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 The city of St. Louis, Missouri had outdated voting equipment.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

    We preach and preach about "democracy" – and then force working people to vote on Tuesday – and then wonder why we have a low turnout compared to other countries. Most other countries vote on the weekend.

    November 14, 2012 at 5:37 pm | Reply
  2. Gloria

    Why must what others do be better than us? If Fareed likes the Indian or Russian system, so be it. It is ridiculous to ask someone voting in their precinct to produce a voter ID. What for? If I am registered, I do not need a voter ID. Why should I produce a voter ID when these IDs cost money. You know, we have poor people in America that cannot afford IDs. If other countries suppress the poor from voting, why should we? The idea that we have to produce IDs to vote is ridiculous! I have a right to vote with or without an ID. Please do not suppress my vote and I am not going to let you do that! Fareed, have you run out of ideas? You are sooo not serious!

    November 14, 2012 at 5:53 pm | Reply
    • Nick

      maybe the government could provide the ID? idk......probably not....only thing we spend money on anymore is bullets and welfare......cant put aside money to build bridges or fund public transportation......definatly cant update our system of voting even though we gloat about being the best democracy in the world....

      November 14, 2012 at 6:11 pm | Reply
  3. Who Cares?

    Election night is a really fun night full of suspense and emotion. The whole world stops to watch, why would we want to eliminate that? I fail to see a good reason, it isn't like they don't have time to figure out who won...

    November 14, 2012 at 5:54 pm | Reply
  4. Nate Higgers

    This will be the first time in American history (and hopefully the last) that America will be without a legitamite President for eight years straight. I never thought in my lifetime we'd be "led" by an african muslim....
    Thank God my British grandparents weren't still here to see this. I don't think they would have been able to deal with the shame.

    November 14, 2012 at 5:57 pm | Reply
    • Nate Higgers


      November 14, 2012 at 5:59 pm | Reply
    • Nick


      November 14, 2012 at 6:07 pm | Reply
    • Ken Margo

      I'm glad your parents aren't here. I hope the same for your children.

      November 14, 2012 at 6:17 pm | Reply
    • MacInBlak70

      Yeah, now the only shame they have to deal with is a waste of sperm like your toothless tiny pr1cked self! GROW UP Hate mongerer GOP LOSER! Tool bag BUSH B1tch!


      November 16, 2012 at 12:15 pm | Reply
  5. Nick

    its simple realy......abolish the electoral college.....dont report votes until all 50 states have closed thier polls( why should hawaii even vote if the election is decided before they decide??? and further more why should a republican vote in california.......or a democrat in texas.....)

    also update out voting method......if we can afford the greatest military in the world.....why cant we afford the best tools to elect our government....

    November 14, 2012 at 6:05 pm | Reply
  6. Ken Margo

    I have no problem requesting ID. The problem is when you request certain ID a month before an election. You can start the process now and have the law fully implemented 4 to 6 years from now. In addition, ALL people should register when they turn 18.

    November 14, 2012 at 6:16 pm | Reply
    • Jerry Lemieux

      Your observation is not backed up by evidence. Many states put vote ID laws into effect over the past couple of years. And in every instance, the Democrats have challenged the laws as discriminating against some group of the other. It is insane to make that assertion given the fact tht ID is required for many activities to include getting a library card, checking into a hotel and visiting a doctor.

      November 15, 2012 at 8:51 am | Reply
  7. JRG

    Voting day/s should be on a weekend or make it a national holiday. And early voting time frame should be the same nationally, say 3 weeks. If you want voter ID make it the law and standard now starting with the next Federal election in 4 years.

    November 14, 2012 at 6:50 pm | Reply
  8. Basher

    Fallacy that there could ever be a non-partisan body associated with voting in the United States.

    November 14, 2012 at 6:50 pm | Reply
  9. Humanity4All

    Excellent points. Now what ? how do you get government to reform this system, while other comelling issues are taking higher priority.

    November 14, 2012 at 6:52 pm | Reply
    • Ken Margo

      what does "comelling" mean?

      November 14, 2012 at 7:05 pm | Reply
  10. just wondering

    Who are we to complain of rigged election's in other countries.... After the republican party's attempted rigging, of the last American Election's

    November 14, 2012 at 7:11 pm | Reply
    • Ken Margo

      Since we know what the republicans plans are, we all should get some sort of gov't id now. You can get a non driver license id as an example to be one step ahead of the republicans. If the republicans can do this to a black man, wait until a Latin, Asian or some other non white ascends to the presidency.

      November 14, 2012 at 7:17 pm | Reply
  11. Mike from Illinois

    Holy crap! Zakaria actually made sense to me for once! I must have had a flash of brilliance to be able to understand his towering intellect.

    November 14, 2012 at 7:12 pm | Reply

    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?

    LOL. Behind what curve is that?

    November 14, 2012 at 7:13 pm | Reply
  13. JimRied

    Plagiarists are embarrassing. Just not at CNN or Time.

    November 14, 2012 at 7:31 pm | Reply
  14. Roderick

    The United States is a REPUBLIC, and that is why we have the electoral college; to prevent an occurrence as such happened in Nazi Germany. Believe it or not, a large population of humans will always be susceptible to mob frenzy. A republic rather than a pure democracy, prevents this from dramatic changes in governance.

    November 14, 2012 at 7:39 pm | Reply
  15. glorydays

    We need Rick Scott to "show us the way" !

    November 14, 2012 at 7:46 pm | Reply
  16. JD

    I will second JimRied I am surprised you are still allowed to plagiarize for this website. If you were a student at any public college you would have seen the door. You are embarrassing CNN by still writing articles.

    November 14, 2012 at 7:47 pm | Reply
  17. David

    The entire system is a mess, the networks want to be the first to say anything. The "new" president was announced an hour before the polls closed here (Alaska). There should be 24 hour period before any voting results are aired. This isn't fair to the people who live in Alaska, Hawaii or other territories that may have voting. Who will vote when the "winner" is already revealed. The entire voting system sucks. It needs revamped and the press needs a period of no reporting. Shame this will never happen.

    November 14, 2012 at 7:48 pm | Reply
    • Ken Margo

      With all the exit polls, do you think waiting 24 hours will keep things a secret? As long as we have national standards, early voting and everyone voting, that is the best you can ask for. (Maybe Alaska and Hawaii can vote the day before?)

      November 14, 2012 at 7:55 pm | Reply
  18. Todd

    I agree with Fareed here; however, to say that America has actual free elections and Russia does not leaves a lot still uncovered. What about the third party candidates who never get into the debates, nor get any media coverage?? What about the buying of presidential candidates by the big corporations through limitless donations? American presidential elections are skewed and are not absolutely fair and free as Fareed made it seem when he compared Russian elections to American.

    November 14, 2012 at 7:52 pm | Reply
  19. Madrien

    Well Zakaria for a plagiarist you are quite jugementhal about the US. Never had anything good to say about it. May be you need to travel some more before trying to BS people because they can corroborate anything you say. Mexico and Brazil are you kidding me? The Comision Electoral can tell you who wan the election a month before it happen because the lection is rigged. How do you think Calderon got to beat Lopez Obrador? Different from you I lived in those countries and I am a citizen of one. May be CNN should take another look at your militant journalism and supend you for a year!

    November 14, 2012 at 7:54 pm | Reply
  20. Mike from NC

    This article is stupid. The electoral college is fine. I don't understand why California and RI still both get the same number of Senators but it is clear why that was originally the case. As far a as voting, in NC I thought it was remarkably efficient and easy. I also do not see how it would be easily manipulated for fraud. To me, the key is that we routinely have a peaceful transition of power. Even in the Bush/Gore election, that was the case.

    November 14, 2012 at 7:54 pm | Reply
  21. DarrellSF

    Yet another good reason to have a Federal Government!

    YES–PLEASE!!! We need a national voter registry, standard national voting rules and regulations, and districts drawn up by non-partisan Citizens rather than politicians.

    The ONLY reason the Republicans held the House this year was because they gerrymandered so many districts across the United States! NOT because of their policies and ideas, which were very much lacking over the last two years.

    November 14, 2012 at 7:55 pm | Reply
  22. Abe

    The onlny thing that is bizarre about the US elections is the electoral colleges system. It is not only archaic but unfair. It also skews the campaign process in strange ways where the more balanced states receive the biggest effort while the more partisans states are largely ignored. This method should be changed for a real national election where every individual vote counts the same.

    If real progress is desired the voting system of "first-past-the-post" that perpetuates the two party dominance should be changed to a Range Voting system where every voter rates all candidates with a score 0-10 (or -5 to 5) that ensures that the winning option is a consensus candidate but most importantly it allows small parties to grow in time and become contenders.

    November 14, 2012 at 7:59 pm | Reply
  23. Rick McDaniel

    Precisely what we have been trying to tell you.

    November 14, 2012 at 8:02 pm | Reply
  24. inTHEmiddle

    To say there is no voter fraud seems nothing short of ridiculous considering how archaine our voting system is. I was a registered voter in CA and then moved to WA a couple years ago and registered to vote when I applied for my new drivers license. The state of CA is aware i am no longer a resident in the sense that my license is no longer valid and I do not recieve a tax form from them but what showed up at my old residence this voting season??? My absentee ballot. Meaning I was able, if I was one that thought my vote mattered in the presidential election in either state, to vote twice. I did not but it shows that there are clear issues with the current voting system. The system needs to be electronic and standardized. Who knows if there was fraud or not but the potenital is there.

    November 14, 2012 at 8:05 pm | Reply
  25. JD

    Jason Mik you can leave this country anytime you want to if you don't like our elections! Iran, Iraq, N Korea, China, Afghanistan all of them would love to have you, you could see if you like their elections!

    November 14, 2012 at 8:19 pm | Reply
  26. Pete

    If you ignorents want something intelligent don't put an R or D after a candidate and eliminate all parties all together.Vote on a candidate on his qualifications and personality,not who his party affiliations are or who his backers are saying about him.Just the candidate like back in school for class president ,no party politics there just a personality contest,the best person wins..It could be worst like England with a reigning Queen for a hundred years right,boy that must suck!!

    November 14, 2012 at 8:25 pm | Reply
    • TomNPitt

      Boy Pete; do I disagree with you. I think everyone should be identified by their party. Especially on TV, radio, newspapers and magazines. All these writers and reporters give opinions – opinions they support with "un-named sources", and "people close to the source". They're lying and giving their political slant based on their preference and saying it like, "I'm really neutral, and this is what the neutral observer sees". That's why Rush Limbau, Bill O'Riley, Glen Beck and Shawn Hannity all say they're not Republicans. They're either Independent or Libertarian. "I'm not biased by the Republican party." Their's some on the Left but I'm too disgusted to list any of them.

      November 14, 2012 at 9:11 pm | Reply
      • Pete

        @TomNPitt,you say Limbaug,Hannity, Beck and ORiley say enough about their party affiliations just being on FOX as you're that interested in seeing these political extremist.Just hearing any of them makes anybody of intelligence want to puke so your ignorence is showing so non partisan ,so neutral ,such BS!!I'm against the obstructionistic republican party,the unpatriotic ole white ones that cater only to the corporate lobbyist that line their pockets with dirty monies to continue their agendas of keeping the wealthy wealthy and the middleclass,poor at a safe distance because of their greed...You'll never see republicans do anything for the little people unless it has something to do with their corporate handlers,just do some reading you'll learn something I hope and stay away from FOX its bad for your mind!!!

        November 15, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
  27. Brian

    You're right. It is an embarrassment. The further away from paper ballots we move, the less secure are our elections. Do you honestly have any confidence in the results? Both parties fix elections. Beyond that, both parties are, for all intents and purposes, the same. It's one grand charade that culminates every four years when we're given the "freedom" to "choose" between a tweedle dee and tweedle dum who will change nothing, do nothing to make our lives safer, freer, and better. Had Ron Paul been the GOP nominee we would have, at last, had a real choice. Instead we got Baritt Rombama.

    Yes. It's an embarrassment.

    November 14, 2012 at 8:28 pm | Reply
    • Ken Margo

      Talk about bitter!

      November 14, 2012 at 8:37 pm | Reply
      • Pete

        @Ken Margo,its an embarrasement to the republican party as a whole having a congress that's guilty of obstructing this president on job,infastructure bills and having a candidate who basically bought his way into the presidencial primaries and then the general election.That's ignorence beyond belief,but that's republicans isn't it with losers voting constantly for losers!!And yes Brians a sore loser isn't he!!!

        November 15, 2012 at 10:15 am |
  28. lee t

    If you feel that eletions are not run correctly–volunteer to work in your precint. Also you may ask to be an observer.
    fnd out what what rules your s

    November 14, 2012 at 8:34 pm | Reply
  29. GWB

    ya know, every four years or so, some malcontent comes up with a bunch of idears on how the good ol' U.S of A. should change it's electoral process because "the rest of the world is watching"! Well guess what, dummiez, we DON"T CARE who's watching. We been doin' it this way for HUNDREDS of years and it WORKS. So take our ideas and................well, you know. Hey, that's how I won against Gore!

    November 14, 2012 at 8:36 pm | Reply
  30. MK54

    Fareed, the USA is a diverse republic, the United States of America. Our Democracy comes in 51 flavors. You really just want vanilla?

    November 14, 2012 at 8:37 pm | Reply
    • FrmerMarine


      November 14, 2012 at 8:51 pm | Reply
      • MK54

        50 States + DC

        November 15, 2012 at 7:19 am |
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