Election 2020

10 Problematic Ways in Which U.S. Voting Differs From the World’s

Few Americans have any idea how exotic their election process is.

This article is part of Election 2020: America Votes, FP’s round-the-clock coverage of the U.S. election results as they come in, with short dispatches from correspondents and analysts around the world. The America Votes page is free for all readers.

Voters cast their ballots in Minneapolis, Minnesota on Nov. 3.
Voters cast their ballots in Minneapolis, Minnesota on Nov. 3. KEREM YUCEL/AFP via Getty Images

Few Americans have any idea how exotic their election system—with its Electoral College and gerrymandered voting districts—looks from abroad. But even the voting process itself is very different from just about every other democracy’s, making voting more difficult and increasing the risk of voting irregularities and partisan disputes. Here are 10 problematic ways in which voting in the United States is different:

1. Election Day on a work day. Most democracies vote on weekends or make their election day a holiday, which means more people can vote without worrying about missing work.

2. No uniformity in national elections. The United States appears to be the only democracy in the world that does not strive for uniform rules and procedures to govern national elections. Voting takes place across thousands of jurisdictions with myriad ballot types, voter eligibility criteria, voting equipment, counting methods and time frames, procedures for early or absentee voting, and rules for resolving disputes.

3. No national election management body. Unlike almost every other country, the United States lacks a national election commission or other body responsible for the election process. Even other countries with strong federal traditions such as India, Canada, and Mexico have national election commissions that run federal elections with uniform nationwide rules.

4. Partisan election management. In 33 U.S. states, the chief election official is elected in partisan elections and is allied with a political party—the only democracy in the world that selects its senior election officials this way. The impartiality and fairness of election administration thus depend too much on the personal integrity of partisan state and local election officials, who often endorse candidates or run in the elections they themselves supervise. This greatly increases the risk of disputes and litigation.

5. Complicated voter registration. Unlike most countries, the United States lacks a national or otherwise uniform voter registration database. Instead of registration being automatic or taking place at the initiative of the government as in most other countries, the burden of registering to vote rests on each individual. This tends to discourage voter participation.

6. Widespread controversies over voter identification. Most countries have uniform rules on what identification voters must provide at polling places to cast their ballots. Many countries have national ID cards or voter ID cards that every voter can show.

7. Voter suppression. Historically in the United States, there has often been at least one major party working intentionally to make it harder for at least some category of people to vote. Currently, one major political party appears to be trying to discourage voter participation. This does not seem common elsewhere in the world. The practice in some U.S. states of stripping those with past felony convictions of their right to vote for life is also highly unusual.

8. Little authority for election administrators. U.S. election administrators generally have relatively less discretion than those in other countries to adapt rules and procedures—for example, in reacting to the COVID-19 pandemic.

9. No standardized balloting or counting process. Even within a state, technologies and procedures vary from one county to another. Rules about how absentee ballots are counted vary substantially throughout the country—another potential source of disputes. Again, no other country seems to do it this way.

10. No dedicated mechanism to resolve election disputes. Globally, the trend is to establish dedicated election dispute resolution mechanisms. In the United States, in contrast, those with complaints about the process generally have to go to the courts, which tend to be slower and involve judges with less election expertise.

Eric Bjornlund is the president of Democracy International, chair of the Election Reformers Network, and author of Beyond Free and Fair: Monitoring Elections and Building Democracy. Twitter: @ebjornlund