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 CNN.com 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 The city of St. Louis, Missouri had outdated voting equipment.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. George

    Historically speaking, the more people particpate in the process, the better it is for the democrats. Republicans know this and so do democrats. I don't have a problem with voter IDs. In fact, every American should be sent a voter ID card and registered to vote the day they turn 18. Replacement cards should be easily obtainable.

    November 15, 2012 at 8:24 am | Reply
  2. Knotty Boy

    Just to let you know, we also calculate our national debt on a giant abacus. Any smart remarks about that, too?

    November 15, 2012 at 8:29 am | Reply
  3. Jamal0390

    Did anyone know that someone can win the Presidential ticket but only get 20% of the popular vote. Look it up on google you will find plenty of sources to back up my claim. There is even a youtube video on it, if you don't want to read. I find that fact increadible, to think that the next president can win only 20% of the poplular vote and still recieve 270 Electoral votes is insane.

    November 15, 2012 at 8:33 am | Reply
    • walkingfan

      exactly the point of this opinion piece.

      November 15, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Reply
  4. Marty in MA

    ion many (smart) countries, campaining is limited to 6 months. Wouldn't that be wonderful.

    November 15, 2012 at 8:55 am | Reply
  5. Scott

    This is all coming from the same guy (Zakaria) who said that the death of Bin Laden represented the end of Al Qaeda. His credibility is waning rapidly with every opinion he speaks (or I should say, misspeaks).

    November 15, 2012 at 8:58 am | Reply
    • walkingfan

      Actually, Al Queda is on it's deathbed. However, there are other exactly alike who take their place. The world is crazy, or hadn't you noticed?

      November 15, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Reply
  6. laper25

    The US is a federation of 50 states. The presidentiail election is an internal state process, not a federal level one.

    Blame those states that lag behind not the federal government!

    November 15, 2012 at 9:09 am | Reply
  7. Pete

    Have the government issue voter IDs to anyone having a past or existing SocialSecurity card.Residents in nursing homes,hospitals ,the handicapped and disabled have just as much right to vote but are victims because these republican led states won't recognize them as viable voters,just numbers ..Most still pay taxes and can understand competently what's going on around them and they're mad because they're not included in the voting process because of their inability to go to vote in person ..Help these people feel involved again and get cards to all of them ,its your duty as public officials to make sure everyone with a pulse gets to vote if legal,they've paid their price to society so give them a chance to voice themselves,its the least we can do for these people..We are a civilized country aren't we,act that way!!

    November 15, 2012 at 9:14 am | Reply
  8. SoWhat

    Its an AMERICAN election stupid! Foreigners don't like it, they don't have to watch or care.

    November 15, 2012 at 9:16 am | Reply
    • Scott B

      America might want to try that policy out first before demanding it of others.

      November 15, 2012 at 9:42 am | Reply
      • Wake up

        I am American. I agree.

        November 16, 2012 at 5:18 am |
  9. trex

    ............HEY, Romney got an Obama "GIFT"...........................a GOLD PLATED...............24 CARAT ...........................332..........................................hahahahahaahahaha

    November 15, 2012 at 9:30 am | Reply
    • Wake up

      Are you on the computer at the local Library or something? Read a book.

      November 16, 2012 at 5:20 am | Reply
  10. kortee

    When the US Supreme Court rules like they did in Citizens United, a verdict which said "corruption in politics doesn't exist in our country", the demand for change will have to start with the little guy on the street who will say "I'm mad as hell and I won't take it anymore".....this person will be the last guy in line who doesn't benefit from everything going on above him.

    November 15, 2012 at 9:48 am | Reply
  11. Stefan Stackhouse

    The US is a federation, not a unitary state. That makes a very big difference. In a unitary state, everything can be uniform throughout the nation and centrally managed. Not so in a federation of 50 semi-sovereign state.

    Also, I would point out that many other countries have a parliamentary form of government. There is no national election for the head of government, but instead you vote for your local legislator and whichever party or coalition of parties forms a majority then appoints their head of government. That is a system that is every bit as round-about and indirect as is our electoral college.

    November 15, 2012 at 10:20 am | Reply
  12. Mary

    Yes, we know. We have problems every election.
    That being said, it doesn't matter to me what the rest of the world thinks about our voting process. It's our concern...... ours only Fareed. It doesn't concern me what those outside the U.S. think of what we do and how we do it. We are, and always will be, in my lifetime, the greatest country in the world. If I could find a country that has everything we have, and actually has a better way to hold elections, I would listen and consider........ I just have not seen a comparable country yet.

    November 15, 2012 at 11:06 am | Reply
  13. Looking for an intelligent Answer

    What would be so wrong with Requiring some form of ID (be it biometrics or photo id) to be required to vote? I have yet to hear how or why it would so dramatically unfair to any group.

    November 15, 2012 at 11:40 am | Reply
    • Charles

      The fear is governmental overreach. A national ID card inevitably means a national database (people already scream bloody panic about Social Security) which can mean the federal government can start creeping more requirements onto the card. People will start screaming of 1984 and Big Brother who always watches you. Remember, the US was founded on a DIStrust of central government, so the only possible way to streamline a national election (national oversight) is only possible by placing trust in a government people don't want to trust.

      November 17, 2012 at 8:27 am | Reply
  14. Packard

    Oh you live in a country 1/20th the size of America? Geez how clumsy of us to let localities and states make their own laws instead of the idiots living in the DC bubble tell everyone they know better than the rest of the nation. No country is perfect, we have more freedom than these other countries. When legislation is introduced to have photographic ID it causes less people to vote and is deemed racist.

    Cute that the international community has an opinion. It's super cute that Russia has anything to say about freedom or democracy when their 'elected' leader is ex-KGB and their massive country is a mafia state. Have fun with that and keep enjoying all that FREE US AID you get to benefit from with my tax dollars, kooks.

    November 15, 2012 at 11:45 am | Reply
    • Looking for an intelligent Answer

      Why is it deemed racist? I have never understood that. Do non-white americans have a hard time getting photo id?

      November 15, 2012 at 12:04 pm | Reply
      • Wake up

        I find myself asking the same question. Why can you not obtain an ID? maybe if you can not obtain an ID you should not be allowed to vote. I myself and anyone I have ever known has ever had any trouble obtaining an ID. I am not referring to a drivers license

        November 16, 2012 at 4:33 am |
      • Boomer in Mo

        If you are poor and rely on public transportation, or your feet, to get places, it can be a problem. Cost can also be a problem although in MO simple state-issued photo IDs are free. BUT, there is only one place in my county to get one and it is 30 miles from the other end of the county to get there. That is a very long walk in a county with NO public transportation and impossible to make if you are old or handicapped. In fact, where I live, it is poor whites that are likely to be disinfranchised as our minorities seem to be doing OK financially.

        November 16, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
  15. Packard

    maybe if the US had more "fair" elections we'd vote to keep all that US aid in America.

    November 15, 2012 at 11:49 am | Reply
  16. Someone been telling you stories

    I must admit I cannot read this article with being annoyed. The United States has been holding elections for president since 1788. During that time the transition of power has not necessarily been smooth or even in the case of Abraham Lincoln nonviolent. But it has always occurred.

    I won't presume to lecture anyone as to American history but perhaps the author of this article should review it. We live in a polyglot society and have at our origins as individual states. The whole principle of our government is based on these facts.

    To compare the US election process unfavorably to Iraq, India or Venezuela would be insulting if it wasn't so laughable.

    The system works and has for the last 230 years. Other than Great Britain what other country can boast that?

    November 15, 2012 at 12:18 pm | Reply
    • Looking for an intelligent Answer

      What about it bothers you? The Requiring of Id, the electronic voting or just the comparison between two countries? For as advanced in tech as America seems to be it dose seem a bit backwards for the most KEY part of the government process to lack in that matter.

      November 15, 2012 at 12:41 pm | Reply
  17. Cinman

    Since we lag far behind in Internet connectivity and accessibility, but first in cost we'd find a way to screw it up.

    November 15, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Reply
  18. Bill

    I live in Florida and for a six year period we did have electronic ballots. It was a simple touch screen, but for whatever reason, some people were having trouble with it. It was dropped for paper ballots that are a genuine pain to fill out. They have tried voter ID laws here too, but there were complaints that it would used to prevent minorities from voting. I try to be as non-partisan as possible, but it seems to me that here in Florida, all of the complaints about some of the common sense reforms have come from the left. It was the Democrats in this state complaining that the electronic voting machines were undemocratic. It was also the Democrats who lead the effort to prevent voter ID laws from being enforced. And it's surprising that these complaints are coming from the left.

    November 15, 2012 at 1:17 pm | Reply
    • Pete

      @Bill,you're the product of Floridas dumming down society,Democrates have been railing for years to give every tax payer or not voting rights and republicans were the ones trying to supress those votes at any cost.This politically inept governor in Scott says he's wants an investigation when it was he and his republicans cohorts that just caused this voting mess here.So please act intellligent in getting all your pertinent info before posting because you're sounding as ignorent as most of these republican posters here and they think they've got us fooled,yah right!!

      November 15, 2012 at 6:57 pm | Reply
  19. HZ

    you know what, democrats will never try to use modern technology on election, let alone biometrics technologies, because with it comes voter identification, aka no more illegal immigrants vote dozens times per people......

    November 15, 2012 at 1:26 pm | Reply
  20. walkingfan

    Just another instance that makes America a nearly third world country.

    November 15, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Reply
  21. GreyGoose

    The author of this opinion piece has no respect or understanding of our form of government. The federal government simply does not have the authority to trample on states rights, even though they are allowed to do so way too often. Like many in the media today, the answer is simply to have a better federal government or to defer to a U.N. like organization.

    America was founded on individual rights. States rights should not be so easily dismissed and the ease at which this author does so is troubling and typical of the mainstream media.

    November 15, 2012 at 1:45 pm | Reply
    • Charles

      The trouble is, with something as important as elections for NATIONAL positions like the President, you NEED a national scope; otherwise you get what we have now: a ghastly mess. If this is what America wants, then it wants corruption: Anarchy would be preferable; at least you can fight for your say. Part of the understanding of the Federal system is that there are some things that are UNAVOUDABLY national in scope. That's why the military has a national scope, because it defends The State (the US as a whole). That's why a lot of commerce has national scope (because it crosses state lines). So too for elections because they involve national positions.

      November 16, 2012 at 7:42 am | Reply
  22. Rachael Neusch

    First of all, I am not convinced that electronic voting is necessarily superior. Here in my state, Pennsylvania, some districts had computerized voting machines, and at least 3-5 that I am aware of had to be taken offline for showing multiple Obama voters had voted for Romney. In my district we had a simple, one page paper ballot that was scanned and I felt very secure about it. Also, it it much more challenging for Tagg Romney to purchase paper ballots. I also find it hard to believe that States' Rights, small government Republicans would ever go for biometrics (of course they practically seemed to want to create a new federal Department of Uterus Enforcement Administration) However, the problem that Democrats have isn't that skin color magically makes it impossible to get the proper ID required by restrictive voter ID laws, but that economically and socially disenfranchised populations can have problems. Republicans argue that you need ID to drive, or go to the bank, or buy or rent a house, or have an account with the power company. The thing is, not every American does these things. This is what the Republicans are counting on. People that are living in a shelter, attending college in an urban area, just got out of an abusive relationship and don't drive, etc. there are a myriad of lawful American citizens that would not qualify under Republican Voter ID laws. But these people, not coincidentally, are also FAR more likely to vote Democrat. Years of unbiased political science studies have shown that the more Americans that vote, the more Democrats are likely to win. The article raises a lot of good points, but I don't think Voter ID is a problem here.

    November 15, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Reply
    • deep blue

      The "Obama vote goes to Romney" was a touch screen calibration issue. Fairly easy to fix, and likely an electronic error, not some vast conspiracy. In most electronic touch screen applications, recalibration is needed from time to time.

      November 15, 2012 at 5:36 pm | Reply
      • Wake up

        and recalibration was not done before voting? come on now are you even old enough to vote?

        November 16, 2012 at 4:17 am |
  23. rad666

    With all the social media outlets, why haven't more political parties entered the games?

    November 15, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Reply
    • deep blue

      because the Democratic and Republican parties pass laws that make it extremely difficult for a candidate to get on the ballot who is not a member of an established political party. Thousands of signatures. Gathering those signatures takes many volunteers and a significant coordinated effort. Third party candidates are at disadvantage.

      November 15, 2012 at 5:38 pm | Reply
  24. Milton

    There are good reasons to be very cautious about electronic voting, and if implemented it MUST be backed by foolproof, recountable paper coupons. Whatever the manufacturers of such equipment may say, it is a certainty that people will try to hack the system, and there has to be some means of ensuring an audited, foolproof recount.

    Regarding the "world's greatest democracy" ... well, there's much to love about America, but not its politics, not its politicians. Arrogance, greed and hypocrisy are ugl;y to behold, and your leaders have them in disgusting abundance. If a revamped electoral system allowed the oxygen of rational debate to re-enter the horribly polarised political environment, America and her citizens would benefit greatly.

    November 15, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Reply
  25. Don Steele

    Our democracy remains compromised because we've lost our nation's conscience, fair media whose ownership makup poses flagrant conflict of interest!

    November 15, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Reply
  26. jdalco

    So CNN, where were you before the election to help push for voter ID?? Oh Ya, it was discrimination then right? Obama steals the election and it is ok, as long as we fix things for next time . . . what a joke.

    November 15, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Reply
  27. rightospeak

    Good article. There is a lot of talk , but the problems remain-just like DC politics. Normally it takes me about 10 min to vote. Thjis years it took over an hour because a ballot was mailed to me and a number of us in the same situation blocked voting. I come prepared-I read all the articles ahead of time and I know exactly how I am going to vote ,so it should go fast. Something needs to be done.

    November 15, 2012 at 6:28 pm | Reply
    • Archyle

      well that doesn't work in inner cities and florida where most people who grew up there have the reading comprehension of people who are still in elementary school./ That is no exaggeration. This is why most people do not vote on the facts or the real issues, but based on things they identify with, as long as our education is worse than third world we will have this problem.

      November 15, 2012 at 6:37 pm | Reply
  28. Archyle

    If you can only ever vote for criminals, tools and liars, how does having a modern system benefit you?

    November 15, 2012 at 6:39 pm | Reply
  29. outawork

    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? Remember all the protests from the democrats about showing a picture id to vote. It does take a genius to figure this one out.

    November 15, 2012 at 8:03 pm | Reply
  30. johnny

    America's election system has become a big joke in Asia.

    The television debates and the charades connected with it – is typical Hollywood technology.

    And why have with 2 congress, which encourages a potential to derail and paralyse the nation?

    The present election system is really a no brainer, cave man technology. When will America use rocket sicence in its election system?

    It seems like the regulations were established to benefit the advertisers and television stations – and to grossly irritate voters!

    Which could mean fence sitting voters end up voting for the candidate with the least frequent irritating ads, LOL

    November 15, 2012 at 8:42 pm | Reply
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