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.

Getty Images
Getty Images

While the greatness of American democracy is celebrated by Obama and McCain, the rest of the free world is squinting and tilting its head at our version of egalitarianism: staggeringly expensive political campaigns, a questionably representative two-party system, a confusing and misleading electoral college and laws (and tricks) that continue to disenfranchise minorities. It also doesn’t help matters that we needed international monitors in the last election to avoid the embarrassing poll shenanigans of 2000.

“The entire American electoral system is so insecure, faulty and inertial,” reads one post in a German public television news forum about the poll antics in the 2004 presidential election.

Since I’ve lived in Berlin through the last three U.S. elections, I can no longer count how many times I’ve had to answer the question: “How can a presidential candidate lose an election when the majority of Americans have voted for him?” This time around, German newspapers have resorted to inserting fact sheets about the American voting system.

On the brink of a presidential election that could mark America’s rise or fall as a model of democracy, I observe from my home abroad how the world is waiting with baited breath to see if Americans can rise to the ideals once so deeply connected to our concept of America.

Much head scratching (and guffawing) on this side of the pond comes from the reality that too few Americans actually exercise their inalienable rights. “If your democracy is so great, why don’t more Americans participate?”

Here in Western Europe, voter turnout averages 77 percent, according to Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), while only 50 percent of eligible voters go to the polls in America. In an IDEA ranking of voter-turnout rates in 170 countries from 1945 to 2005, America placed 139th. The U.S. ranked far behind countries with newer democracies like Cambodia (3rd) and Rwanda (25th). Granted, newer democracies have only had a fraction of free elections compared to the United States, but the desire to vote was proportionately higher in countries where some degree of political freedom is still so new that it can’t be taken for granted.

My own parents planted roots in America 40 years ago—even though they could have enjoyed a financially comfortable life in Haiti—because of the social and political fervor that was transforming the U.S. in the 1960s. “Your father had to go into hiding after protesting Papa Doc,” my mother recalls. “Then we got to America and saw people protesting in the streets and not being killed for it!”

Even though voter turnout increased among young African Americans (by 11 percentage points in 2004 among voters under 25, according to Rock the Vote), there is still a long road to fair practices in the black community. In theory, the 15th Amendment in 1870 gave African-American men the right to vote. In reality, literacy tests, poll taxes, voter caging (let’s not forget old and non-functioning voting machines in inner cities) and felony convictions disenfranchised African Americans for nearly another 100 years.

While many of these hurdles to enfranchisement were eventually abolished, disenfranchisement through felony convictions remained. An estimated 13 percent of African-American men today are disenfranchised, according to The Sentencing Project, making black men the single most disenfranchised demographic in American democracy.