Why the United States is ranked the weakest among liberal democracies in a global survey
The defense of democracy has suddenly become one of the central challenges of our time. The ground war in Ukraine is widely considered a front line between autocratic rule and democratic freedom. The United States continues to absorb the meaning of the riot that took place on January 6, 2021 in an attempt to overturn the outcome of the previous year’s election. Elsewhere, concerns have been raised that the pandemic could have provided cover for governments to postpone the elections.
Elections are an essential part of democracy. They enable citizens to hold their governments accountable for their actions and to bring about peaceful transitions in power. Unfortunately, elections often fall short of these ideals. They can be marred by issues such as voter intimidation, low turnout, fake news and the under-representation of women and candidates from minorities.
Our new research report provides an overall assessment of the quality of national elections around the world from 2012-21, based on nearly 500 elections in 170 countries. The United States is the lowest-ranked liberal democracy on the list. It comes in only 15th out of the 29 states in the Americas, behind Costa Rica, Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago and others, and 75th overall.
Why is the United States so low?
There were claims made by former President Donald Trump of widespread electoral fraud in the 2020 presidential election. These claims were baseless, but they still caused the U.S. election standings to plummet.
Elections with contested results score lower in our rankings because a key element of democracy is the peaceful transition of power through accepted results, rather than force and violence. Trump’s comments led to post-election violence as his supporters stormed the Capitol building and cast doubt on the legitimacy of the outcome among much of America.
This shows that electoral integrity is not just about crafting laws – it also depends on candidates and supporters acting responsibly throughout the electoral process.
However, the problems with the US election run much deeper than this event. Our report shows that the way electoral boundaries are drawn in the United States is a major concern. There has been a long history of gerrymanderingwhere political constituencies are cleverly drawn by legislators so that the populations most likely to vote for them are included in a given constituency – as seen recently in North Carolina.
Another issue is voter registration and ballot boxes. Some US states have recently introduced laws that make it more difficult to vote, such as requiring ID, raising concerns about what effect which will take on participation. We already know that the costs, time and complexity of completing the identification process, as well as the additional difficulties for people with high residential mobility or in precarious housing situations, make it even less likely that underrepresented groups will take part in the elections.
Nordics in the lead, concern for Russia
The Nordic countries of Finland, Sweden and Denmark top our ranking. Finland is commonly described as having a pluralistic media landscape, which helps. It also provides public funding to help political parties and candidates run for office. A recent report of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights noted a “high level of confidence in all aspects of the electoral process”.
Electoral integrity in Russia declined further after the 2021 parliamentary elections. UN pre-election report warned against intimidation and violence against journalists, and the media “widely promotes the policies of the current government”. Only Belarus is ranked lower in Europe.
Overall, electoral integrity is weakest in Comoros, Central African Republic and Syria.
How politicians and political parties receive and spend money has proven to be the weakest part of the overall electoral process. There are all kinds of threats to the integrity of elections that revolve around campaign money. Where campaign money comes from, for example, could affect a candidate’s ideology or policies on important issues. It is also often the case that the candidate who spends the most money wins – which means that unequal opportunities are often part and parcel of an election.
It helps when parties and candidates are required to publish transparent financial accounts. But in a time when “black money” can be more easily moved across borders, it can be very difficult to know where donations are actually coming from.
Democracy may have to be defended in battle, as we are currently seeing in Ukraine. But it must also be defended before it degenerates into full conflict, through discussion, protest, clicktivism and calls for electoral reform.
Toby James, Professor of Politics and Public Policy, University of East Anglia and Holly Ann Garnett, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Royal Military College of Canada.