My students give America’s electoral system a C+

This semester at Centre College I taught a course entitled “Parties, Campaigns, and Elections.” We covered a wide range of topics, from the organization of political parties, campaign finance laws, campaign strategies, presidential debates, the elections of 2008, 2010, and 2012, congressional and local campaigns, and things like judicial elections and direct democracy.

For the last day of class, we evaluated the American electoral system against some fundamental democratic standards: (taken from Table 13.1 and Chapter 13 of Campaigns and Elections by John Sides, et al. 2012)

  • Free choice: 1) a choice between two candidates, 2) no coercion of citizens
  • Equality: 1) all votes counted equally, 2) all candidates be able to disseminate information equally
  • Deliberation: 1) citizens have access to information from diverse sources, must be opportunities to deliberate

I asked my students to give America’s electoral system (at the national, state, and local levels) a letter grade based on how well it matches up against the criteria outlined above. Here is the distribution:

  • A: zero
  • A-: zero
  • B+: zero
  • B: 4
  • B-: 12
  • C+: 6
  • C: 2
  • C-: 3
  • D: zero
  • F: zero

The average was a high C+. While we seem to do a fair-to-good job of meeting those standards for presidential elections, several students noted the Electoral College (which gives citizens of smaller states and swing states a disproportionate influence in the outcome of elections) as the key barrier to a more democratic system. Also, they noted that many of these ideals are not being met at the state and local levels, where many seats often go uncontested and information about candidates is lacking.

While the American political systems is certainly more democratic than that found in many places in the world, my students came away with the conclusion that there is still much that can be improved before we can confidently match the ideal norms of representative democracy.


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