GT33M - Contemporary Issues in the Politics of Industrial Societies.

Topic 1.

January 26, 2001.

                                                          American Elections.

The Issue.

The concept of liberal democracy is well established in industrial societies. But many issues of democratic politics relate to the operationalization of the concept, or the mechanics of democracy - that is making it work the way its supposed to. One such issue lies at the very heart of democracy - elections.

Every definition of democracy places election at the centre. Representatives must be elected from among competing candidates, on a regular basis, in free and fair elections. But societies are left to choose their own election systems, ( eg. FTP or PR), electoral processes, (compulsory or voluntary registration and voting, manual or machine voting), and to see that the conditions for free and fair elections are in place. The electoral structure then comes to play a crucial part in democracy. It becomes the critical intermediary between the voter and the government he seeks to elect. It can confirm his choice and make the government elected one based on the >will of the people;= or, it can distort his choice and make the selection perverse.

VOTER   --------------------------> ELECTION-------------------------->GOVERNMENT.

The electoral system a society adopts depends on its philosophy of democracy, that is, who should be represented and how. This, in turn, determines the kind of polity that is being constructed. It is out of this historical act that the events and controversies of the 2000 presidential elections have emerged. Two areas of controversy have emerged:

(1) The purpose and effect of the Electoral College (EC).

(2) The conditions for free and fair elections.

The Electoral College: Purpose.

The United States is the only industrial democracy that has an electoral college.

The electoral college emerged from the philosophy of America=s Founding Fathers and the kind of polity they were trying to build. That philosophy was of a federal, elitist democracy.

First, the EC gave the ultimate determination of the presidency to the STATES over the PEOPLE.

To construct a federal democracy over a national or unitary democracy, the states wanted to have the ultimate say in electing the president. Smaller states especially feared being dominated by larger states. Under the EC system, each state, regardless of its size is guaranteed a minimum of three EC votes - two to equal its number of senators and one for each district representative in the House. For example, Florida has 25 EC votes, two for its two senators and 23 for the number of district representatives. Small states rightly say that a few larger states (Florida, New York, California, Texas, etc.,) had enough people to dominate elections on their own, but under the EC system, a number of small states, acting together could influence who becomes president.

Second, the EC gave enormous influence to the SLAVE-OWNING, SOUTHERN STATES.

While the EC appears to be a reasonable formula to balance the interests of large and small states, there was another more important agenda. Most of the smaller states were conservative, slave-holding, southern states that wanted to preserve their autonomy and laws from the larger, more industrialized, progressive and free states. Many of the Founding Fathers were themselves slave owners who wanted a federal system that included the southern states and found the EC was good compromise. The EC has served to institutionalize the power of conservative American states. The southern states have been the bedrock of American conservatism. Republican presidents tend to win most of the smaller, southern states. Even after slavery, it has been in these states that black and minority voters have faced the hardest struggles for voting rights. It was among these conservative states that George W. Bush won enough EC votes to be competitive. Obviously, it is these states that will make it difficult to abolish the EC system.

Third, the EC ensures that American voters could not directly choose their president. Rather, it is a form of reserving power in the last instance to the party and congressional elites who have been drawn from the wealthier, propertied classes of America. Many voters think they are voting as persons in a system of >one man, one vote.= However, after presidential voting has taken place on the appointed day, a few weeks later the ELECTORS of the electoral college turn up to cast the final vote - their vote. At present, this amounts to 538 individuals (equal to the 436 members of the House, 100 senators and three from the District of Columbia), not the voting population of 100 million voters. A candidate needs 270 EC votes (a majority) to win the presidency.

The EC is therefore a safeguard against the will of the majority. This safeguard was felt necessary to protect the sanctity of property, or the interest of the propertied minority and fit the elitist distrust of the supposed emotional passions, irrationality and undemocratic attitudes of the >unruly masses and the unlearned classes.=

The EC Electors themselves are not individually important or prominent. This gives the impression that they are ordinary Americans. But they are chosen by party men because they must have a record of being party loyalists and party activists. They can be trusted to vote the way the party men want. In most cases (99%), Electors have voted along party lines. In effect, they are the invisible hands and hearts of the party and congressional elites. It is these elites who therefore have the final say in electing the president. To confirm this, if there is a tie in the EC vote, congress votes directly anyway to determine the president. Also, while the Gore campaign sought a recount of Florida votes from the courts, Bush was going ahead to get the Florida Republican legislatures to appoint his EC electors showing the importance of political partisans in determining the electors.

On four (1824, 1876, 1888, 2000) occasions the EC vote has prevailed in conflict with the popular vote. On these occasions, the person with the most popular vote lost to the person with the most EC votes.

Fourth, the EC system supports the >winner-take-all= formula and the two-party system. In other words, it restricts party competition to two parties that, although they might differ on their liberal and conservative programmes, nonetheless are dominated by white men of property who hold firm to the American consensus on capitalism. It keeps out third parties that might have been formed by underprivileged minorities such as blacks, by labour and socialist groups, and by unconventional movements like Ralph Nader=s Green party of today. In 1992, Ross Perot=s Reform Party received 19% of the popular vote but no EC vote.

The winner-take-all system becomes operative because, whichever candidate wins the majority of votes in a state gets all the EC votes in that state. This means that third party candidates might win a large minority of votes but if they do not win a majority, they get no EC votes. It is majority or nothing since it is EC votes that matter. The EC system, therefore, preserves the two-party system. In fact, America differs from other industrialized countries in having the almost perfect two-party system, defined as one where the elected bodies of national government have been the exclusive monopoly of two parties in the last 150 years, the age of modern party politics.

The Electoral College: Effect.

(1) Political structure: federal, two-party system.

The EC preserves:

- the system of states (federalism);

- small states (size);

- conservative states (regional politics);

- two party system (political duopoly);

- party/congressional influence (elitism);

- indirect elections (unpopular choice).

Of course, the American political system relies on ideology, culture, laws, security, propaganda and even outright repression to preserve democracy and capitalism. The Electoral College alone does not do all the above but it is a more hidden, institutionalized, electoral machinery that does the above as well.

Although the EC preserves federalism, federalism does not require the EC. Federal countries like Australia, Austria and Canada do not have an EC.

(2) Ideology: Racism and conservatism.

A most notorious use of the EC occurred in 1876. This election came shortly after the civil war which defeated the attempt by the southern states to be independent. To win the support of slaves in the war, the politicians of the northern states had promised voting rights and racial equality to blacks. After the civil war, a constitutional amendment gave blacks the right to vote. (Slavery ended in 1865, ex-slaves made citizens in 1968, blacks given the right to vote in 1970).

Right away, the election of 1876 reversed those gains. The democratic candidate, Charles Tilden won the popular vote and was way ahead in the EC vote while counting was still going on. The Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes was the opponent. Because there was a third candidate who had won some EC votes, congress feared that neither Tilden nor Hayes would win an outright majority of EC votes. So, to forestall any constitutional crisis or difficulty, its Democratic and Republican members entered a bargain. Congress would elect the president. The Democrats who had strong support in the former slave-owning southern states, would support Hayes. In exchange, Hayes would remove northern troops from the conquered south and allow the southern states to make laws governing elections and voting rights.

This racist pact was intended, and succeeded, in rolling back the voting rights of ex-slaves. The era of Jim Crow laws began. (>Jim Crow= is the title of a song whose name became a slang for segregationist laws and practices). A whole gamut of prohibitive rules were instituted in the south to deprive blacks of the right and opportunity to vote. Literacy tests, poll and property taxes, and the ridiculous Grandfather Clause ( you only had the right to vote if your grandfather had, knowing that the grandfathers of blacks were slaves and did not have that right), were instituted. It took another 100 years for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to officially remove these discriminations. This is the perfect example of how the elitist, conservative, southern, racist agenda of certain states and their party elites were served by the EC in exactly the way that the EC can be made to serve those interests. The EC set back voting rights and democracy in America by 100 years. The 1876 pact opened up the era of post-slavery segregation and American apartheid.

                                     Jim Crow Segregation: Plessy vs Ferguson:

Louisiana passed a law requiring blacks and whites to occupy separate cars on railroad trains. When Adolph Plessy, who was seven-eighths white, refused to obey the law, he was arrested. The Supreme Court ruled in 1896 that although both races were equal under the law it required them to be separate. The equal protection law guaranteed political and legal equality but not social equality. ASeparate-but-equal@ facilities were constitutional because >if one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them on the same plane.=

This >separate-but-equal doctrine= formed the basis for segregation in a number of southern states covering virtually all facilities and was finally overruled by the Supreme Court in Brown vs Board of Education in 1954, ruling as commonsense had always suggested, that >separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.=

The effect of the EC in the 2000 elections is reminiscent of that of 1876. It has opened up new charges of discrimination against African-American voters and a new civil rights crusade aimed at electoral and voting reforms. Civil rights and civil liberty organisations staged a National Day of Resistance march on Inauguration Day, January 20, and plan to maintain a campaign for a Voter=s Bill of Rights and campaign finance reform. The election controversy has turned into a civil rights campaign.

The Electoral College: An Unpopular Device.

The Electoral College has not been popular among Americans.

- Over the past 200 years, some 700 proposals have been made to reform or eliminate the EC.

- It has been that feature of the American political system most subject to reform or abolition proposals.

- The American Bar Association has described the EC as >archaic.= A 1987 poll of its members showed that 69% of its members wanted it abolished.

- National polls of Americans are in favour of abolishing the EC. Polls have shown the following results against the EC: 1967 - 58%; 1968 - 81%; 1981- 75%; 2000 - 57%.

- A number of organisations and legislators, including the new senator, Hillary Clinton, plan to campaign for abolition or reform of the EC.

The Electoral College does not elect the popular candidate.

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), speaking about the Electoral College says: AUnder the Federal system adopted in the Constitution, the nation-wide popular vote has no legal significance.@

The President of the League of Women=s Voters (US) says: ASimple fairness demands a change so the one person, one vote principle is what we abide by.@

Newsweek says: AMany voters now want to abolish the Electoral College, our indirect method of picking a president in which voters choose state >electors= who then cast their votes for the chief.@



The American system of presidential elections differs from those of industrialized countries in that the method is not by popular, direct, one person-one vote elections. It is variously described as archaic, anachronistic and undemocratic.

In France and Austria where the president is directly elected the following method is used:

There is a First Round election where a candidate who receives a MAJORITY of the popular vote is declared the winner.

If there is no winner by outright majority (because more than two candidates are in the contest), all but the two leading candidates are eliminated and a Second Round election is held about three months after. Then, the candidate with the majority wins.

In this system, voters elect the president directly and might have two opportunities to vote. The system provides the possibility for candidates from the multiparty systems to win. It gives voters the possibility of voting in two rounds. For instance, if a third candidate is eliminated in the First Round , his voters have a second attempt to exercise on behalf of their next best choice in the Second Round.


American alternatives.

(1) The Centre for Constitutional Rights (US) has proposed a system similar in principle but slightly different in method to the French and Austrian systems. Its called the Instant Run-Off system of Preferential Voting. This system is used in Australia, Ireland and, to elect the mayor of London when in 2000, the position became electable by direct popular vote for the first time.

On the ballot, voters indicate their first and second choices among a number of presidential candidates. If by counting all the first choices, a candidate wins an outright majority, then he becomes president. If no majority is obtained, all candidates except the two leading candidates in first choice votes are eliminated, and then all the first choice and second choice votes are counted for the two remaining candidates. The candidate with the majority of these votes win.

This creates the same effect as the French and Austrian system, except that a Second Round election is not held three months after, but voters do not have this three month period to reassess their choices, they must make their first and second best choices at one time. This would be a less expensive system since it eliminates a Second Round election.

(2) Another proposal is to reform the Electoral College system so that candidates receive the number of EC votes IN PROPORTION to the total votes they receive in each state. Rather than a winner-take-all EC votes per state, the EC votes would be distributed proportionally within each state.

This is a half-way measure between preserving state votes and giving more relevance to popular votes. There would be better proportionality between EC and popular vote. Third party candidates would do better.

(3) Adopting PR, without the EC, the way that is done in virtually all of the European democracies. The vast majority of western democracies see American-style elections as outmoded and unfair and have rejected the American model in favour of PR.


Free and Fair Elections.

Elkit and Svensson outlined certain conditions for elections to be regarded as free and fair. Fairness is determined by impartiality as against partisanship in administering elections, and making sure all voters have an equal opportunity to vote and for their votes to count equally.

The American presidential elections revealed some remarkable departures from the standards established by Elkit and Svensson. Elections are fair when:

1. Election commissions and Chief Electoral Officers are independent.

2. There is integrity of the ballot process.

3. Independent judicial bodies, such as courts, exist to which appeals can be made to hear cases of impropriety and illegality.

4. Election results are announced quickly.

There were complaints about the impartiality of the electoral process on the above grounds.

Independent election commissions.

An article, AAn American Way to run An Election@ ( says: AThe mechanics of the American election process, we=ve all been told since grade school, are designed to be carried out impartially, free from partisan influence....But....In Florida and many other states, the top election officials and local election supervisors run for office under a party banner. What constructive purpose does this serve, since their job is to ensure that elections are free of partisan influence? Why elect them at all, given that the duties they perform are of an administrative nature, the sort ordinarily carried out by civil servants...@

The Chief Electoral Officer of Florida, Catherine Harris, is an elected Republican who is a member of the Florida cabinet in the government headed by Jeb Bush, the brother of George W. Bush, and who was an active and public campaigner for both. It is absurd for the person whose responsibility to is oversee fair elections in Florida to have been on the campaign platform of a candidate when all polls had indicated that the vote in Florida was going to be close and that Florida would probably make the difference in who won the presidency. Florida had a sizable 25 electoral college votes and it was those votes that made the difference eventually.

The issue of electoral reform in America now includes reform of the electoral administration towards independent and non-partisan election officials.

Ballot process.

Considering the above, many complaints have been made that: the oldest and most unreliable voting machines were placed in districts with strong Gore support; many younger (pro-Gore) voters= names were not on the voter=s list although they had voter ID=s; many voters who had been jailed at some time were told, untruthfully, that they did not have a right to vote; many black voters were stooped at police checkpoints and otherwise delayed in casting their votes; ballot structures were confused causing thousands of the votes of Gore supporters to be thrown out; many polling stations did not have enough support staff, especially in minority districts where language translation services were needed etc..

Newsweek explains the problem of different methods of voting and therefore different standards of voting: AIs this any way to pick a president...about 30 percent of voters still poke a hole in a piece of paper to cast their ballot. One fifth use the kind of balky lever machines introduced more than a century ago. This mishmash of mostly low-tech systems exist because voting methods are decided not by the federal government but by county and state officials. And these local officials, constrained by thin budgets, are often reluctant to lay out the millions needed to upgrade their systems. Little wonder, then, that for many Americans - not just those in Palm Beach County - Election Day meant long lines, confusion and, we=re now learning, botched ballots.@

Commentators have noted that American voting machines are primitive and such machines have long been abandoned in other industrial western democracies. Electoral reforms they therefore say, must include changing the electoral equipment.

For such reasons, the Gore campaigned argued for a recount of Florida votes. But the Florida electoral commission appealed to the courts to block recounts. 

Redress by the Courts.

The Americans do not really have a standard court for determining election controversies. After numerous lawsuits filed at different county, state and federal levels, two courts gave conflicting decisions on whether Florida votes should have been recounted or not.

The Florida state supreme court ruled that the Florida votes should be recounted. The American Supreme Court ruled that there should be no recount. The Federal courts decision went strictly along party lines with five Republican judges voting against the recount and four Democratic judges voting for.

American supreme court judges are not independent, although they are expected to be impartial. But on issues of high politics it is unnatural for partisan judges to be impartial ( just as separate-but- equal is an unnatural idea). American supreme court judges are appointed by the president and many of the present Republican judges were appointed by George Bush Sr., when he was president. These judges are appointed because of their strong partisan positions and because they can be counted upon to rule on laws in ways that are of a similar position as the president on controversial issues such as abortion, gun control, campaign finance, affirmative action, etc..

By ruling that there should be no recount, the Federal court came into direct conflict with the state court. The higher court prevails but the better decision did not. Many commentators admit that the federal court made a political decision. By its ruling, there could be no investigation into fraud and irregularities, so those issues were buried. Independent investigation of such irregularities will proceed by civil society groups but there finding won=t affect the presidency. Effectively, the American Supreme Court appointed the president against the will of the people.


Quick results.

The American election results took 36 days to be confirmed - the longest period among any industrial country in recent memory. It is better for results to be announced as quickly as possible after voting has ended. This would indicate that the election process has gone smoothly and that nothing is being done behind the scenes to tamper with the results. It gives confidence in the process and the results. When results are announced quickly, a concession from the defeated candidate can also follow quickly and the process of transition can proceed peacefully and smoothly.

At the same time, one should not be hasty in producing results at the cost of validating election results. It is better to have a delay in the transition to a new government than to publish corrupt results for the sake of speed.



The American presidential elections have put the spotlight on the American system of elections. It has raised a campaign for electoral reform to bring the American system up to date and more in line with European industrial democracies.  The campaign has proceeded on civil rights grounds and on grounds simply of modernising democracy/ democratising modernity.

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