America Lacking in Electoral Integrity

Americans have a tendency to puff up their chests and boast about how amazing their country is. Cries of “Freedom!” “Liberty!” and “Democracy!” ring out during political arguments. Unfortunately, the very thing that makes the United States a free democracy is something that America is beginning to fail at. Electoral integrity needs to be a key issue in any democracy, particularly one that prides itself on being the leader of the free world.

The Electoral Integrity Project (EIP) is an independent research project founded and run by the University of Sydney in Australia, and Harvard University in Massachusetts. The EIP was founded in 2012, (The same year as the World Happiness Report) and provides an independent assessment of elections around the world and how they meet international standards. The EIP surveys 2000 experts regarding 180 elections in 139 countries. The experts are political and social scientists who are knowledgeable about the electoral and political systems in a particular country. These experts are asked to respond to the quality of elections based on 49 different indicators, which are then put into a 100-point Perception of Electoral Integrity (PEI) ranking. A “failed” election scores less than 40 points on the PEI scale.

Overall the United States ranks 47 worldwide out of all 139 nations under comparison, based on the 2012 presidential and 2014 Congressional elections, the lowest score for any long-established democracy.

Elections fail for a variety of reasons, including corrupt campaign financing, poor media coverage, poverty, international ties, ballot fraud, and poorly functioning political institutions. The EIP found that one in six elections fails, and many others are flawed in some way. However, these flawed and failing elections were mostly found in Africa and the Middle East, most elections in the Americas and Europe were found to have more electoral integrity.

Denmark topped the list with more than 80 points on the PEI scale, which should come as no surprise as they were also ranked the #1 happiest country in the world by the World Happiness Report. The United States, by comparison, scored a 62 out of 100 on the PEI scale. It is no real shock that America isn’t top of the list in electoral integrity. Just this week, reports of voter suppression came out in Arizona as registered voters waited hours to vote only to be given provisional ballots. What is surprising is that the United States ranks lower than Brazil, a country that is currently in the midst of a series of anti-government protests. Canada, Chile, and Argentina also ranked higher than the United States. From the EIP report:

The United States, based on the 2012 and the 2014 elections, ranked 47th among all 139 countries in PEI-4.0, achieving a score worse than all other established democracies. US elections got poor grades because experts expressed concern about the quality of the electoral laws, voter registration, the process of drawing district boundaries as well as regulation of campaign finance. Voter registration, in particular, has become increasingly polarized and litigious in the United States ever since the 2000 ‘Florida debacle’, generating growing controversy in state-houses and the courts. New state regulations on voter registration have been implemented in around 30 states.

America also suffers from exceptionally partisan and decentralized arrangements for electoral administration. These problems were addressed by the blue-ribbon bipartisan Presidential Commission on Electoral Administration which issued its report and recommendations in January 2014. Following major decisions by the Supreme Court deregulating campaign funding, the PEI evaluations suggest that the role of money in American politics deserves more detailed scrutiny.

In addition, the PEI experts singled out endemic problems of gerrymandering and the processes involved in drawing voting district boundaries. This left the US with the second-lowest score out of all countries in this particular PEI subdimension. Only Malaysia scored worst in that regard. It remains to be seen how experts assess the 2016 US presidential contest but the overall country ranking seems unlikely to improve given persistent problems of campaign funding, heated partisan polarization over registration and balloting procedures, claims of fraud in the Iowa GOP primaries, and an early primary campaign season characterized by the politics of personal attacks, dissatisfied voters, and populist appeals.

To read the full report and get a list of which elections to watch in 2016, visit the Electoral Integrity Project website.




“I see a woman may be made a fool, If she had not a spirit to resist.” William Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew