American Democracy, A Cautionary Tale

The persistent pattern of voting problems in U.S. elections is eroding our image as the world's model democracy.

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Today, there are two states that still have lifetime disenfranchisement for ex-offenders: Kentucky and Virginia, where an estimated 25 percent of African-American men won't be able to vote for or against America's first black man to run for president as a major party nominee.

"We know of no other democracy besides the United States in which convicted offenders who have served their sentences are nonetheless disenfranchised for life," says a report by Human Rights Watch. "…According to research by Penal Reform International, prisoners may vote in countries as diverse as the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Israel, Japan, Kenya, Netherlands, Norway, Peru, Poland, Romania, Sweden and Zimbabwe. In Germany, the law obliges prison authorities to encourage prisoners to assert their voting rights and to facilitate voting procedures."

No other democracy locks up more people than ours does. And no European democracy has the death penalty. The freedoms that Americans cherish so much and the democratic ideals many are willing to fight and die for are far more precarious in America than in any other free country.

In Europe, the American presidential campaign is given daily coverage in the news. At a recent dinner party, I expected the generic questions about the election but instead people wanted to talk about offshore drilling and Sarah Palin and censorship. Here, most people are hip to the issues in this monumental presidential campaign.

Americans' innovative, adventurous and dynamic spirit in governance is still very attractive to Europeans who feel like lawmaking here is slowed down by minute details and inflexibility. But when they come to understand the deep flaws of our election system, it's not hard to comprehend why Europeans and others begin to have doubts about the future of the American democratic tradition.

Rose-Anne Clermont is a Haitian-American writer based in Berlin, Germany.