Less Than One Month Until The 2020 Presidential Election In The United States, research shows that the integrity of the country's elections has compared poorly to other democracies in recent years – and questions remain over how the Nov. 3 contest will turn out in the era of the coronavirus pandemic.
A 2019 report published by the Electoral Integrity Project, an independent project based out of Harvard University, found that U.S. elections from July 2012 through December 2018 rated “lower than any other long-established democracies and affluent societies.” Each country in the index was given a score out of 100 based on assessments of the quality of each of its elections – including categories such as electoral laws, voter registration, and voting process – one month after polls closed.
The U.S. score of 61 – the same score as Mexico and Panama – is the second-lowest among liberal democracies and much lower than other countries in the Americas region, including Costa Rica, Uruguay, and Chile. Denmark, Finland, and Norway are among the top-ranked countries in the index, all with scores in the 80s.
Electoral Integrity Ranking, Liberal Democracies
A 2019 report by Harvard University's Electoral Integrity Project found that the United States had the second-lowest integrity score among liberal democracies for elections between 2012 and 2018. The country was ranked at No. 57 overall.
But one difficulty that comes with comparing U.S. elections to other countries – even other democracies – is the unique nature of election administration in the nation, experts say. One notable difference is the level of decentralization in the U.S., says Holly Ann Garnett, an assistant professor at the Royal Military College of Canada.
“Essentially there are 50 different elections going on on the same day,” says Garnett, who is also a contributor to the Electoral Integrity Project. “In some cases even, if counties are running their elections differently within a state, then you can have hundreds of elections going on, each of them with their own set of rules and procedures. And that is quite notable about the American context.”
Garnett notes that in Canada, on the other hand, there is a more centralized management system run by Elections Canada, which has procedures that work “the same no matter where you live” in the country. Canada is ranked No. 18 overall last year in the Electoral Integrity Project's report and had the third-highest score among countries in the Americas.
The lack of uniformity in U.S. elections administration means that some states perform better than others. A study of the 2018 midterm elections by the Elections Performance Index, a project run by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Election Data and Science Lab, assigned low scores – below 70% – to states such as Arkansas, California, New York, and Mississippi. Election administration in the country overall, however, has been improving since 2014, but this truth “is often buried in the heat of campaigns,” wrote Charles Stewart III, a political science professor at MIT who helped develop the index, in a blog post.
“The nuts and bolts of election administration tend to get drowned out in favor of more partisan policy initiatives – which are important, but nonetheless not what election administration is primarily composed of or focused on,” Stewart adds in an email to U.S. News.
There are other differences in the U.S. that “might seem quite odd” to some places, Garnett says. She notes the lack of generalized allowance of same-day voter registration, which is the norm in a lot of countries. She even says that the size of American ballots – indicative of the number of contests happening during each election – “would seem very weird,” at least to Canadians who are used to short and sample ballots.
Turnout is also a notable factor, says Michael McDonald, a political science professor at the University of Florida who runs the United States Elections Project. He notes that Switzerland is the only other liberal democracy with turnout rates as low as the United States.
“Switzerland is a federal government like the United States, and they have local elections that are running all the time,” McDonald says. “So there's maybe something to this notion of voter fatigue, that if you run lots and lots of elections, your voters – they pick and choose which election they're going to vote in.”
Voter fatigue or disengagement is not only a possibility in the U.S. and Switzerland. A 14-country survey published by the Pew Research Center in 2018 found that beyond voting, political participation was relatively low in those countries.
Elections in the U.S. are also “highly litigated,” McDonald says. He notes recent examples in Ohio and Texas where the number of ballot drop-boxes was limited in some areas of those states.
“These are the sort of things when, if you were looking at another country, it probably wouldn't – this would not be legally contested,” McDonald adds. “This wouldn't be an issue. But here in the United States, it is.”
While there is still much to learn about the integrity and performance of this November's U.S. presidential election, there are some early impressions, says Stewart, of MIT.
“We're seeing a few things: one, the anticipated surge in the use of mail ballots, which are, two, disproportionately being requested by Democrats,” he says. “We're also seeing that the ballots are being requested earlier than ever before. So far, we're seeing rejection ranges comparable to past elections, but it's still too early to tell much on that front.”
More will be known in the coming weeks and in the aftermath of the election. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe was invited to observe the U.S. elections and the group's mission is underway, according to Katya Andrusz, a spokeswoman for the organization's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. A news conference is planned for Nov. 4 to share the organization's preliminary findings.
A September report by the Council on Foreign Relations found that the COVID-19 pandemic has already challenged countries that have held elections since the outbreak, with some experiencing a “lack of funding, technical glitches, low turnout, and legitimacy concerns.” Research by the Electoral Management Network, a project led by Professor Toby James of the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, has found that the cost of holding elections during the pandemic is “significantly rising.”
But the extension of mail voting capabilities has proven effective in some countries, including South Korea, the network found. Stewart says that there is no basis to the doubt being sown in the integrity of voting by mail in the U.S., but adds that mail ballots are being “regularly rejected.”
That's A Worry That We're Following In This Election,” Stewart Says.
Garnett, of Royal Military College of Canada, notes that running an election of this size during a global pandemic is unprecedented. But when it comes to the integrity of this November's election in the U.S., trust is what is most important. The reality is that elections are only as good as they are trusted,” Garnett says. “I feel like that's the thing that I say over and over and over again – my tagline. Because whether or not they are run to high quality or not, it's the trust that matters.