Doing Democracy Right
Why are other countries so much better at conducting elections than we are?

By Juliet Lapidos
Published October 17th 2008 in Slate
The presidential election is drawing to a close in the time-honored fashion—with widespread concern over voting irregularities from both parties. Last week, John McCain and the Republican National Committee accused ACORN, a community-organizing group, of generating phony voter registration cards in at least eight states. On Monday, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that Michigan's voter-removal program violates federal law. And in Palm Beach County, Fla., thousands of ballots went missing during a local judicial race, prompting comparisons to the 2000 recount. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, we are not better at running elections now than we were eight years ago.

Our problems begin with a less than state-of-the-art registration system. According to Adam Fogel of FairVote, the United States is one of just a few democracies where the government takes a back seat, expecting individuals to sign themselves up to vote. (Other "self-initiating" countries include such beacons of democracy as Algeria, Cameroon, and Chad.) The National Voter Registration Act (aka the Motor Voter law, which Congress enacted in 1993) makes it possible to sign up at the DMV, at public-assistance offices, or by mail. But many, many people fall through the cracks—only 72 percent of the voting-age population was registered in 2004. Plus, we have no comprehensive way of correcting forms or striking people from the rolls when they move away or die.

Other democracies are not so incompetent. Both Sweden and Australia, for example, manage to get more than 96 percent of their citizens on the books. The Swedes pull this off through virtually automatic enrolment. Instead of relying on its shiftless inhabitants (accustomed to luxuries like universal health care) to get their paperwork in order, the Swedes maintain a national database that includes the name, address, place of birth, and marital status of each individual. The Swedish Tax Administration is responsible for updates, but the police and the municipalities help provide details. (Individuals pitch in by informing the local tax office of alterations—like marriages, divorces, or a change of address.) Prior to every election, the Swedish Electoral Authority simply extracts information from this database to compile an electoral roll for each district. The Electoral Authority then sends proof of registration to each eligible voter, which contains the address of the correct polling station and its hours.

Australia's system is closer to ours. Individual Aussies must fill out their own registration forms and wait for an acknowledgment card. However, as in Sweden, a centralized authority maintains a single national registration database, which the states and territories use to compile local election rolls. And since voting is compulsory (there's a $20 penalty for those without a good excuse), the government feels it has a responsibility to help out with the process. It does this by getting in your face.

If you're a new citizen, you get an enrollment form. When you get your test results in your final year of high school, you get an enrollment form. If you move but don't bother to tell the government, they'll find out anyway by cross-checking the national database against other sources, like billing records from utilities companies and the post office. Call it a nanny state, but Australian paternalism works.

Even if we could figure out a way to register a higher percentage of U.S. citizens, the process by which all those people actually cast their votes would still be a mess. We have a decentralized system, with 13,000 election jurisdictions overseen by county and city officials and, as Adam Fogel puts it, "a messy patchwork" of rules to govern them. Pretty much the only thing every jurisdiction has in common is this: They open polling stations for presidential elections the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November—that is, a work day. (Tuesday voting, for the record, is entirely vestigial. In 1845, Congress fixed upon Tuesday because getting to and from polling places used to be a two-day ordeal, and voting on the weekend or Monday would have meant traveling on the Sabbath.) In addition to the difficulty of getting off work during polling hours, American voters also endure long lines, hanging chads, untrained poll workers, and malfunctioning machinery.

A look abroad suggests that Election Day needn't be such an ordeal. Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, India, New Zealand, and a number of other countries, for example, facilitate voting with an extremely simple, low-cost innovation: They hold elections on either weekends or holidays.

The former Soviet-block state of Estonia is especially forward-looking when it comes to technology. In 2007, the country held the world's first general Internet election. Over the course of three days, Estonians could vote by placing their state-issued ID cards (which have an electronic chip) into a computer reader, entering two passwords, and then choosing their favorite candidates from a list. These votes were then encrypted, archived, stripped of personally identifiable information, and decoded. About 30,000 people, or a bit less than 4 percent of the registered population, cast their ballots in this way. (The rest used polling stations.) Although computer scientists worried that Estonia's e-vote would be vulnerable to hacking, the experiment went off without a hitch, and surveys conducted afterward found high voter confidence in the election results.

Swedes, Australians, and Estonians all vote more than we do—the United States ranks 139 out of 172 countries when it comes to turnout—and experience less angst on Election Day because their governments are more invested in the process. Americans, of course, have a historic hatred of intrusive bureaucrats. As Eric Weiner noted in a prior How They Do It column for Slate, "Europeans tend to trust their private information with governments, not corporations" while Americans trust corporations, not governments. But he wrote that in 2006, before the Fed went on a nationalizing spree. Maybe along with AIG and Goldman Sachs, we should consider using taxpayer dollars to buy a controlling stake in MTV's Choose or Lose.
Juliet Lapidos is a Slate assistant editor.

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