During a Virtual Roundtable on Voting and Electoral Manipulation that occurred on Friday, September 25th, democratic erosion experts pointed to the unfortunate fact that voters in the United States trust the election solely based on the feasibility of the results. In the wake of President Trump’s lack of ability to ensure a peaceful transfer of power, it is more critical than ever that Americans are able to have confidence in our system of voting. Free and fair elections are one of the most central elements of our democracy; without them, the very foundation of our government will crumble before our eyes. What tools have been eroding election stability under our noses all of this time? Why is it that our democracy all of a sudden appears so fragile? Why are American elections the outlier? It seems that there are three primary ways that elections in the United States differ so significantly from other countries, and especially other developed democracies, and these differences contribute to democratic erosion.
Lack of national voter identification
The United States is the only modern democracy that does not have a universal election identification. Instead, the rules in place of it are notoriously difficult to navigate. Every state has different voter identification laws. Photo identifications range from the most basic driver’s license to the more obscure firearms license. Identifications outside of the classic photo identifications may range from just a name, address, and birthdate to a matched signature. Many studies have shown that the implementation of different voter ID laws is “intensely partisan in nature” and is generally accepted to lead to lower voter turnout. While many argue that a national voter identification would be impossible to properly distribute, leading to fraud, political scientist Susan Hyde stated that it is not a logistical impossibility to get all citizens a nationally-recognized voter identification and that claiming this sort of identification would lead to fraud is “laughable.” The inability to properly identify and register voters in a systematic way is disastrous for voter turnout in the United States; the U.S. ranks 138th out of 172 countries in level of voter turnout. Creating a streamlined voter registration and identification system has been proven to be quite simple in other countries, from Sweden where proof of registration materials are distributed to everyone in the national database of eligible voters, to Estonia, where they have so successfully administered a national ID card that voters can vote online.
Lack of a central election commission
The United States is the only modern democracy that does not have a centralized election authority. Our federal election commission is tasked with the sole responsibility of regulating campaign finance. Therein, there is no objective set of data that Americans can look to in order to ensure that elections are fair. After Russian interference in the 2016 election in combination with Trump’s constant lies about voter fraud, Americans now have good reason to question the results of the election. Who will we turn to? In 2017, the Center for American Progress proposed 9 solutions that would help to ensure free and fair elections. These included: requiring voter-verified paper ballots, replacing old voting machines, conducting post-election audits, updating and securing outdated voter registration systems, requiring minimum cybersecurity standards for voter registration systems, performing pre-election testing on all voting machines, expanding threat information sharing, elevating coordination between states and federal agencies on election security, and providing federal funding for updating election infrastructure. If we were to implement these changes, a central election commission would be essential for execution and oversight.
Lack of attention paid to international monitoring
While the United States does undergo international monitoring in its elections, their findings are seldom advertised. The benefits of international monitoring are the same as those in favor of a central election commission – objective data on election quality is always a good thing. In Susan Hyde and Nikolay Marinov’s essay “Information and Self-Enforcing Democracy: The Role of International Election Observation,” they note the necessity of credible information about election quality and additionally claim that it can “increase the incentives for leaders to abstain from election fraud.” In this sense, it works as another check on power. International monitoring can be an even more powerful tool than a central election commission because it is much more difficult for the sitting administration to manipulate the narrative around the election. Unfortunately, the results of these assessments are seldom reported on or publicly discussed in the United States. Perhaps American exceptionalism gets in the way of our ability to put aside our pride and acknowledge our democratic faults. For any sort of conclusion from international monitoring to be meaningful, the American public must be aware of and engaged with the results, which is entirely not the case. Many Americans are completely unaware that international monitoring even takes place. Even if the public did turn to international sources for validation this year, COVID-19 is currently threatening monitoring that is more needed than ever, since finding observers to polling stations poses a new health risk.
Each of these elements of the American electoral process are indicative of democratic backsliding, as they disenfranchise voters and promote disinformation around the election. Anything that chips away at free and fair elections, even in small ways, points towards the daunting truth that Americans are in danger of losing our fundamental democratic rights. These methods of erosion are not explicit, meaning that citizens must pay attention more than ever before to make sure that the government remains accountable. These methods are also particularly hard to catch, because they are often executed in the name of democracy, like falsely claiming that they will reduce voter fraud.
There can be drawbacks to creating these types of political institutions. For example, in the 2004 Ukranian election, the central election commission sided with the authoritarian incumbent, Viktor Yanukovych, completely undermining the democratic voting process. Additionally, a poor distribution of national voter identification could very well create the same voter suppression problems we see with voter identification laws today. The potential for these institutions to be corrupted, however, has more to do with corrupt people in government rather than the institutions themselves, since many other stable democracies haven proven their ability to successfully utilize these tactics. If we are still unable to properly mobilize voters and protect our elections using these methods, we need to take an even more critical look inwards about who our government is currently designed to serve.
 Diamond, Larry. 2002. “Thinking About Hybrid Regimes.” Journal of Democracy13(2): pp. 21-35.
 Benjamin Highton, “Voter Identification Laws and Turnout in the United States,” Annual Review of Political Sceince, Vol. 20: 149-167 (2017), https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-polisci-051215-022822
 Hyde, Susan D. Remarks during “Democratic Erosion: Voting and Electoral Manipulation Roundtable” Watson Institute Brown University. September 25, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o0M2TKxzTyA&feature=youtu.be&ab_channel=WatsonInstituteforInternationalandPublicAffairs
 Cristina Costantini, “3 Countries Where It’s Easier To Vote Than the United States,” ABC News, November 2, 2012, https://abcnews.go.com/ABC_Univision/countries-easier-vote-united-states/story?id=17625616.
 Hyde, Susan D. and Marinov, Nikolay, “Information and Self-Enforcing Democracy: The Role of International Election Observation,” International Organization, Forthcoming, February 20, 2013, http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1266678.
 Bermeo, Nancy. 2016. “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy 27(1): pp. 5
“Perhaps American exceptionalism gets in the way of our ability to put aside our pride and acknowledge our democratic faults.” This claim that you wrote is one of the most chilling and eye-opening sentences within your argument because is calls for the truth when most Americans refuse to see it. The American system depicts itself as the best and number one, when we have so much to learn from others. Not just in how to function as a democratic system but in general. The United States views itself as the top competitor in the world when we are not even number one in most categories. Just looking at our rank in education gives citizens an understanding of the message you convey. Alliance for Excellent Education released the ranks for the best education, and the United States was not top 5. Our country was 11th, yet we continue to use wat you call “American Exceptionalism” and our pride to convince ourselves that we are the best.
Returning specifically to our democratic faults, I absolutely agree that our pride gets in the way of us becoming a better and more fair system. Princeton provided research showing that the plurality voting type that most countries use may not be the best way to represent most of the people. However, the United States continues to lack adjustment and flexibility in our system. My one question to you is; if the United States continues to lack a flexible democracy, bending to more fair and equal voting and attempting to fix its faults, how do you our country will react in the future?
Alliance for Excellent Education link: https://all4ed.org/determining-where-the-u-s-ranks-in-education/
Princeton Link: https://www.princeton.edu/~cuff/voting/theory.html
Hi Lauren! This is an extremely insightful post, and I enjoyed reading it. I have always found it to be unnecessarily confusing for states to enact their own regulations in regard to voter identification. I do believe that it dissuades potential voters by obviously preventing those who may not have the proper identification but also making things much more complicated, perhaps to the point where citizens could not even be bothered to vote. On the other hand, if there was a national voter identification card, it’s possible that more people would be less discouraged by strict identification rules, and voter turnout would increase. I knew voter turnout in the U.S. was relatively low compared to other democracies, but I was shocked to read how low its ranking actually is. Regarding the lack of a central election commission, as we’re seeing now, local election boards are not equipped to handle these unprecedented circumstances; it makes me wonder if a central election commission would alleviate some of the local organizational obstacles brought on by the pandemic.
I like how you addressed some of the problems that can arise from these institutions, and I agree that the issues are mainly due to corrupt government officials rather than from the institutions themselves. I think it is definitely crucial for the government to take a closer look into these options, as there is a strong likelihood that these institutions could help currently disenfranchised citizens as well as increase voter turnout.