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 The city of St. Louis, Missouri had outdated voting equipment.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

    The electoral college needs to go AWAY, every vote should count and there should not be a winner announced until the very last vote is counted.....period!

    November 14, 2012 at 8:49 pm | Reply
  2. FrmerMarine

    Wow. Maybe this guy never was taught that we broke away from the old world because we don't want to be like them. Maybe in India you can't trust people, but here in Minnesota we have one of the cleanest election systems in the world and we don't need to require ID. 'Splain that Mister Zakaria.

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

      Minnesota with the Al Franken theft of a senate seat? ha ha ha ha ha... Ballots coming out of car trunks that were never counted, That state is joke, Franken is a joke, and should not have ever been given the seat.

      November 14, 2012 at 9:54 pm | Reply
    • Horrendus

      Minnesota with the Al Franken theft of a senate seat? ha ha ha ha ha... Ballots coming out of car trunks that were never counted, That state is joke, Franken is a joke, and should not have ever been given the seat. Just an embarrassment to party and state.

      November 14, 2012 at 9:55 pm | Reply
    • Sean

      So we have a broken electoral system. Other nations do not. And you want to stick with the broken electoral system just to NOT be like other nations. That is one of the stupidest things I have ever heard.

      November 14, 2012 at 10:28 pm | Reply
  3. Mordac

    "Imagine a country on election day where you know the results the instant the polls close".

    Ummmm...China, Cuba, North Korea, Iran....

    November 14, 2012 at 8:53 pm | Reply
  4. FrmerMarine

    Also – India? Really? A country where the Prime Minister is changed by assassination as often as by election? Is this what you're advocating?

    November 14, 2012 at 8:55 pm | Reply
    • nc

      I am assuming that you are really a marine. If so, I think going around the world would have widened your field of view. Just for fun, can you give me the number of times PM is changed by assassination?

      November 15, 2012 at 6:50 am | Reply
  5. TomNPitt

    I think we should have voter ID's. We should decide right now, that in 2016 we all have voter ID's. I mean Voter ID's!! That makes it all even. Everybody – everyone has four years to get a card that specifically states where you are a voter and where you might also vote if you have a secondary address. Republicans have sent us absentee ballots the last two Preidential Elections and have advised us to vote both of them. They say one will cancel the other. Both sides are guilty of voter "issues". It's just this time, the Democrats did the better job. We have four years to fix this thing. Firt off, Florida is not allowed to have an election. They make the rest of us look bad!! Secondly, the only acceptable form of ID to vote is a federal Voter ID. No Driver Licenses, Hunting Licenses, Military ID's . . .nothing! !Just a federal ID Voter Card!!! Period!

    November 14, 2012 at 8:57 pm | Reply
  6. Rob0rah

    Election on a Tuesday and a WORK day. No wonder the dems won!

    November 14, 2012 at 9:04 pm | Reply
  7. IndianaGreg

    Think about how much air time the Flappy Heads on the media would lose if results were known instantly and they couldn't drag it out pre-empting NCIS.

    November 14, 2012 at 9:09 pm | Reply
  8. Horrendus

    As far as states refusing to allow the international observers, it is STATE law in several of them that no one outside of the voters, officials, and official poll watchers can be there. So, no those international observers will not get in, if they want them to get in, then they have to be appointed by one party or another to be their official watcher (if it would be legal at all)

    November 14, 2012 at 9:50 pm | Reply
  9. Happy Jack

    Voter fraud. It was the Republicans who tried voter suppression in the swing states. They tried to suppress the votes of American registered voter systems.

    November 14, 2012 at 9:54 pm | Reply
    • billny

      And Obama got 100% of he vote on over 99% turn out in Philadelphia? Right?

      November 14, 2012 at 10:51 pm | Reply
  10. sankar

    Farid Zakaria's daddy Rafiq Zakaria was a politician in Mumbai, India. Rafiq knows very well how elections go in 3rd world.

    November 14, 2012 at 9:59 pm | Reply
  11. bellenoitr

    We need to follow the Australians who have over 90% turnout. The Europeans have it right, too. Polls are open for at least 2 days, maybe a weekend. Or election day needs to be holiday. But, even more than that, if you don't vote, you have to pay a fine. You live here in the USA and enjoy the freedoms we have here? Then you vote and voice your opinion or you get fined. That will bring votership up real fast! And if you choose to not vote and pay fines, after a certain period of time your citizenship could be revoked. Ask anyone who has immigrated to this country if they vote! They know how lucky they are to be here.

    November 14, 2012 at 10:19 pm | Reply
    • youreyesareweird

      Pay a fine? That will be right up there with demanding a form of id when you vote. The dems will throw that out. The blacks will scream it's because they are black. The hispanics will start waving Mexican flags at it. And they'll all do a nice protest-parade and decry that it is the whites who are racist. Never mind the fact that all those minorities voted purely on skin color (either for or against, either way it's still racism). Yah, good luck with tha...

      November 14, 2012 at 11:19 pm | Reply
  12. Sean

    I do not see how anyone can disagree with this. Our elections are horrible.

    November 14, 2012 at 10:26 pm | Reply
  13. JB

    One would think that plargerism would be more embarrassing

    November 14, 2012 at 10:35 pm | Reply
  14. fastball

    Honest to people are too stunned to have democracy. You don't deserve it. You're so hung up on stereotypes and your entrenched positions – that NOTHING is possible. You can put stuff on Mars, but can't run an election. Implement a simple biometric voting mechanism, that could detect voter fraud......oops, I'm sorry...that means the New World Order government would have your personal information...blah blah blah.
    A couple fewer brain cells, and you'd be officially declared plant life.

    November 14, 2012 at 10:40 pm | Reply
  15. billny

    Blamng Bush again? You're just waiting to plagarize Frum's article I bet.

    November 14, 2012 at 10:49 pm | Reply
  16. marc

    Many of the issues go back to the states' rights origin of the country. You have 50 states that aren't going to let the federal government standardize the voting process for all because they don't want to give up control over which party has the advantage when it comes to elections.

    November 14, 2012 at 10:59 pm | Reply
  17. HR

    We could get rid of elections altogether.

    November 14, 2012 at 11:02 pm | Reply
  18. ishiibrad

    The answer is very easy....... the Repubs don`t want people to vote . Stay at home and watch snookkii,we will take care of the country.Don`t worry !

    November 14, 2012 at 11:13 pm | Reply
    • youreyesareweird

      I think you meant to say Repubs don't want illegal people to vote. Who shot down voter id laws??

      November 14, 2012 at 11:15 pm | Reply
  19. voterfraud

    Everyone I know voted at least three times for Romney, and we still couldn't get him elected. I sure he would have promised us better gifts than funky green paper with dead president's pictures on it. Now, if he would have promised us shares in Bain Capital, we could have bought more votes.

    November 14, 2012 at 11:14 pm | Reply
  20. Watash

    Here we go again, another so-called expert telling us that we should place non-partisan observers at the polling places. First of all where are we going to get that many non-partisan persons, and how can we know for sure that they are truly non-partisan? Why do we need to know immediately after the polls close who all the winners are? Why require an I/D at all if more than a dozen states manage to get by without it? There is an old saying about not fixing something that isn't broken, and that, I believe, is pretty good advice.

    November 14, 2012 at 11:15 pm | Reply
  21. Damion

    First off, allowing a ballot to have ten pages is ridiculous. Voter turnout would be much greater if there were NO LINES and the whole thing was simple. I get it...I live in a country where we don't have to vote for 287 things all on the same day, so the longest the entire voting process for me for any election we have in Canada is about eight minutes. However, our voting processes are uniform, whether it's a federal vote, a provincial vote or a municipal vote.

    I really hope Obama (one of the single greatest presidents to ever lead the United States) is able to help the situation by instating federal guidelines for voting so that whether you're in rural Idaho or downtown NYC, the experience is the same. And the line-ups all but disappear.

    November 14, 2012 at 11:17 pm | Reply
  22. Dick

    The whole voting situation would improve if there were Federal standards, and the GOP was not allowed to suppress voting in the country. Nothing more need be said. The GOP wants only the Republican right and 1% of richest Americans to have a vote. It's only too obvious.

    November 14, 2012 at 11:18 pm | Reply
  23. todd

    Actual free elections? Seriously?

    I agree with your article- our election process is an insult to the democratic process, but to think that our elections are any less jilted than Russia's (or any other third world or highly politically controlled country) is either naive, or egregiously clueless.

    November 14, 2012 at 11:29 pm | Reply
  24. lindsey

    first, we live in a republic, not a democracy. why does everyone confuse that? second, what magically secure electronic voting machines are these other countries using? if they are all designed and/or manufactured from the same company, there is always an inherent risk that something can be tampered with. i doubt voting machines are economically sensible are not 100% secure from a sophisticated hacker. third, how do these countries have non-partisan committees and poll observers? every human has opinions one way or the other, so unless the voting committees are made up of robots there is a bias.

    November 14, 2012 at 11:43 pm | Reply
  25. sportsluvr43

    I dont belong to any party. Why because every election both partys twist what the other says. Will play part of a statement said by the other (not all of what was said) to fit that partys agenda. I am sick of hearing the 1/2 truths. Plus they do not give a damn about the people of this nation. They care about themselves. This is not what i learned about when i went to school. if this was about us as a nation then the electorial vote would have been removed a lont time ago & the voice of the people of every state would really be counted not this bs electorial crap.our election process is so wrong & so outdated.

    November 14, 2012 at 11:44 pm | Reply
  26. Lindy

    What??? Some sort of ID required for election...isn't that racist? At least that is what I have been hearing (whether it is an actual ID card or a finger dipped in ink–get over it America). I would like to know, but none of us ever will, how many people voted in this past election that weren't actual citizens of the GREAT United States of America.

    November 14, 2012 at 11:44 pm | Reply
  27. lindsey

    you what all EU countries have? national ID laws. Germany requires you to have your ID readily available AT ALL TIMES. this includes when you go vote. how can you say we should have standards like in europe, and then when we try to implement those standards, you say it's voter suppression?

    November 14, 2012 at 11:45 pm | Reply
  28. Brian

    "America has one of the world’s most antique, politicized and dysfunctional procedures for its elections." ..

    Reactionaries want it that way. Most of our founding fathers were Indian killing, slave owning reactionaries.

    November 14, 2012 at 11:51 pm | Reply
  29. Chooch0253

    I think what is embarrassing is the obvious though denied attempts, by Republicans to suppress the vote. All they accomplished was to tick off a lot of people and make them more determined than ever to exercise the right to vote. Please continue to try to suppress the vote. Please...................

    November 15, 2012 at 12:13 am | Reply
  30. Dave

    I definitely did a double-take when I saw this article and thought it was being written by Fareed zakaria. Praising voter ID laws, giving credit to Republicans?

    Then I saw that it was written by someone else and it made sense. Carry on.

    November 15, 2012 at 12:16 am | Reply
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