America in Comparative Perspective

An Evaluation of the United States’ Electoral Process
Publication Date: 
7 Nov 2018

Publication Type:

Author(s): 
Chad Vickery and Heather Szilagyi

The 2016 elections brought into view serious threats to the United States’ (U.S.) electoral process, though much recent attention has focused on cybersecurity and foreign interference. The U.S. has traditionally benefited from high levels of trust in the electoral process and its outcomes, but that inherent trust has been declining in recent years. The International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) routinely conducts comprehensive assessments and offers advice on how countries around the world can reform their elections to better align with international standards and best practices. However, more established democracies like the U.S. are rarely scrutinized by the election practitioner community in the same manner.

In a chapter titled “America in Comparative Perspective” in the Oxford University Press publication, Electoral Integrity in America: Securing Democracy, IFES Senior Director for Research, Learning and Strategy Chad Vickery and Research Officer Heather Szilagyi evaluate key elements of the electoral process in the U.S. by applying the analytical framework of the IFES Electoral Integrity Assessment. The research seeks to answer the following question: How would technical assistance providers like IFES assess the integrity of the electoral process in the U.S., using the same parameters routinely used to judge developing democracies?

Electoral Integrity in America

In this chapter, IFES examines boundary delimitation, the Electoral College, voter registration and the decentralized framework for administering elections, including technology vulnerabilities, in the U.S. While evaluating each of these issues independently is important, IFES concludes with a discussion of how interplay among vulnerabilities magnifies the impact of each one on electoral integrity and undermines majority rule and representative democracy. In particular, the system in place produces a high percentage of wasted votes and a system of governance that largely fails to reflect the will of the voters. These structural deficiencies are important to consider in conjunction with cyber threats and foreign interference, as they can do just as much to weaken integrity and diminish trust in the process.

Despite the systemic challenges that threaten U.S. elections, there have been limited attempts to undertake the type of large-scale electoral reform that is often considered in many of the countries in which IFES works. Using original survey research, IFES makes the case that reluctance to reform could be rooted in American attitudes toward central features of U.S. elections that are considered problematic from a comparative perspective but are accepted or even appreciated as positive by election practitioners in the U.S.

Electoral Integrity in America: Securing Democracy is available for purchase here.