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Do we have too much democracy?

U.S. voters make dozens more, scores more — in some comparisons even hundreds of times more — decisions than citizens in other democracies.

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.
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

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.

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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:  

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  • 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…

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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.