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Do we have too much democracy?

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
British Prime Minister David Cameron, left, and President Barack Obama speaking at a joint news conference after their meeting at the G7 summit in Brussels in June.

This the sixth story in a series comparing the U.S. system of politics and elections with other democracies around the world.

New York Gov. Al Smith, one of the bigwigs of the Democratic Party in the 1920s and the party’s presidential nominee in 1928, famously said: “All the ills of democracy can be cured by more democracy.

It’s easy to like the spirit of Smith’s remark, which suggests you can never go wrong by giving the ordinary citizen/voter more say over how, and by whom, she/he chooses to be governed.

But if political scientists who study comparative systems of democracy are right, Smith was in at least one fundamental sense wrong. Another of the key ways in which U.S. democracy differs from democracies elsewhere is that we have more elections and more choices per election.

A U.S. citizen who participates in every election and votes on everything on the ballot would end up making dozens more, scores more — in some comparisons even hundreds of times more — voting decisions than citizens in other democracies.

In a typical, let’s say, European parliamentary democracy, a citizen voting in a national election has one choice to make: a vote for candidate (or, in some systems, a party) to represent him or her. The organization of the national government flows from that election with no further action needed from Citizen Q. Seats are allotted in, let’s say, the House of Commons based on the outcome of that vote.

The party that wins will choose its leader as prime minister (and the voters went into the election knowing the identity of the leaders of the major parties, but not being asked to vote directly for a candidate for prime minister). If no single party gets a majority, a coalition will be organized that commands a majority, but that will require no further input from the average voter.

The prime minister appoints a cabinet, usually from members elected to the Parliament. You could say these features make that system slightly more democratic than ours, since the cabinet members are themselves elected officials, and more accountable than ours, since in many of the systems the prime minister and the cabinet members take questions — directly and publicly and regularly — from their House colleagues, including their opponents, who will ask critical/adversarial questions. (For the fun of it, imagine the president of the United States publicly taking questions — not from reporters once every few months but from members of the opposition party in Congress once a week.)

In the United Kingdom (to mention the example I had in mind in describing the parliamentary system above), there is a requirement that the government can govern for no longer than five years without facing the electorate to renew (or lose) its mandate. Elections can come sooner and often do, either because the coalition has fallen apart or because the ruling party sees an advantage in holding an election, or perhaps even because a great issue has arisen and the country’s leaders feel it necessary to allow the country to debate and decide the issue on the basis of a campaign and an election.

Occasionally, one of the parliamentary systems gets stuck in a loop where a closely divided electorate and the existence of many parties makes it hard to form a stable majority. In those circumstances, it can become necessary to call elections — sometimes several — very close together, which looks weird and off-putting to Americans.

Several years between elections

But it is much more normal for Europeans to go several years between national elections. The U.K. hasn’t had one since 2010, but will have to have one in 2015. The U.S. system, by contrast, guarantees a national election every two years in which the entire 435-member House of Representatives, plus a third of the Senate, is on the ballot, and, of course, a presidential election every four years. The two-year term of a U.S. congressman is very short, by world standards, and even the four-year term of a president is not long in comparative context. The six-year term of a senator is very long. But, on the other hand (and this is very strange in world context) a third of the Senate seats come up every two years. You get the strange situation, such as we have this year, when majority control of the Senate is likely to switch fundamentally because, by a quirk of the rotation, the menu of Senate election this year particularly rich in Republican pickup opportunities. You’ve read that analysis a thousand times, but it is seldom mentioned what an oddity that feature is in world context.

But that biennial House election is only the beginning of how the United States piles potential voting decisions on the electorate. We also have odd-year elections. In Minnesota, those are mostly around municipal offices, and they offer dozens of voting decisions. Then, as I mentioned in the previous installment, each of these elections is preceded by a primary election, a feature that is missing in most of the world’s democracies.

That goes to the question of how frequently America votes. But we are also way, way off the charts on the issue of how many different questions (voting decisions) we face when we do vote. I just called up the sample ballot that I will face in my south Minneapolis precinct this November. These are the offices and issues on which I will be asked to render my considered judgment:  

  • Which candidate do I prefer for the federal offices of: U.S. senator, U.S. House representative.
  • For the Minnesota offices of: state representative (no state senators this year but in 2016), governor and lieutenant governor, secretary of state, state auditor, attorney general.
  • For the Hennepin County offices of: county commissioner, sheriff, county attorney.
  • Then two ballot questions:  a referendum on a proposed Minneapolis charter amendment to raise the filing fee for city office and  a referendum on a city charter amendment to “remove the requirement that businesses holding on-sale wine licenses in the City must serve food with every order of wine or beer and to remove mandatory food to wine and beer sales ratios.”
  • There are two Minneapolis School Board races, requiring three votes:  a race for an at-large seat on the school board (for which I can vote for two) and a race for another school board seat (for which I can vote for just one).
  • Then, on the back of the ballot, are 36 non-partisan judicial races covering the Minnesota Supreme Court (two races, both contested, both with an incumbent running), the state Court of Appeals (seven races) and 27 races (most of them uncontested) for judgeships on the district bench of Hennepin County.

(By the way, if you would like to study up before you go vote, so you can think about and research how you will vote, this link, plus your zip code, will get you the exact ballot you will face Nov. 4.)

In most of the world, judges are not elected. Most of the other democratic countries are not divided into states in the way our country is, so they don’t face those state offices. When you get down to county and municipal offices, there is a wide variation on the level of democratic input, but we do more voting on such offices than the others. We also make more use of the ballot to decide policy questions by referenda, although Switzerland also makes extensive use of ballot questions. (Switzerland, by the way, is one of the relatively few democracies with more election days than we have and one of the few with lower voter turnout than ours.)

As the Al Smith quote at top of this piece suggests, the idea that democracy is good and more democracy is better seems almost tautological in our society. There is surely a danger of elitism in deciding which public positions should actually be chosen by the public, and if not, who should be in charge of appointing the officials. We can’t elect everybody and we can’t elected nobody (and still call ourselves a democracy).

Federal and state elections combined

One reason Americans face such long ballots is that we combine federal and state elections, and one reason we vote so often is that we also elect municipal leaders like mayors and city councils. The United States is bigger and more populous than most of the other democracies. The idea of federalism, of allowing different states to follow different paths, is pretty beloved and basic to our system.

As I compile this series, it occasionally crosses my mind to worry that I might come across as picking every nit I can find disparaging the U.S. system of democracy (and perhaps magnifying it before I pick it). My actual intent (to the degree that one knows such things) is to open minds to the way others do democracy in the naïve belief that one can always benefit from such comparison and even consider the benefits of some other approaches.

For the sake of allowing you to hear the facts directly from some real experts, allow me to close with a couple of paragraphs from political scientists Thad Kousser of U Cal Berkeley and the late Austin Ranney, in their chapter on the U.S. political system for the textbook “Comparative Politics Today.”  The latest (and not yet published) revision of their chapter summarizes:

Another explanation for America’s low voting turnout arises from the fact that American voters are called on to cast far more votes than the citizens of any other country (only Switzerland comes close). In the parliamentary democracies, the only national elections are those for the national parliament, in which voters normally vote for one candidate or for one party. They also vote periodically for a candidate or a party in the elections for the city or rural district in which they live. In the federal systems, they also vote for a member of their state or provincial parliament.

Hence, in most democracies other than the United States and Switzerland, the typical voter makes a total of only four or five voting decisions over a period of four or five years. In some, such as Sweden, the typical voter would make only one voting decision over a four-year period, since all national and local elections take place at the same time.

In the United States, the combination of separation of powers, federalism, the direct primary, and, at the state and local levels, the initiative and referendum means that citizens may be faced with several hundred electoral decisions in a period of four years…

Surely the opportunity to vote in free, fair, and competitive elections is a sine qua non of democratic government, and therefore a good thing. Yet a familiar saying is that there can be too much of a good thing, and many Americans leaving their polling places after casting their ninetieth (or more) vote of the year are likely to conclude that the sheer number of voting decisions in America is a case in point.

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Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 10/15/2014 - 10:07 am.

    Election of Senators

    I would prefer that we go back to the original design for the election of Senators – the State Legislators would make the choices. Of course – if that were the system – Al Franken would not be in office today.

    • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 10/15/2014 - 02:23 pm.

      I had thought it was actually the Governor that appointed the Senator from each state, not the state leg.? Regardless, I have to disagree on moving back to such a system. The Senate is easily the more effective and deliberative body of the Legislative branch, with a lot more comity and goodwill towards other members, than the house, This is precisely because all Senators are elected in statewide (and therefore, necessarily NOT gerrymandered) races… so you tend to get more moderate candidates, and less partisans lobbing rhetorical bombs and demagoguing other groups.

      I think if we want better government, we need to develop a system of fair or blind districts or remove the politicos from the 10-year redistricting cycle.

      I should point out, if your preferred system were in place, we may not have Al Franken, but the whining from conservatives if the current MN Leg got to appoint their own candidate would be deafening.

    • Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 10/16/2014 - 12:08 am.

      What finally ended the debate

      over direct election of senators was when a senate candidate in Montana was openly handing out bribes to legislators. Presumably that sort of thing happened frequently with more discretion. Considering how hard it is to pass a constitutional amendment, the majority in favor of direct election had to be big. I can’t fathom the benefit of legislators electing, other than to increase the power of the legislature. Given the intensity of gerrymandering in modern times, I wouldn’t even consider letting legislatures decide.

  2. Submitted by Arvonne Fraser on 10/15/2014 - 11:57 am.

    thanks to Eric Black

    Excellent piece on parliamentary vs. our system(s). Good political education of which we need more. And thanks to MinnPost as well.

    In a country as big and diverse as ours local democratic elections are useful. They promote public accountability and thus cleaner government–even more responsible governing. It is also good training ground for public officials and is a check on bureaucracies.

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/15/2014 - 01:11 pm.

    I’m not sure

    how one quantifies ‘democracy’?
    ‘Too much democracy’ implies a comparison like three gallons of it when two would do. A better question might be -is our democratic system too complex to function well- — given that we can define our measure of functionality.

    An interesting test might be asking people a day or week after the election to tell what items they voted on — do they even remember what was on the ballot?

    Finally, as Eric and others have pointed out before, our system has never decided whether it’s a union or a federation, so it often tries to be both at once. For instance, the Senate has a structure consistent with a federation of independent states, which the House is more a representation of a single country — a union.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/15/2014 - 01:24 pm.

    Well, maybe…

    It’s hard to read this series without recommending William Borden’s novel, “Superstoe,” which hit the market in, I believe, 1968. Seemingly very much a product of its times, over the years I’ve found myself thinking of it more and more often – to the point where I’d say it’s as relevant today as any political novel written in the past 5 years, and certainly relevant in the context of Eric’s series here on MinnPost. There’s media hysteria, rigged elections, the public voting directly on every issue, and several other memes that make it quite contemporary.

  5. Submitted by Pavel Yankovic on 10/15/2014 - 04:35 pm.

    In the beginning…

    only tax paying landowners were permitted to vote. I’d like to see us return to that.

    • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 10/15/2014 - 05:21 pm.

      The English feudal system

      Or the Russian feudal system? How Medival!? LOL

    • Submitted by Tom Lynch on 10/15/2014 - 05:45 pm.

      And your

      Right-wing thinking is why we’ll eventually have a fascist government. Sooner rather than later.

      As Sinclair Lewis said back in the 1920s, “When fascism comes to America, it’ll be wrapped in the flag and carrying a bible.”

      BTW, Republicans are trying as hard as they can to allow only the “right” kind of voters to vote. Their kind.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/16/2014 - 09:40 am.


        Actually although it’s true that reactionary conservatives are prone to dictatorial impulses and anti-democratic urges, their numbers and influence are not growing these days. If you look at the arc of US history you see a pretty inexorable drift towards liberalism, and our checks and balances have typically yanked us back from the more totalitarian era’s. Not saying we don’t need to be vigilant, but we’d have tear up the constitution in order to find ourselves living in a totalitarian state. While that’s not impossible, it’s not actually “likely” to happen.

    • Submitted by jason myron on 10/16/2014 - 04:56 pm.

      I’m sure you would.

      It illustrates how little you actually subscribe to democracy. Why don’t you just admit that the only people you would like to grant the opportunity to vote are Republicans? While we’re at it, lets go back to 18th century medicine.and dismiss global economics as well.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/15/2014 - 06:49 pm.


      White male landowners.
      And the definition of ‘white’ was often limited to those of Northwestern European ancestry, so you might have some problems.

  6. Submitted by Ken Wedding on 10/15/2014 - 07:38 pm.

    Federation or union

    ” For instance, the Senate has a structure consistent with a federation of independent states, which the House is more a representation of a single country — a union.”

    Just as the EU has a parliament to represent its citizens and a Council to represent its countries.

  7. Submitted by Ken Wedding on 10/15/2014 - 07:42 pm.

    Thanks, Eric

    I taught Comparative Politics for 15 years. These presidential vs parliamentary comparisons were always a big deal, but the curriculum left no room for detailing the US system, so it’s good to see someone doing it. As for parliamentary systems, I always had to work very hard to get students beyond their own frames of reference. Well done!

  8. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 10/16/2014 - 09:45 am.

    I Fear the REAL Issue With Our Current Democracy

    lies in the fallacy that “free speech” means candidates, political parties, and interest groups cannot be penalized for committing the fraud of telling even the most egregious lies about themselves and their opponents.

    If we applied the same “free speech” standards to corporations or individuals, NO con man, NO investment huckster, NO snake oil peddler, NO ponzi scheme perpetrator, would EVER have gone to jail for anything,…

    since all he or she was doing was exercising their “free speech” rights,…

    for which they can never be penalized, regardless of the effects their dishonesty had on others.

    If we applied “free speech” to our nation’s courts in the same way we do to political campaigns, penalties for perjury would be a violation of every defendant’s, plaintiff’s, and witnesses right to say whatever he or she wanted,…

    even if it was provably a lie.

    Even asking witnesses to swear to tell the truth would be a violation of their right to free speech.

    Unless and until we devise ways to squeeze our current massively dishonest political campaigns system until the juice of truth is all that’s left,…

    and the skins, seeds, pits, and pulp; the refuse of dishonesty that so dominates our current political climate is cast aside,…

    we will continue to see involvement drop more and more as the public becomes increasingly convinced that politicians are ALL so dishonest and self-serving that it doesn’t matter who you vote for they’re only going to try to help themselves and those who paid for their campaigns.

    In the end, it wouldn’t matter a bit that a lot of voters decide who they will vote for based on the political ads they see on TV right before the election,…

    if those ads were required to be honest representations of what the candidates involved actual stand for and plan to try to accomplish.

    We don’t have too much democracy, rather the democracy we have is being rapidly strangled by the noxious, invasive, creeping, strangling vine of dishonesty that’s woven all through it.

    If our representative democracy were a tree, you’d be hard pressed to see even a single leaf of that original tree peaking out through the overgrowth of that deadly, strangling vine of dishonesty.

  9. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 10/16/2014 - 11:03 am.

    and so we believe…

    If one has the right to vote and choose but not necessarily create policy, a limited democracy may be an acceptable label

    …but our ever-present poll dancing seers who predicate the elections preemptively and people listen… and too often vote for the “winner’ over the loser because we are a society of group-ism over individualism maybe.

    Then add to the other conditions under which we choose and vote, like the one who has the biggest bucks gains the greater following and when policy itself is not too carefully defined in the ads to sell us, is democracy not shredded a bit in the marketplace of ideas we call the media?

    The media becomes the handler of the candidate and who pays the most and buys the best spin, wins?

    Democracy or what we call democracy in its most questionable integrity at times does smell a bit when it thrives under the opportunity of a foul-faced few, the wealthy be it corporation or foundation or contributing think tanks ( which as a label suggests ‘think’ as its primary pursuit,eh?)…but whomever, they continue to suck the soul of what may be called ‘democracy’ but a democracy battered by those less desirable elements; money and power abusing the process?

    What we are left with is a system called democracy but barely, at times, holding on by a thread?

  10. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/16/2014 - 03:43 pm.

    Revolting old student drinking song……

    Though your thoughts be unfurled
    and ditto your chatter
    you can’t fool the world
    with mind over matter
    but foe will not trifle with thought brought by rifle
    and when they all die,
    ‘Die Gedanken Sind Frie’

    c/o “The Bosses Songbook”, circa 1960.

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