been fishy.


      Americans should be outraged by the 'rigged elections', and the false imprisonment of the Good Coach Sandusky.

      Also, in addition to all the rigged voting machines, they've rigged drug tests to falsely accuse our hero Armstrong of cheating!

      I'm in California, and we all agree that Romney really won the popular vote out here.

      While we're at it, who buried all those fake dinosauer bones all over the planet? Everyone knows God made Earth 9000 years old, and every one of those bones is a fake.

      Disgusting how some people will lie and cheat and rig things.

      November 14, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Reply
      • Stand-Steel

        The bones are from old holly wood movies. Everybody knows that.

        Who are Armstrong and Sandusky? New political candidates?

        November 14, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
      • Stand-Steel

        This God thing is rigged too.

        November 14, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
      • Eileen Also in California

        Sly, you're great. Enjoying your posts. Keep 'em coming!

        November 14, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
  12. vijay

    I'm not sure India has 1.2 billion voters. The voter population and the nation's population are not necessarily the same (children, non-citizens, etc.)

    November 14, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Reply
  13. infonomics

    The problem with America is that the average American isn't even average.

    November 14, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Reply
    • deniz boro

      That is why America is a United States of Americans. Each region of the USA is too far for the other regions to know by heart. Older countries of Europe are smaller. Sometimes their population is as much as one of the city of America. Maybe that is why an European can not understand the need of a car for the Americans. Because Europe has and promotes public transportation. Say the whole Europe is a New York. Or different districts of New York. Europe is somewhat consolidated and harmonized. It can apply similar voting processes.

      November 14, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Reply
      • deniz boro

        Oh. My some commenters are still suffering the aftershock. May I kindly ask to be excused of this local vibrations please*

        November 14, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
  14. Frank

    Everything Fareed wrote was right on the money right up until he espoused a "national biometric database" as being a good thing.

    November 14, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Reply
  15. James

    Fareed, F/areed, Fareed – isn't it really the fact that we have elections that you find embarrassing. Wouldn't you prefer voting like they do in Russia or Venezuala? You are the one who has suggested we do away with Congress and establish a dictator aren't you? Accordingly, you write foreign policy speeches for Obama. Interesting, CNN I think this is called propaganda.

    November 14, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Reply
  16. A Non-Partisan Fluffy Little Bunny

    It's all fine and dandy to compare the US to other countries to point an accusing finger at how bad we suck, but the simple fact is we are a union of states and they are not. There is always resistance to federal control over almost anything, even elections. Our precious, rugged individualism will always be in the way of consistency and fairness for any endeavour at a national level. Either we get over it, or shove more federal governance down the throats of the citizenry.

    November 14, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Reply
  17. FlawedLogic

    What is an independent non-partisan group?

    November 14, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Reply
    • FlawedLogic

      Even my pizza is pro-life

      November 14, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Reply
      • Badly-Bent

        You better hold on to your pepperoni.

        November 14, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
  18. MC in TX

    I agree that our voting system has serious problems and I worry as Fareed does that there is too much opportunity for corruption. HOWEVER, I think these days we are all too quick to dismiss what our forefathers set up thinking simply that it is old and outdated without considering why it is the way it is. Unlike the thinking in most European countries (including Russia) our founders were very much afraid of the potential for corruption and abuse in a central government (something that is a real problem in the U.S. today). They very specifically saw the electoral process as a local matter for the very reason that they wanted to ensure that manipulating the vote could not be one-stop shopping. Indeed the very reason the much-maligned electoral college exists is to ensure that each state has a simple and direct way to verify that its voting results are counted accurately according to its own standards of fairness. Today we worry very much about local corruption and ignore the problem of centralized corruption.

    I do very much believe that there needs to be a standardized voting process in the U.S. and that national and international monitoring needs to become the norm. But I still believe that administrative authority over voting should still always be a local matter, with the obvious exception of cases where a court determines that a local authority has violated federal law.

    November 14, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Reply
  19. creative36

    I hope

    November 14, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Reply
  20. creative36

    I hope the Next president will be Transgender.

    November 14, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Reply
  21. steve

    who did u steal from 2 write this story? and next x u c obama ask him a tough ? and people say CNN is not a liberal outlet for the dems...ha ha read some of this stuff this guy has written over the years and u tell me...Oh wait he stole it from someone else to write and put his own spin on it...nice journalism and u must be so proud to work at did that TIME gig work out?

    November 14, 2012 at 3:13 pm | Reply
    • James PDX

      Regardless, Steve, the electoral college and the winner take all system ARE embarassing jokes. Please make an intelligent argument in favor of them. I'd love to hear it.

      November 14, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Reply
  22. MightyMoo

    Yeah our election system is pretty jacked up. I do like the idea of a national standard and non-partisan observers in our elections. That could go hand and hand with the ID idea the GOP wanted to push through and maybe even get more voter turnout.

    November 14, 2012 at 3:19 pm | Reply
  23. Brian

    Elections in this country are a joke. We have them on Tuesday to keep working people from voting. Most countries have their elections on the weekend. France does it on Sunday – their "day of worship." Federal elections should be under Federal control. State government is notorious for incompetence, corruption and overt discrimination.

    November 14, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Reply
    • blood_wraith

      for the record, federal elections weren't designed for us to have any direct say in them at all. we were supposed to elect the state government and the representatives and the states would choose the president and senators. that the states use a pop vote to decide who to vote for was decided by them because most states were too lazy and argumentative to decide by themselves.

      November 14, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Reply
  24. James PDX

    The electoral college is a relic with no current usefulness. And the winner take all states, which are most of them, is the best way to ignore and disenfranchise the most voters possible.

    November 14, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Reply
  25. Gabriel

    When I saw this headline, I I thought it would be either about the fact that only 60% of our citizens vote, the fact that we spend billions on our campaigns and virtually nothing changes, or the fact that many of us have been reduced to the likeness of rabid fans of two opposing football teams, lazy and uneducated about the stance of our "teams", quick to demonize and generalize eachother, and unwilling to listen to reason from the other side. As a U.S. citizen, these embarrass me more than our faulty ballot system.

    November 14, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Reply
  26. That guy said it...

    This is the result of a very conservative country over the past 60 years, and it is clear in the lack of continuity, that these conservatives have attempted to avoid a vote that would result in them having no chance of winning. It is not a secret that as America became more diverse, the ability for conservative, white, male, ideals would become less popular. White males allowed blacks in school and women in the work place barely 50 years ago. You think conservatives are losing votes due to work day voting, bad machines, currpopt practices in general, nope, that stuff only prevents liberals from voting.

    November 14, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Reply
    • blood_wraith

      the "problem" with conservatism is with people like you who see everything and body as a group instead of an individual. the core value of conservatism is to allow people (within reason) to do what they think is right without big brother shoving his face into it. every vote against an affirmative action law or a hate crime law is not a support of racism, but rather a condemnation of the government forcing its beliefs on other people.

      November 14, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Reply
  27. Alger Dave

    I'm glad that even Fareed agrees that we need some voter ID laws. Imagine that – India will have biometric info on each voter – maybe we need that in the US. How about just requiring photo ID. Better yet, let's actually require a certain level of knowledge to vote – a high school diploma for instance is a great start. We already don't let everyone vote – we don't let prisoners vote for instance. So requiring a minimum level of education to vote would not only insure a more educated and smarter electorate, but would also be one more encouragement to folks to take advantage of the free education services we offer in this country. Dropout rates would almost certainly decline. Think about it.

    November 14, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Reply
  28. Sam Howell

    I can see that many people are unhappy with the voting process in the U.S. However I was not aware that the airports were closed. When the open you are free to go where the voting process is more to your liking.

    November 14, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Reply
  29. ian

    The USA is what the 3rd largest county in the world by population? Comparing our election process with that of Mexico and France is apples and oranges. Mexico the biggest of them is just over 100 million compared to the USA and almost 315 million.

    November 14, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Reply
    • Charles

      The only problem with that assertion is that India does a better job than US. They have less money but a lot more people (we're number three, they're number TWO–China's top of the list). And they can get it right. With a lot more people and a lot lower standard of living. The problem is that the old system benefits the parties, so no one's in a position to change things. All the other countries had much more recent changes to fundamental government structure.

      November 15, 2012 at 8:46 am | Reply
  30. felix el gato

    Plagerism is also embarrassing.

    November 14, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Reply
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