US Election System

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According to the Electoral Integrity Project, U.S. elections rank worst among Western democracies. In fact, it’s one of the most error-prone, which is susceptible to fraud, and vulnerable to unfairness.

TIME CODE: 00:00_05:00

Narration: It’s over. Now everyone knows who the new US President is: Donald Trump.

SOUNDBITE [English] Donald Trump, US President-Elect: “I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be President for all Americans and this is so important to me.”

Narration: But over the past few months, there was heated debate about the US presidential election at home and abroad. To many Americans, it was the election for the most powerful leader in the Western world; and an influential role model for how elections should run in other countries. But is the country the electoral role model it imagines itself to be? The fact is that U.S. elections rank worst among Western democracies. According to Electoral Integrity Project, an independent research project based at the University of Sydney and Harvard University, the United States scores 62 out of 100, a full 24 points lower than countries like Denmark and Finland.

The evolution of the nation’s democratic process has been tough, tragic and bloody. The country’s first election came after fighting for independence, a fight that cost many lives. But not everyone was allowed to participate in it: White, landowning Protestant men were almost always the only eligible voters: less than 5% of the country’s population.

Things continued that way for about eighty years until after the Civil War when slavery was abolished and all MEN were given the right to vote. But it didn’t mean that African Americans could use their right to vote. There was a small problem: the new voters would threaten the people in power if they really wanted to participate. So they had to be stopped; they became subject to violence and shady new requirements like literacy test and poll tax. African Americans had to fight for nearly one hundred years before the Right Voting Act was passed.

Meanwhile, women had been totally left out. So they had to organize and fight state by state until they took their fight to Washington and finally got their right to vote all across the country.

Even then, only those aged 21 and over were allowed to go to the polls in most states. When the army began drafting people under 21 to fight in Vietnam, the young realized that their lives were at stake and they had no say. So they rose up in protest and demanded everyone over eighteen should be allowed to vote.

Since then, U.S. officials have been working round the clock to export their democratic values abroad. But that proud tradition has not prevented world-class embarrassments over election chaos at home. Who can forget the Florida spectacle of local volunteers peering at hanging chards on outmoded punch ballots in the 2004 election? Or the long lines that kept many Ohio citizens from registering their preferences in the 2004 election? Clear evidence of dysfunction pops up every election year. Ballots are discarded, poll workers are poorly trained, registration lists are not up to date, machines malfunction, and long lines discourage voters. In the 2000 election, the butterfly ballot was so poorly designed that many people voted for the wrong person. Some of the current ballots are not much better. Confusing standards for qualifying to vote is another problem. And since there are no federal rules for who can vote, each state has their own standard for what ID is acceptable or what qualifies.

TIME CODE: 05:00_10:00

The Simpsons, 2008:“-Hello, I'd like to vote for president, governor or anything that will take money away from our parks and libraries.

-Use machine number three.

-I cannot fit in the booth.

-use the double-wide.

-Oooh, one of those electronic voting dillies.

-One vote for McCain. Thank you!

-Heheh... I wanna vote for Obama.

-Two votes for McCain.

-Come on, it's time for change.

-Three votes for McCain.

-No, no, no.

-Six votes for President McCain.

-Hey, I only meant one of those votes for McCain.

-Oh, this machine is rigged. I must tell President McCain. This doesn't happen in America, maybe in Ohio but not in America.”

Narration: Some political experts believe that the Electoral College is unnecessary. In fact, 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 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. In addition, the “winner-take-all” system makes things even more complicated. In almost every state, the candidate with the majority of votes wins all of the Electoral College votes. Therefore, it’s quite possible for a presidential candidate to have more votes but fail to get the 270 Electoral votes required to enter the White House. In the 2000 presidential elections, while Democratic candidate Al Gore won most of the popular vote, the Electoral College announced George W. Bush the winner of the presidential election.

SOUNDBITE [English] Protester: “We stay, fight back ... We stay, fight back ...”

Narration: Another issue that undermines the democratic nature of US election is presidential debates which are privately organized. The question is, who decides who gets to participate in presidential debates? The public? The Senate? U.S. citizens? The answer is none. It’s a group of unelected officials, chosen largely by the Republican and Democratic parties. The debates themselves are sponsored by corporations. They are the only public discussions between candidates and as such should be protected from partisan and other influences.

SOUNDBITE [English] Scott Rickard, Former US Intelligence Linguist: “The election process in the United States have been incredibly rigged for over a century. When you look at the kinds of influences that are coming into the political room, started really in the 1850s, when the backing community got very closely involved with the politicians. At the same time, you look at all political activists lobbying that's going on. Individuals as nefarious as Jack Abrahamov, these are people who have massive access to political entities as well financial entities that have really hijacked the American political system.”

Narration: In addition to repeated procedural flaws, whether parties and candidates had equitable access to public subsidies and political donations is seen by experts as a problem. Obama and Romney spent $933 million and $841 million respectively in their 2012 campaigns. The increasing costs of running for office have narrowed the demographics for who can participate. In fact, the test of who runs and wins increasingly has more to do with their bank account rather than their merits as a political leader.

SOUNDBITE [English] Jill Stein, US Presidential Candidate, Green Party: “When we started off, we had these two candidates that were the most disliked and untrusted presidential candidates in our history. so they're trying to ram this choice down our throats, a choice between the Queen of Corruption, and the Predator King, a sexual predator, an economic predator, and an environmental predator.”

Narration: In most major Western countries when the polls close in most countries, the results are known almost immediately. Ballots are usually counted accurately and rapidly, and nobody disputes the result. Complaints of voter fraud are rare; complaints of voter suppression are rarer still. That’s while in the US things are different.

SOUNDBITE [English] Scott McLarty, Media Coordinator, Green Party: “In 2004, we saw election fraud. election irregularities take place in a few states, specially Ohio, and possibly new Mexico too. Regarding the election fraud now we have to be very vigilant. the Green Party expands the definition of election fraud and election irregularities to include unfair ballot access laws that were enacted by Democratic and Republican lawmakers, specifically to give their own candidates an advantage and to hinder the possibility of alternative party and independent candidates from participating in the election.”

Narration: To the surprise of many, voting is not in the US Constitution. Of the hundreds of democratic countries in the world, only a handful fail to mention voting rights in their Constitution. The United States is an exceptional nation, but it is not always exceptional for good. The American voting system too is an exception: It is one of the most error-prone, which is susceptible to fraud, and vulnerable to unfairness. Americans are often proud of the democratic process. Maybe they shouldn't be.


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