Skidmore College

Free and Fixed Elections? by Isabelle Bertolozzi @ Skidmore College

Bright Line Watch is an organization that, according to their website, “brings together a group of political scientists to monitor democratic practices, their resilience, and potential threats.” The group recently released it’s Wave 4 survey data. Bright Line Watch polled both political science experts and the American public in it’s most recent survey. The survey first asked both the political science experts and the American public to indicate how fully the American government meets twenty-seven standards of a democratic government. This data can be used to gauge the state of democracy in the United States.

Out of the twenty-seven standards there were only eleven standards where more than half of the experts believed that the United States either fully met or mostly met the standard. That means that for the other 16 standards less than half of the experts surveyed believe that the United States mostly meets or meets that standard. Overall, however, the experts believe that democracy in the United States is still pretty strong, when those opinions, however, are contrasted with those of the American public they tell a bit of a different story. In addition, some standards of a democratic government are defiantly in hot water, and both the American public and the experts agree.

Let’s focus on U.S. elections. 84% of the experts surveyed believed that the United States governments either mostly meets, or fully meets the standard: “Elections are conducted, ballots counted, and winners determined without pervasive fraud or manipulation.” This means that overall the experts believe that we are currently living a country with elections that are relatively free of fraud, which is beneficial for the continuation of a democracy. Of the public surveyed, however, only 49% believe that the United States meets this standard of “fraud-free elections.” This perception, by many Americans, that elections are not fraud free could become dangerous if this perceived trend continues into the future. While the majority of experts and almost half of the public believe that the elections are relatively fraud free only a small part of the population sampled believes that the United States mostly or fully meets the standard of: “Elections are free from foreign influence.” In fact only 35% of experts and the public surveyed agree or mostly with that statement. This is another dangerous perception that, if continued will pose a threat to American democracy if people believe that another country is interfering with our election process. The legitimacy of elections is one of the aspects that sets the United States apart from other quasi-democratic nations.

While, in the public’s eye, the legitimacy of elections is possibly in trouble— the electoral districts that contribute to elections defiantly are. Only 8% of experts, and 29% of the American public surveyed believe the United States government either mostly meets, or fully meets the standard:  “The geographic boundaries of electoral districts do not systematically advantage any particular political party.” This standard reflects the process better known as gerrymandering, and it causes a serious threat to our democracy. Poor performance on this standard certainly contributes to the fact that only 27% of experts and 41% of the public believe that the United States government either mostly meets or fully meets the standard: “All votes have equal impact on election outcomes.” In the United States we have a voting system that is referred to as “first to the post.” In an election all that matters is that an individual gets over 50% of the vote— whether that be 50.1% of the vote or 99% of the vote. Therefore when gerrymandering occurs it dilutes the power of a certain group by pushing them all into one district. One district where a candidate representing their interests will get 100% of the vote, and a number of other districts they were kept out of where an alternative candidate will get 51% of the vote. This kind of districting is not representative of the population that lives in the state and leads to legislatures that only represent a sector of the population. In addition, only 36% of experts believe that the United States government either mostly meets or fully meets the standard: “All adult citizens have equal opportunity to vote.” The opportunity to vote is essential to the running of this democracy and the fact that experts believe many people are at a disadvantage when it comes to voting strongly suggests that their voices are not being heard in the election results. When all of this information is looked at together it seems that American elections, while not in a horrendous state, are not as flawless as they could be. Free and fair elections are the hallmarks of a democratic country and the United States elections need to be made more fair, before we are calling them free and fixed elections.


*Photo by secretlondon123 , “Polling Station” (Flickr), Creative Commons Zero License

1 Comment

  1. Drew Flanagan

    February 17, 2018 at 12:15 am

    This post analyzes the comparative opinions of political experts and public citizens to reach the conclusion that US elections “need to be made more fair.” However, does the data referenced subsequently indicate that the United States is currently experiencing a form of democratic erosion? Political Scientist Juan Linz suggests that loss of governmental legitimacy represents a major contributing factor to the decline of democratic regimes. This standard applies to the survey discussed in your post, which essentially measures the general public’s faith in our current electoral system. That being said, it is possible that American citizens no longer see the United States Government as legitimate?
    This post notes that only 35% of respondents believed that US elections are free from foreign influence, a figure which could be attributed to recent allegations of Russian interference in the 2018 presidential campaign. Moreover, this same election featured a candidate ascending to the Presidency despite losing the popular vote. Citizens might be further worried about the value of their vote at the state level, due to the prevalence of gerrymandered districts across the country. Thus, it is perhaps unsurprising that citizens and experts alike are potentially doubting the legitimacy of our current electoral system.

    However, the aforementioned concerns have not gone unaddressed. Special Counsel Robert Muller continues to conduct an extensive investigation into accusations of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, seeking to clarify and rectify all misconduct. Furthermore, the Supreme Court recently agreed to hear Gill v Whitford, a Wisconsin gerrymandering case which poses the potentiality to redefine the judicial standards governing electoral district creation. As referenced in your post, our electoral system is certainly not “flawless.” However, as long as the US government continues to maintain a strict system of checks and balances, citizens can be more assured of legitimate representation.

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