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 The city of St. Louis, Missouri had outdated voting equipment.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. Sam Howell

    Hey Zakaria,

    I just found out the airports are open. When will you be leaving us?

    November 14, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Reply
    • badcafe

      He's contributing a lot more to this country than you ever will, so stop trolling....

      November 14, 2012 at 11:01 pm | Reply
  2. CaesarXIII

    Easy solution for politics.. Battle Royale inside Thunderdome. Two men enter, one man leaves.. There's your next elected official.

    November 14, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Reply
  3. Interested voter

    Thank you for keeping this story going. Maybe if enough rational voices keep on clamoring for change, somebody with the power to effect change will listen!

    November 14, 2012 at 3:52 pm | Reply
  4. CyberBear

    I was a volunteer poll observer in Wisconsin, and I cannot agree more: our election process is a complete joke. Piles of ripped up ballots at every polling station I visited (9 total) because people could not understand the ballot, how to mark it, the machines wouldnt read it, etc. One polling chief had to fix the ballot machine with a hammer! What is the problem here? Can we please get a user-friendly, computer interface that prints out the ballot receipt after you vote? That way people can easily understand how to vote and there will be a paper trail after. Embarrassing is all I can say.

    November 14, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Reply
  5. Brett

    But I'd rather these issues be fought through electoral chicanery than on the streets, like they are in most other countries.

    November 14, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Reply
  6. Hahahahhahaha

    Republicans are a national embarrassment!!!!!!!!! Hahahahahahahahahaah

    November 14, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Reply
    • Stand-Steel

      Politics in general is a ......well you know....... Your guy lied better than mine.

      November 14, 2012 at 4:09 pm | Reply
  7. Sam Howell

    I still waiting for one of you unhappy people to tell us when you are leaving the U.S.

    November 14, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Reply
    • Stand-Steel

      I'm not leaving. More fun to watch all the st_pD Americans call each other names. The USA will be out of money soon, then we can watch the crazy people in the streets killing each other.

      November 14, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Reply
    • Ken Margo

      You better not be outside when we start killing each other.

      November 14, 2012 at 6:25 pm | Reply
  8. Stand-Steel

    I say we vote when we pay taxes every year. File your vote with your taxes. If you don't pay your taxes, you don't vote.

    November 14, 2012 at 3:59 pm | Reply
  9. rosie

    Obama won, so shut up.

    November 14, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Reply
    • Stand-Steel

      It's OK for the system to be screwed up as long as the person you vote for wins the election. It may be different next time because of our messed up system. The Republicans acted the same way when Bush got elected. .... and it's still broken....

      November 14, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Reply
      • rosie

        Last count I saw he also won the popular vote, so shut up.

        November 14, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
  10. SN

    This is a great video and article and yes the US has a lot to learn from the systems and structures set up abroad and working efficiently and effectively. Time to benchmark. However, there is one caveat to this entire thing called the NIH Syndrome – The "Not Invented Here" syndrome meaning "if it wasn't invented here, we will not copy it."

    Hope we would also learn from the lessons that have happened in all of the states to date and create solutions to avoid the same problems..

    November 14, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Reply
  11. Badly-Bent

    It sure is an embarrasment. Especially, here in Florida. It convinces me all the more that both of Bush's Florida wins were in fact rigged election processing.

    November 14, 2012 at 4:06 pm | Reply
  12. locknut

    As the US functions today, few people actually support and endorse democracy at least when the term means equal and fair influence by all citizens over decisions made by/for the whole populace. Rather, people in the US (and most everywhere else, it seems) like democracy because it gives them a leg up, a disproportionate chance of gaining more influence over everyone else. If a candidate were to campaign with the slogan: Improving Our Democracy: Better Representation for All Citizens, he or she would lose, or be powerless if elected, since individual agendas favoring subgroups determine winners and power. This situation isn't going to change anytime soon. It's called RealPolitik.

    November 14, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Reply
  13. Sam Howell

    Not bad Steel I see you get it.

    Still waiting for rush at the airport.

    November 14, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Reply
    • Stand-Steel

      Democrats and Republicans hope Rush get on the plane for.....anywhere but here.

      November 14, 2012 at 4:17 pm | Reply
  14. gj2001

    There are groups of people that support 'states rights'. Anything else is 'socialism'. That group of people is in constant fear that some group that has been exploited will want revenge.

    November 14, 2012 at 4:10 pm | Reply
  15. Bezboz

    Finally a FZ article worth the bandwidth it was downloaded on.

    November 14, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Reply
  16. glades2

    Sadly interesting that in my own short lifetime the USA has gone from world superpower to an embarrassment – it's a bitter pill to swallow but it definitely is true – and we've done that to ourselves, by twisting "freedom" into "do whatever we please" – also known as a democratic version of anarchy...

    November 14, 2012 at 4:17 pm | Reply
  17. Sam Howell

    This country must be great. The only people I see at the airport are trying to get in.

    November 14, 2012 at 4:18 pm | Reply
  18. Kevin L

    From these comments it's clear you're all jealous you aren't from 'MURICA!

    November 14, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Reply
  19. no fareed, you and the left wing media are a joke


    November 14, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Reply
    • Ken Margo

      Sarah Palin, please shut up.

      November 14, 2012 at 6:23 pm | Reply
  20. some guy

    This election i wondered, what is the use of an electorate college system for the presidential election when each and every vote is was counted right to the last digit.

    I was told that even the supreme court had to settle the dispute when in last to last years election the total electorate votes were higher for the Republicans but actual vote was higher for the Democrats.

    November 14, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Reply
  21. Annie

    Democrats and liberals are NOT opposed to voter ID, we're opposed to IDs that poor people have to jump through hoops and pay for. The countries that require national IDs provide them, free, to the adult population. I'm quite sure if legislators wanted to pursue free national ID cards the people complaining would be the conservatives. If you think IDs were proposed for any other reason than suppression of the vote for Obama, you're beyond naive.

    November 14, 2012 at 4:38 pm | Reply
    • Nick

      exactly.....we need to push our legislators to look to other countries an learn......and the whole dem vs repub thing needs to stop.....its going to destroy our fine country

      November 14, 2012 at 6:15 pm | Reply
  22. Big Al

    Next thing you'll know people will have to have IDs to check books out of libraries. Oh, heck, that's already the case. Seems like no one's complaining, though. I suppose the people complaning about having an ID to vote aren't that concerned about checking out and reading library books.

    November 14, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Reply
  23. ja

    the tech that is available, though methods are antiquated

    November 14, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Reply
  24. Martin

    It's amazing that in this day and age a society that promotes itself as being hi tech and "the greatest democracy on earth" doesn't have electronic voting machines in every precinct, and allow voting online through secure websites.

    November 14, 2012 at 4:54 pm | Reply
  25. Martin

    Having voting booths with biometric data implanted in them would seem to be the best idea – no need to show id at the polls, bio scan would have to match thumbprint etc that was given when you registered. Great idea !

    November 14, 2012 at 4:57 pm | Reply
    • Abe

      "Even Venezuela, which had elections last month, had electronic voting booths with biometric technology across the country."

      In Venezuela the biometrics were introduced allegedly to avoid voter fraud. To date after several elections not one case have ever been detected. That wasn't the real purpose, after all we do have photo ID, we dip our finger in ink and we used to leave a fingerprint in the roll book. The real purposes for the introduction of biometrics were:

      1.- Scare opposition voters into thinking that the vote is not secret which could mean losing their job for a public worker or a benefit of a social aid project.
      2.- Create bottlenecks to slowdown voting in opposition strongholds.
      3.- Track in real time the pro government voter turnout using the social projects databases and pressuring those who have gone out to vote and even going to their homes to pick them up.

      Biometrics is not a good idea, not only they cost a lot of money and don't solve a problem that can be addressed with more conventional and effective methods, but they can be very easily abused in favor of one of the parties.

      The only good thing about the elections in Venezuela is the electronic voting machines where the user selects their choice in the screen and the machines prints out a paper ballot that can be deposited in the box for audit purposes later on.

      November 14, 2012 at 7:46 pm | Reply
  26. Daniel

    It is not like this in every state. In Washington State we have many options open to us. Hell I downloaded the ballot sheet online and printed my selection and faxed it in. I could have emialed it but tried this first. There are very few ballot boxes or booths for people to go to. We can do this from the comforts of our homes in seattle. This article seems to apply to some states, not all.

    November 14, 2012 at 4:58 pm | Reply
    • Bill

      Don't impose your progressive methods on the rest of us!

      November 14, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Reply
  27. moose1

    You want us to copy what other countries do, kind of like you copy what other writers write!!

    Left yourself open for that one, didn't you?? 😀

    November 14, 2012 at 4:58 pm | Reply
  28. Hemdog

    I no longer have faith in this's obvious there was voter fraud and intimidation..aka Black Panthers...some districts in Ohio reported 0 votes for Romney (CNN)...mulltiple arrests for voting more than once, and the list goes on and on...I have a neighbor who bragged all his family members voted, they are here on tourist visas, and no one asked them for any proof of residency or citizenship... This crap is happening and only idiots are choosing to ignore it...we have become a second world permanently divided nation of hard workers and slugs...and guess what, I voted for Obama..and I hate what the Democratic party has become and the behavior of some of its supporters..

    November 14, 2012 at 5:12 pm | Reply
  29. steve

    "international election observers were banned from nine states" What were those nine states hiding? This does not sound like America, it sounds like some country with no free voting. Requiring IDs all of a sudden and changing district boundries and cutting early voting and all things that only non-democratic governments use.

    November 14, 2012 at 5:17 pm | Reply
  30. rosie

    Obama won the popular vote AND the electoral vote. Why is that not good enough?

    November 14, 2012 at 5:27 pm | Reply
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