Five Voting Systems Even Worse than the Electoral College

Think the United States has a crazy way to pick a president? You should see how Lebanon does it. 


Grousing about our arcane and nonsensical Electoral College, and calling publicly for its end, have by now become time-honored election-season traditions in the United States. This year, even the Russians, themselves no paragons of functional democracy, have gotten in on the fun. Admittedly, the U.S. system is problematic, as Electoral College math dictates that Americans living in the battleground states, and no one else, will play the deciding role. On at least four occasions, including the 2000 election, this system has produced a president who failed to carry the popular vote yet won the office anyway.

The fact is that, despite the griping, the Electoral College is not going anywhere anytime soon. Originally put in place (in part) to protect the rights and interests of slave states, who might otherwise have been hesitant to join the Union, it has survived as long as it has because smaller states still value these protections. And there are more than enough small states to block any attempt at a constitutional amendment to dissolve the Electoral College — particularly since of the three required majorities for doing so, only one, the House of Representatives, is actually dependent on population.

Yet despite these weighty burdens, United States voters can take solace in the fact that they do not bear them alone. And while culturally engrained notions of exceptionalism may lead some Americans to the patriotic presumption that "our" arcane and ridiculous electoral system must be the worst in the world (if only by virtue of it being "ours"), it’s a pretty big world out there. When it comes to picking leaders, there are a few systems that are even crazier than America’s.

5. France

In 1962, the French Republic abolished its own electoral college and established a system of direct popular elections to be undertaken every seven (later reduced to five) years. Out of concern that direct elections might produce a flood of fringe candidates that would needlessly complicate the process, a unique set of laws were set in place so as to weed out potentially unelectable candidates ex ante by way of some stringent vetting mechanism. Here’s what they came up with…

To get on the ballot in France, a given candidate must secure at least 500 signed endorsements from among a pool of 45,000 eligible state officials, 36,569 of whom are French "mayors." These mayors, who can endorse only one candidate each, may themselves "represent" constituencies ranging in size from millions (in major cities like Paris) to the very, very small. The smallest technically represents a "village" constituency of one person: themselves.

Beyond the obvious risk for potential horse-trading, corruption, or coercion as candidates traipse around the French countryside seeking the support of elected bureaucrats and micro-constituent mayors, the fact that the lists are subsequently published has proven particularly problematic for potential outsiders. For example, although Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate in this year’s election, had been polling at 20 percent in public support, she struggled greatly to fulfill the mayoral requirement as many potential nominators were hesitant to publically endorse the controversial candidate. Meanwhile, less popular figures — like Philippe Poutou, an auto worker who leads the minor New Anticapitalist Party and did not particularly want to be president — were able to clear the hurdle with comparative ease. While Le Pen eventually did get on the ballot, the system would seem to fall a bit short of "égalité," to say nothing of "logique."

4. Myanmar

While America’s Electoral College system seems perplexing, consider the way presidents are picked in Myanmar. The two houses of parliament each form a constituency, excluding the 25 percent of each house that is directly appointed by the military. The military representatives from both sides of the legislature are then organized into a third body, whereupon each group elects a vice president; then, the presidential electoral college (composed of all three groups) selects one of the three vice presidents to be the new president and the other two remain vice presidents. What might this look like in America, you ask? Well, it wouldn’t be far off to imagine a tricameral Electoral College picking between Harry Reid, John Boehner, and David Petraeus. Yikes.

The system was used in Myanmar’s 2010 general election. With the two largest parties in the parliament both having strong military ties, and with Aung San Suu Kyi still under house arrest, there was little chance of a surprise. True to form, ex-military leader Thein Sein was elected president.

3. Lebanon

In the United States, the disproportionate power of swing-state voters often creates resentment among the electorate in California, Texas, or New York. Now, imagine if this relative lack of voting power stemmed, not from geography or districting, but rather from the ethnicity and religion of each individual voter — a scenario plucked directly from Justice Antonin Scalia’s night terrors. Welcome to Lebanon’s fractious political landscape.

As designed, the respective weight accorded various ethnic and religious groups within the system both undermines democratic legitimacy and exacerbates the very same sectarian tensions it was designed to ameliorate. The system dates from a political agreement among Lebanese Muslims and Christians in 1943, and was renegotiated in the 1989 Taif Agreement, which stipulated that, in perpetuity, the nation’s parliament would be required to remain half Christian and half Muslim.  Hundreds of government positions, ministerial posts, and appointments are ethnically pre-assigned this way — including the presidency (which must go to a Maronite Christian), the prime ministership (a Sunni Muslim), and the parliamentary speaker (a Shiite Muslim). To make matters even more complicated, each voter is allowed a vote on every seat within their heavily gerrymandered districts including those representing other religious or ethnic groups — meaning that minority populations within a given district sometimes get outvoted by outsiders on their own representative.

Whatever sense this spoils system may have made at the outset, there has been no mechanism for readjustment as demographic trends in Lebanon have changed. While the government has deliberately avoided holding a census since 1932, according to U.S. State Department estimates, the three largest ethnic groups at present are Sunni Muslims (27 percent of the population), Shiite Muslims (also 27 percent), and Maronite Christians (21 percent). Yet Maronites possess 34 parliamentary seats, while the other two larger groups possess only 27 seats each out of a total of 128. Meanwhile, demographic trends seem likely to continue increasingly favoring Muslims communities, but the Maronites and other overrepresented groups will almost certainly be loathe to reform the system in the future.

2. Hong Kong

When China regained sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997, its agreement with Britain stipulated that the "special administrative province" would continue governing itself for a period of at least 50 years. And while it was always clear that balancing provincial democracy with Beijing overlordship would be tricky, few could have foreseen the veritable perfect storm of systemic flaws that recently lead the Economist to describe Hong Kong’s election process as "the worst system, including all the others."

Try to stay with us: Hong Kong’s Legislative Council is evenly divided between "geographic constituencies" (whose parliamentarians are designated by political parties through a not-atypical list system, which accords seats based on support received during a general election) and so-called "functional constituencies" (trade and professional syndicates deeply tied to Beijing, whose members will likewise get to vote again as individuals in their respective geographic regions for the lists).

When choosing Hong Kong’s chief executive, things get even shadier. The elections are irregularly spaced, varying in frequency from every two years to every five. Of Hong Kong’s 7 million-plus population, only around 1,200 individuals are able to vote as members of the electoral college, most of whom are drawn from the Beijing-friendly functional constituencies.

And yet, somehow, the saving grace usually found in centralized authoritarian transitions (the lack of costly, rancorous, and divisive elections) is stubbornly absent under Hong Kong’s system. In the past, a Beijing-backed candidate had often run unopposed, but the 2012 election saw multiple contenders. Of the three candidates, the democrat never gained traction and the two Beijing-backed contenders tore each other to shreds in a campaign marked by sex and financial scandals and incompetence.

1. Germany

While Germany may seem a surprising choice for the No. 1 spot, it resides there under the logic that the only thing worse than a ridiculous and complex electoral system would be … having no functioning electoral system at all.

The Basic Law of Germany — which has functioned as a constitution in West Germany since 1949 and over unified Germany since 1990 — establishes a voting system where each voter casts two ballots, one of which is candidate-specific and the other which goes to a party, allowing the latter to assign seats in parliament (the Bundestag) based on its level of relative support. The Bundestag’s members in turn elect the German chancellor. Yet in cases where more candidates win as individuals than would be warranted by a party’s overall level of electoral support, all of those elected will serve, resulting in an "overhang seat" and thus making the eventual number of politicians serving in the German Bundestag unknowable.

In 2008, the German Constitutional Court ruled this practice unconstitutional — as it makes it theoretically possible for a party that wins fewer votes to wind up with a greater number of seats. The court ordered that the government fix the law within three years, making July 2011 the final deadline for a reformed process. Immediately prior to that deadline, the Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government — whose party base has traditionally benefited from this system — turned in a draft for a new revised electoral law that was rejected as unconstitutional along similar grounds, thus leaving the nation devoid of an electoral process.

A new electoral law will now have to be drafted and approved prior to the scheduled fall 2013 general elections, or else a considerable constitutional crisis may result. Meanwhile, hanging over the process is the very real possibility that should a dissolution of parliament or a vote of no confidence against Chancellor Merkel take place, either one of which would require a new election before the next scheduled contest, there would be no functional system under which to do so. So, with one hand tied and each step planted with the greatest of care, the German government limps along.

* * *

So, in the end, remember this as you settle down in front of the television tonight after waiting in long lines to listlessly cast your ballot alongside the other 79 percent of Americans whose individual votes will be largely symbolic: it could always be worse.

Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez teaches on Latin America at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management and is a weekly columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Nacional. His Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.

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