Seven Problems with American Elections

America is one of the greatest countries the world and is often heralded as the best example of democracy (or republic if you want to be a stickler) in the world. Yet there are issues with how voting works in the U.S. worthy of examination. There are better ways to handle some of the details.

  1. Voting is not in the constitution. Of the hundreds of democratic countries in the world, only a handful fail to mention voting rights in their Constitution. Even Iran and Lybia at least promise all citizens voting rights. The U.S.Constitution does not. Voting rights have been touched on in 15th, 19th and 26th amendments (race, gender and age) but many core elements of voting rights are left to the states to decide. States of course deserve their own rights, but national elections are worthy of consideration for national rules.
  2. Our ballots are hard to use. Every state controls it’s own ballots. In the 2000 election the butterfy ballot was so poorly designed that many people voted for the wrong person. Some of our current ballots are not much better. Well written guides do exist for designing easy to use ballots, but every state has to choose to follow them (as opposed to Canada, where there is one voting ballot design for national elections).
  3. The Electoral College is unnecessary. Few Americans understand how it works or why it exists. It mostly comes up in close elections where the popular vote won’t decide the winner. The electoral college was created in the 1800s as a compromise between two factions, one wanting the popular vote to decide, and the other wanting Congress to decide. The rules for how electoral representatives are chosen and if they can vote for someone other than who their state’s citizens voted for vary state to state.
  4. It’s hard for some citizens to vote. People who have the hardest lives, including those working multiple jobs, the disabled, and single parents, struggle to make it to voting booths before they close. Many states allow absentee ballots to help citizens participate, but many do not. While we don’t want to make it too easy to do something this important, some efforts should be made to simplify the process (see lines in Florida and Ohio). Why not move a vague federal holiday like President’s day to be on election day, so citizens can honor past president’s by voting for the next one.
  5. Confusing standards for qualifying to vote. As a result of no federal rules for who can vote, each state has their own standard for what ID is acceptable or what qualifies. For example some states allow convicted criminals to participate, others do not.
  6. Presidential debates are privately organized. Question: Who decides who gets to participate in presidential debates and what the format is? The public? The Senate? U.S. Citizens? The answer is none of these. It’s a group of unelected officials, chosen largely by the Republican and Democratic parties called the the Commission on Presidential Debates. The debates themselves are sponsored by corporations (though what this sponsorship means is unclear). The debates are the only public discorse between candidates and should be protected from partisan and other influences.
  7. It’s impossible for most citizens to run for office. Obama and Romney spent $933 million and $841 million respectively in their 2012 campaigns. While never an option for most citizens, the costs of running for office, including senate races, have increased, narrowing the demographics for who can participate. The test of who runs and wins increasingly has more to do with their bank account rather than their merits as a political leader.

While I don’t have specific proposals for solving these problems, and do recognize attempting to solve them might create more problems, you have to notice the problems before you can do anything about them.

What other problems do you see? What solutions do you have? Leave a comment.

22 Responses to “Seven Problems with American Elections”

  1. Austin

    For #7 on campaign finance, how about a “tax” similar to the luxury tax that professional sports teams sometimes have to pay.

    For example, say there’s a cap of $250M that can be spent on a campaign. Anything spent beyond that is “taxed” at 150% that is divvied up among the other parties such that parties spending less get more of the shared “tax” (with the benchmark being the spending on the previous election).

    So this year, the Democrats would have to pay $900M ($600M * 1.5) to be split among the Green, Constitution, and Libertarian parties.

    This could lead to more diversity in elections and/or less spending on elections. Either one of these outcomes is a win to me.

    1. Jeff

      How do we determine which parties get which share of the surplus funds? Not all of the parties are on the ballot in all states. Of those that are, not all of them have equal support or membership. Should a fringe political party like the The Rent Is Too Damn High Party get the same share as a “mainstream” third party like the Green, Constitution and Libertarian parties? What happens if the same ticket is endorsed by multiple political parties, as with Barack Obama being supported by the Working Families Party and appearing on the ballot under that party (in addition to the Democratic Party) in several states?

      To me, this just seems like a slightly different system to game.

    2. calum

      In Britain there is a cap on the amount a political party is allowed to spend and it is broken down so you cant spend all your money in one area.

  2. Robert Fayle

    In point 6 you wrote “…protected by partisan and other influences.” I hope that was meant to be “…protected from…”

  3. Pete

    It seems to me the major problem with elections is the gerrymandering of districts. It creates safe seats for the party that generates the new maps, leading to more extremist elected officials, instead of the moderates that would be elected in more representative districts. The improvements in mapping software in the last few decades have made extremists more prevalent.

  4. sdimeglio

    I agree that national standards for voting eligibility, procedures, processes and ballots in elections for federal offices must be established as soon as possible. The mishmash of individual state rules does a huge disservice to the voters in the country. Also the Citizen’s United decision needs to be overturned by a future SCOTUS.

  5. kim

    As a foreigner, I appreciate your simple and clear explainations.

    Now, I can see that many Americans also wonder why they use

    the electoral College system.

    Looking forward to reading any interesting posts from you.

  6. Ken

    Several of your comments indicate a general discomfort with a federal republic of sovereign states. In fact we are not one big uniform country.

    1. Scott

      I don’t have a strong philosophical opinion about it. I believe you need the friction between the states rights and federal power to have the best balance. When talking about Federal elections the balance is different as it’s not a state election – I’d have very little to say about how states want to run their own elections. But for a federal election I see room for improvements by more uniformity.

  7. Michael M

    Simplification would go so far but that concept seems entirely lost on the Federal Government on every topic; taxes, welfare, healthcare, etc.

    Voter ID can be whittled down to two things: a Driver’s License or a State Issued Free ID. Voter fraud is far more pervasive than the media likes to admit.

    There is no reason for anything but a popular vote, it was driven by technology issues in the past, Congress represented the voice of each state because of the time and cost involved in the 1800s. It is now both easy and cheap to collect secure popular votes.

    Debates should be sponsored and paid for by the debaters not some black arts committee. The questions and even the referee, I mean hosts are often manipulative and clearly partisan.

    Costs. There is no evidence whatsoever that the bombardment of media and commercials has any influence, which is why it is reviewed so sparsely, no one in the media want to shine a light on all those dollars flowing in that annoy and turn most of the voter off. I would suggest limiting media abuses. X amount of airtime per day, a white out from commercials one week before the election to let people clear their minds and think for themselves. Even restricting all electors, NGO’s and special interest groups from campaigning too early as well.

    Restrict the media from reporting elections results until all polls close, everywhere.

    Get people off their asses and into the polls on time. Virtually all companies of any measurable size let people off for voting in major elections. Most people are too lazy to get up 15 minutes early and vote before work so I have no sympathy for those who wait in long lines after work. If you know, it is going to be hard turn off the boob tube, go online, and ask for an early or absentee ballet. If you are too lazy to get one or get up early to vote, I am not sure you deserved the responsibility to vote anyway. Again I have no sympathy for people in the long lines at night, most could have voted earlier. These same folks complain because they cannot get their taxes in on time even though they had months to do it.

    Require all Federal office (and I’d like Judges to have to run in the states they preside over) to be public money supported, limit that to a fixed amount and don’t allow them to go beyond, how they spend it is their business Just limited it to say $25 million for President and $1 million for Senate.

    Voter mapping should not be a function of elected officials, on either side. It should be based only on occupancy per capita of the zone and logical or natural barriers agreed upon by neutral citizen committees randomly appointed and with no official party affiliations.

  8. Tex Shelters

    Ballots are not hard to use. People use “smart” phones and know how to drive. Voting is easier than both of those activities.

    Nobel effort nonetheless.

    Tex Shelters

  9. Noelle

    In point two you have, ” Well written guides exist do exist for designing easy to use ballots…” I assume you mean, “Well written guides do exist for designing easy to use ballots…” or “”Well written guides exist for designing easy to use ballots…”

  10. Noelle

    Is there a case where a candidate has been left out of a debate due to the corporations decision? If so, where can I find that source?

  11. Alex Herrell

    Hey Scott. Im doing a project on making a new voting system for america. We have to drop the electoral collage. Any ideas?

    1. Patrick Crowley

      Hi Alex,
      Can you send me info on your project? patrick (at) patrickcrowley (dot) net
      Thanks, Patrick

  12. Shawn

    Actually the electoral college is very necessary. If there were no electoral college, large population states like New York and California would decide who the president would be. This would make most of the state’s votes completely irrelevant. In today’s political environment, this country would become a socialistic state pretty quickly.

    1. Anne

      As it is now, an EC vote from CA counts less than 1/3rd of an EC vote from Kansas. This is wrong. EC needs fixing NOW-too easy to manipulate in close elections.



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