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Synthesis/Regeneration 36   (Winter 2005)

Discerning the Democratic Deficit

by John Hickman


Plagued by the suspicion that there was something less than democratic about the 2004 presidential election? You are probably not alone. Millions of other Americans can name specific aspects of the process that they think call into question the legitimacy of the outcome.

Determining whether the 2004 presidential election was genuinely democratic, an exercise in mass participation mimicking a democratic self-government, or something falling between those two characterizations requires comparison against basic criteria for democratic elections.

Specifying the administrative criteria for reasonably democratic elections is easy. First, voter registration should be universal and politically neutral (both non-partisan and non-ideological) except to the extent that it facilitates voting. Second, voting should be the universal right of all citizens that is widely exercised and free from intimidation or the suspicion of intimidation. Third, all votes should be counted accurately.

Specifying the philosophic criteria is also easy. First, voters should be presented with choices among plausible, recognizable parties and candidates sufficient to represent the range of ideologies and interests in society. Second, their electoral choices should be translated into electoral outcomes efficiently and faithfully by the electoral system. Third, the parties and candidates who win office must take office and actually govern.

Problems meeting the three administrative criteria are obvious. Voter registration is far from universal in the United States. Almost alone among the wealthy democracies, the United States does not have a system of universal registration. Those least likely to be registered are also typically members of the least powerful segments of American society: members of ethnic and racial minorities, youth, the residentially mobile, and the less educated.

The sophisticated vote suppression operations employed in recent elections mean that voter registration and voting are not free from intimidation. From the tens of thousands of missing absentee ballots and “caging lists” in Florida, to a new state law in South Dakota requiring presentation of photo identification to vote (a requirement aimed at elderly Native American voters), to the “aggressive poll watching” in Ohio, Michigan, and Nevada, it is clear that state Republican parties and their affiliates are willing to deploy a combination of high handed bureaucratic legalism and old fashioned bullying to deny basic voting rights to members of ethnic and racial minorities.

Members of one group of over four million citizens of the United States who would otherwise be eligible are expressly denied the right to vote in presidential elections: residents of Puerto Rico. In 2000, the First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Gregorio Iguartua de la Rosa v. United States that residents of the island did not have the right to vote in presidential elections, unlike United States citizens who reside everywhere else in the United States and anywhere outside the United States. That residents of Puerto Rico may vote in party primaries to select delegates to the Democratic and Republican Party presidential nominating conventions makes the island’s status as a “no presidential voting rights” Caribbean limbo all the more absurd.

The widespread adoption of touch screen voting machines leaving no paper trail with which to challenge the accuracy of election results may further undermine popular belief in the efficacy of voting and detract form the legitimacy of any declared winner.

Problems meeting the three philosophic criteria are also obvious if far less recent. The familiar logic of strategic voting persuades the overwhelming majority of Americans who participate to vote for either the Democratic or Republican presidential candidate. The two parties with the most potential to compete ideologically with the two behemoths for significant shares of the electorate, the Green Party and Libertarian Party, are forced to fight continuous uphill battles for ballot access, coverage by corporate electronic news media, and organizational and campaign funding.

The result of this unequal contest is that American voters are deprived of effective choices among political parties whose ideologies and policies challenge the power of Big Oil, Big Media, the Military Security State Apparatus, Big Medicine and Big Religion. Republican-Democratic party duopoly thus threatens to lock up the debate about public policy within parameters acceptable to entrenched interests.

That the presidential electoral system in the United States fails to translate votes into electoral outcomes efficiently and faithfully is patent. The 2000 presidential election farce made plain to everyone but the most hidebound reactionary that the Electoral College is a dysfunctional 18th century antique in need of replacement. That so few ordinary Americans can explain how it translates popular votes into Electoral College votes may be significant. For some, the Electoral College is simply too complex to grasp. However, the majority of Americans who appear to be baffled by the Rube Goldberg mechanism may simply be suffering from psychological denial. Perhaps admitting that Presidents of the United States win office by indirect election using an electoral system that ignores the national popular vote is simply too disturbing to process.

Most Americans are aware that the Electoral College sometimes selects Presidents who lose the national popular vote. In 2000, Al Gore received roughly 500,000 more popular votes nationally than George W. Bush, yet Bush won office with 271 votes to 266 votes for Gore in the Electoral College. The 2004 presidential election has also made most Americans aware that it makes voters in swing states more influential than those in the solid Blue and solid Red states. Few are aware of the degree to which it under-represents the residents of large population states like California or Texas and over-represents the residents of small population states like Wyoming and Delaware.

African-Americans and Hispanics are heavily concentrated in the large population states, thus exacerbating their marginalization in American politics.

If there were no alternatives to the Electoral College, then attempting to reform the cranky antique might make sense. A superior alternative exists. Of the 26 countries which elect presidents using popular elections, only the United States uses anything like the Electoral College. Direct election is used everywhere else. The real choice in presidential electoral systems is between a simple plurality vote system like that used in 10 countries, including Mexico and Taiwan, and a majority vote, run-off electoral system like that used in15 countries, including France and Israel.[1]

For anyone wanting a more diverse party system to emerge in the United States, the better choice is the majority vote, run-off electoral system. As the example of the French Fifth Republic illustrates, requiring winning presidential candidates to receive a majority of the popular vote in either the first or second round of balloting results in political space for more than two political parties in national politics. Of course, there are still two major national parties in France—the center-right Rally for the Republic and the center-left French Socialist Party—but they are not an effective party duopoly. In recent presidential elections candidates of the French Communist Party, the Democratic Center, and rightist National Front have also won significant shares of the popular vote in the first round of balloting.

The basic reason for this larger political space is that voters feel freer to cast sincere rather than strategic votes in the first round, and that sometimes makes the smaller national parties valuable coalition partners for the two large national parties. While far from perfect as a mechanism for popular self-government, the adoption of a majority vote, run-off presidential electoral system in the United States nonetheless might open American national politics to new parties and new ideas.

The 2004 United States presidential election was less than a perfect exercise in popular democracy. The exclusion of large numbers of eligible voters from participation, party duopoly and the Electoral College all detract from the legitimacy of the outcome. The time has come for electoral reform—for universal national voter registration and direct national election of the president.


1. Although popularly elected, Israel’s president still bears the title of “Prime Minister,” a legacy of the country’s previous parliamentary constitutional structure.

John Hickman teaches courses on Electoral Systems and Party Systems, and politics in East Asia and Europe at Berry College. His field research includes work done in Japan, Romania, Cambodia and Sri Lanka.

[2 feb 05]

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