Americans in general are a hospitable people who enjoy helping foreigners understand our culture and traditions. Most of us can defend and explain just about everything — why we call our national baseball championship the World Series, how deep-fried Snickers chocolate bars wrapped in bacon are a perfectly acceptable snack, or why 18-year-olds can serve in the military or buy shotguns but can't order a beer. But ask us to explain why our elections cost so much, last so long, and aren't always won by the candidate who gets the most votes and most of us will have to admit that we're not quite sure ourselves.
Americans go to the polls to elect a president on Nov. 6 and no matter who wins, many will simply be relieved that the whole ordeal is finally over. No other country spends anywhere near as much time or money in electing its head of state than the United States. Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate, formed his exploratory committee on April 11, 2011, and squared off against a host of other Republican candidates in 19 nationally televised debates starting in May 2011, before formally securing his party's nomination at the GOP convention in August.
Most countries spend just weeks or months, rather than years, electing their head of state. According to Stephen Walt, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government who blogs for Foreign Policy, Germany has the longest election period after the United States, with unscheduled elections coming in at a mere 114 days, compared to just a couple of months on average in a host of other countries such as Canada and Australia.
"We have a permanent election cycle for head of state and major federal offices," said Bill Sweeney, the president and chief executive officer of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), a nonprofit that works in more than 135 countries to support citizens' right to participate in free and fair elections.
"It doesn't stop for a whole variety of reasons: the complexity of our process, the size of the country, the number of interests and voices around nomination politics, and how much it takes to become a national figure in this country."
Sweeney said that most other countries have more defined campaign periods, with some outlining the length in their constitutions, and others establishing it in their election laws. Unlike many other countries, the United States also allows political advertising across every type of media platform, which makes running a campaign staggeringly expensive.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the total cost of this year's November elections, including the presidential contest plus congressional races, is projected to approach $6 billion. By comparison, the most recent general election in the United Kingdom, two years ago, cost just $49 million, or 23 times less on a per-capita basis, according to the BBC.
The cost of U.S. elections has been soaring for years, but the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court Citizens United case, which ruled that political spending by corporations and unions was a protected form of free speech, has opened up the floodgates for unprecedented spending by third-party groups hoping to shape the race (and oftentimes keep big-time donors anonymous).
"The Citizens United ruling enables the candidates to, to a large extent, skirt federal finance limits," said Stephen Wayne, a professor at Georgetown University and author of "Is This Any Way to Run a Democratic Election?" and "The Road to the White House 2008." "It allows candidates' supporters to really form their own super PACs [political action committees]."
Sweeney thinks the ruling undermines America's moral authority to promote transparent elections in other parts of the world.
"Citizens United changed the rules of the game, and in many respects, it has adversely affected, in my opinion, the standing of the United States as we try to argue for campaign finance reform, ethics legislation and transparency, particularly in some countries where corruption is very much a real part of doing business," he said.
Wayne said that the unlimited spending by corporations and the huge contributions from wealthy donors like casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who has reportedly pledged to spend up to $100 million to defeat President Obama, fuel the international perception that money buys influence and access in Washington.
"On balance, the problems that people abroad note about American elections are the tremendous expense and the fact that the wealthy seem to have disproportionate influence in the process," Wayne said.
In the 2010 congressional election, less than three-tenths of 1 percent of the American population contributed more than $200 to candidates, but that tiny sliver provided two-thirds of the total purse that politicians used to fund their campaigns, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
A lot of that money goes toward nasty, attack-style ads, which are common in some parts of the world, but anathema in others.
"Negative advertising works here because people accept that information and it impacts their decision making," Sweeney said. "In other societies, negative advertising isn't trusted by people and doesn't work, so it isn't used."
Michael Toner, former chairman of the U.S. Federal Election Commission under President George W. Bush, believes that all of the election-related spending is healthy for American politics. He told the BBC that Americans spend $7 billion a year on potato chips, so there's no reason why they shouldn't spend as much to elect the leader of the free world.
"I don't think you can spend too much," he said.
Aside from cost, length and influence considerations, foreigners and even some Americans struggle to understand the U.S. system, particularly the Electoral College and the county option system that empowers individual counties around the nation to establish their own ballots, hours and voting procedures.
The point of the Electoral College system is to ensure that citizens who live in rural areas or small states aren't ignored, but the result is that presidential candidates end up devoting nearly all of their time and resources to just a handful of "battleground" states where either candidate could conceivably win, thus capturing all of the electoral votes from that state.
Critics say the founding fathers' fears that larger population centers would dictate the elections are no longer relevant, and that the current winner-take-all system gives disproportionate influence to swing states such as Ohio. Some voters in a state that leans strongly toward one party might also be deterred from casting their ballots in the first place, because a simple majority is all that's needed to secure the Electoral College votes.
But of course the biggest complaint is that a candidate can win the most votes but still lose the presidency. When former Vice President Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000 but lost the election to George W. Bush amidst controversy in Florida and other states, much of the world was puzzled by the distinction between the electoral and popular vote. There was also a public outcry in the United States to rethink the Electoral College system, but after the dust settled, that movement never got off the ground.
"There weren't hearings in Congress after Gore vs. Bush and the Democrats controlled Congress," recalled Wayne, who believes that Romney might win the popular vote this year but lose the election in the Electoral College.
The confusion surrounding the 2000 presidential election was viewed gleefully by some around the world who enjoyed the irony of seeing a country that tends to lecture others about their elections have a messy contest of their own. But the fact that Gore and the American public accepted the result and moved on was also proof that the American system can work, even in the closest possible scenario. Every country has problematic elections at some point, but as the world's lone superpower, America's contests come under more intense scrutiny.
Nonetheless, Sweeney said that those famous "hanging chads from Florida in 2000 still provoke questions overseas."
Wayne said that just as there is no real movement to get rid of the Electoral College, there's also little appetite to switch to publicly financed elections, where campaign money comes directly from the U.S. Treasury, despite the fact that Americans dislike the outsize influence that wealthy individuals and corporations wield.
"It has to do with cynicism toward government, the perception that government doesn't spend wisely and that politicians are dishonest and will say and do anything to get elected," he said, explaining the public's preference for the status quo. "People just don't want to give them money."
Wayne noted that in 1978, 28 percent of taxpayers checked a box on their tax returns to contribute $1 (now $3) to the public funding pool for matching campaign funds for the candidates, while today, that percentage is less than 7 percent, despite the fact that the contribution does not increase one's overall tax liability.
And while Americans might be ambivalent about our election system and the need to change it, the rest of the world follows U.S. presidential elections closely, often struggling to make sense of them and wondering why there's often so little discussion of foreign policy issues.
IFES has brought election administrators from 40 to 50 countries around the world to observe the last three U.S. presidential elections and the issue that tends to surprise them the most is how autonomous municipalities around the country are in terms of running the election process.
"It amazes them that they can be here in the District of Columbia, then get on a bus and go to a county in Maryland or Virginia and see completely different election systems," said Sweeney, who believes that the country needs more uniformity in how it runs national elections. "In their countries, the way people cast their vote is the same anywhere in the country; here, we have about a half dozen systems within 50 miles of the nation's capital."
Foreign observers of U.S. presidential elections — including many diplomats in Washington — have also long been puzzled and dismayed by the lack of discussion of global affairs in the debates. Up until just recently, this year's race featured far less foreign policy debate than any other in recent memory due to Americans' preoccupation with the stagnant economy (also see "In GOP Race to the White House, Is Foreign Policy Mere Spectator?" in the April 2012 issue of The Washington Diplomat).
Despite all the complaints about the U.S. system, though, James Lindsay, director of studies and senior vice president at the Council on Foreign Relations, thinks that it still has its merits, especially compared to other parts of the world.
"To many other advanced industrial democracies, America's election system seems long, inefficient and complicated, but I assure you that if you go to countries that don't have the right to vote, they'd love to have the American system," he said.
Wayne noted that while the U.S. system comes under fire from abroad, politicians from around the world still want to hire U.S. public relations firms, political consultants and polling operations to get an edge on their opponents back home.
Sweeney believes that the United States is behind some European countries in the trend toward e-voting and other technological innovations, but he also thinks that too many Americans fail to appreciate their flawed yet still functional system.
"In countries around the world, I've seen people standing in line for hours and then when they get to the polling station, they have to dip their finger in indelible ink, and it takes upward of six weeks for that stain to go away, but that's a badge of honor in that citizens are proud that they voted," he said. "The vote is so precious to them. Here in the United States, I've always felt that we take this very precious right for granted."
About the Author
Dave Seminara is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and a former diplomat based in Northern Virginia.
Last Edited on October 31, 2012