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The big question: Is our election system working?

REUTERS/Jason Reed
Supporters of President Barack Obama listening to his acceptance speech following re-election on Nov. 7, 2012.

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

Democracy is messy. It supposedly puts the people in charge of their own government and provides a mechanism by which they can elect representatives who will govern them the way they wish to be governed. And if they don’t like the way it’s going, they can elect different representatives.

The many scholars and experts who helped me with this series focus on the details of how that works in other democracies, compared with how it works in the United States, and, occasionally, how it might work better. The discussion often gets down deep into the details of various systems but occasionally it’s worth pulling back and asking big questions.

Political scientist Steven L. Taylor of Troy University in Alabama is one of the editors of a new textbook in comparative democracy that specifically places the United States into the context of 31 major democracies. After a long interview in which he gave me all sorts of ideas and leads and contacts that led to a lot of interviews for this project, I asked him to pull all the way back and make some kind of large suggestion of how to judge the relative functionality of democracies and render a judgment on how the U.S. system is working.

He said that ultimately the measure of a system of politics and elections is whether it is offering the governed a reasonable set of choices and allowing them to choose what they want and then giving them what they choose.

But in the United States at present, it seems that people aren’t getting what they think they are voting for.

“Nobody is voting for gridlock, but that’s a lot of what they are getting,” Taylor said. “Nobody wanted a government shutdown, but they got one anyway.” (Actually, two in recent years — in 1995 and 2013.)

He said the same about the now-getting-to-be-regular threats to risk the government’s credit rating every time the debt limit has to be raised.

Later, I pressed the issue with University of Texas professor Christopher Wlezien who has developed a “thermostatic” model to describe how public policy does take account of popular opinion. The metaphor suggests that the “thermostat” does not respond immediately to every change in public opinion, but over time, if public opinion (which, for the purposes of this metaphor, relates to how hot or cold it is in the house) is expressed in favor of a policy, public policy will move in the direction that public opinion supports (like the heat or the air conditioning kicking on in relation to changes in the temperature in the house).

So I asked Wlezien about Taylor’s belief something has gone wrong with the connection between what the public wants and what public policy is producing. His answer complicated my thinking — in a good way, I hope.

Yes, it’s true, he said, nobody is voting for gridlock. But there are people who want the government to do more and people who want the government to do less, and many of the people in both of those camps probably prefer gridlock to seeing the other camp get its way. So in that sense, perhaps, neither camp sees public policy moving the direction it prefers. But public opinion, filtered through the political process, may be preventing public policy from moving in a direction that either camp opposes.

Did I mention that democracy is messy? Happy Election Day tomorrow. Don’t forget to vote.

Comments (20)

  1. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 11/03/2014 - 09:06 am.

    Policy and thermostats…whee

    Love the metaphor

    …and all I can say is when the thermostat kicks in slowly – like ours does when turning up the heat, it may be the temperature is on the borderline; moderate and not quite prepared to function hotter – until all the politiking and campaigning is over? Guess we have to wait and see?

    And let’s assume on this slow morning, that the Republicans dominate our future, then what next?

    I suppose it depends if there is enough ‘oil’ in the tank to spark the ‘pilot light’ and fire up enough to create an even weaker form of democracy like corporate dominance I do wonder?

    Then too, could be it will ignite a massive surge of people power as the nation somehow continues to function from opposite ends of the political spectrum in and out of congress etc… surely a weak form of government; strong on wealth for a few however, and a cold state of affairs for the working or the poor – middle class being a relative term?

    Will policy even kick in the thermostat as a real democracy anymore – and don’t ask what is meant by real at this “messy” time?

    Possibly we’ll need a good furnace repairman in the next few years in the aftermath?

    So much for metaphors…”better rethink this one tomorrow is only a day away”?

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 11/03/2014 - 09:46 am.

    It can work, but when 1/2 of the electorate is convinced the other 1/2 engages in widespread fraud and cheating we got problems.

    • Submitted by jason myron on 11/03/2014 - 11:40 am.


      and the problem with that 1/2 is they live in a dual reality where the president is a secret Muslim usurper and all “leftists” are on the dole.

      • Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 11/03/2014 - 12:55 pm.


        Of course – we could enact voter ID laws that are enforced in other democracies.

        • Submitted by jason myron on 11/03/2014 - 01:47 pm.

          What fraud?

          The imaginary fraud that always materializes as a reason whenever you people lose an election?

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/03/2014 - 03:40 pm.

          What good would that do?

          The lunatic voters who believe things like the President is a secret Muslim come to take away our guns and impose shariah law because Agenda 21 tells him so would still be allowed to vote. When they lose, they would still squeal about fraud costing them the election.

          No, I don’t see voter ID accomplishing anything.

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/03/2014 - 10:26 am.

    Not well

    The candidates favored by the plurality of the voters do not always get elected:
    1. Bush v. Gore.
    2. House of Representatives vs. the will of the people (a majority of the voters favored Democratic candidates).

    • Submitted by Ken Bearman on 11/03/2014 - 12:23 pm.

      Not well indeed

      1. Yes, the Electoral College incorporates the unrepresentative Constitutional gerrymandering of the U.S. Senate. (The Constitution gives two Senators to each piece of land called a “state”, irrespective of population.)
      2. To a great extent that’s because of political gerrymandering.

      In addition, American winner-takes-all elections have produced the two-party system as a byproduct. The people have more than two opinions, but we’re mostly forced to choose the lesser of two evils in many races. Not only that, but it produces more plurality winners (< 50%), where a majority of the voters chose the non-winning candidates or, to put it another way, voted against the winner. Until elections are changed to produce majority winners and without gerrymandering, most results will be the same old same old. Of course, we'll never get rid of the Electoral College. So to produce a majority-of-the-the-voters Presidential winner requires a workaround like the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact to start with.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/03/2014 - 11:59 am.

    Fraud and cheating

    I agree that it can work, and also agree that we have problems when 1/2 is convinced the other 1/2 is engaged in widespread fraud and cheating. MinnPost readers can decide for themselves which half is engaged in fraud and cheating, and which half only *believes* that such fraud and cheating are taking place.

    Or, maybe each half is convinced it’s the other half that’s cheating. Lately, that seems to be the trend. There’s no evidence of significant voter fraud, and plenty of evidence that campaign finance rules are being “gamed,” but because the gamers are very good at it, we don’t know who’s doing it.

    To beat the thermostat metaphor to death, it appears to be stuck. A recent op-ed in the ‘Strib was instructive and amusing in that regard. One columnist touted the advantages of “divided” government, though I’m certain he would not have thought said advantage was so obvious if it were the other party holding up his party’s program, and the author of the other column insisted that having one party in control was the way to get things done, though he likely was far less enthusiastic when we *did* have one party in control, but it wasn’t his party.

    So, we muddle along.

    Paul Brandon’s point is well-taken, but merits little more than a shrug from the public. Whatta ya gonna do? Personally, I continue to be genuinely astonished that there are *any* women who vote for the misogyny so evident in so many Republican candidates, including the loathsome Ms. Ernst in our neighbor to the south, but people make their own choices. Lots of people voted for Mrs. Bachmann over the years, and equally puzzling to those on the right, lots of people apparently voted for Paul Wellstone when he was alive. Even more astonishing, I’d guess, for people who like to call themselves “conservative,” is that in a presidential campaign featuring many of the dirty tricks that professionals have now mastered, the Democratic presidential nominee promised a minimum income to everyone, and while he failed to carry even a handful of states, he nonetheless got millions of votes across the country.

    The whole process is messy and amazingly inefficient, but as a Mr. Churchill once said, the only thing worse is all the other systems.

  5. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 11/03/2014 - 12:27 pm.

    Direction of public policy

    Eric writes: “But public opinion, filtered through the political process, may be preventing public policy from moving in a direction that either camp opposes.”

    I’m not sure I understand that comment. Shouldn’t it have been written” “preventing public policy from moving in a direction that either camp wishes”? Or “preventing public policy from moving in a direction that both camps oppose”?

    I think it is true that “pubic opinion, filtered through the political process, IS preventing public policy from moving in a direction that the electorate wishes” where the electorate is divided between polarized camps but there is no leadership emerging from either party that can make public policy.

    The Republican leadership in Congress and the Senate is an easy target so I’ll pick on the Democratic leadership this time. People who voted for Obama for President thought they were electing a leader who would move this country in a clearly progressive direction, proposing health care reform including at the very least a public option with universal coverage if not the single payer. Instead, the country got a President who would never even proposed such a solution and ended up compromising on a half baked measure which we got.

    People thought they were electing a president who would lead the country on tax reform forcing the wealthiest in this country to start paying their fair share of the tax burden (and repaying part of what they looted during the financial crisis). We got a President who allowed the Bush tax cuts, which were a demonstrably abysmal failure, to expire.

    IAnd so forth and so on. How can one say there are reasonable choices when the candidates themselves are so chameleon-like?

    • Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 11/03/2014 - 02:45 pm.


      “We got a President who allowed the Bush tax cuts, which were a demonstrably abysmal failure, to continue.”

  6. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 11/03/2014 - 03:06 pm.

    We are broken!

    Our one voter one vote system has been turned into a one voter two votes, for some. What speaks louder to a politician than money? Answer, nothing. Some with deep pockets provide politicians with large sums of money and you can bet they expect something in return for it. Then the deep pockets get to vote again just like you or I do. The rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer. If you look at nearly any historical chart about the financial health of America the country’s decline started in the 80’s. Remember the old Republican mantra that started in the 80’s,”In the Tradition of Ronald Reagan”. You don’t hear that anymore because it has been proven over time that he was wrong and we are still paying for his mistakes. What did Reagan do for the good of all the people, answer, nothing. The Supreme Court is an activist court that is working against the good of the majority of the people. What did the Citizens United case do for the good of all the people, answer, nothing. Elections are not about ideas, they are strictly about negative ads, platitudes and political claptrap. Tuesday is the election and the 2016 election will officially start Wednesday. Politicians are running 24/7, 365 days a year, not based on their accomplishments, because many have none, but based on what their puppeteers want them to be saying and doing. Example, Scott Walker got pranked when he thought he was talking to one of the Koch brothers and Walker revealed his corrupt side. We are at gridlock and in the last two weeks is the first time I have heard about all the politicians working across the aisle. If that were the case we wouldn’t be in gridlock. The lifetime politicians such as Mitch McConnell are doing far more bad for the country than good. When politician have to apologize to radio shock jocks like Limbaugh or Hannity it is a clear sign the politicians are not working for the good of all. On the flip side the electorate does a horrible job paying attention. Why because we get, as the politicians want it, worn down from all the nonsense that goes on at all levels. Pick your own story about politicians and it won’t be good if it is the truth. We are broken!

  7. Submitted by Charles Holtman on 11/03/2014 - 05:32 pm.

    “Is our election system working?”

    Yes indeed – it is working to maintain the illusion that we are a democracy.

    A democracy can exist only if kids’ basic material needs are met and they receive an education that helps them become critical thinkers who develop adequately rich understandings of our simple foundational concepts (“freedom”), attend to actual facts in the world, integrate these to form thoughtful views on how we should organize our society, and demand that our candidates and our state respond to them.

    Instead we have a system optimized to keep the vast majority focused on day-to-day survival, or on acquisition and entertainments and Facebook, or driven by decades of propaganda to take political views atavistically based on fear and hatred of the nominal “other.” We are served up a choice between Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, or a third candidate in the meaningless middle, who are alike in the fact that, outside of very local elections, it is almost impossible to become a “serious” candidate unless the vested interests are satisfied you will not undertake to disrupt their advantage in favor of things like a sustainable society, a decent life for all, or a world habitable for at least the next few generations.

    So the people – or half of them anyway – pick one of the candidates of the vested interests on offer, push the button, and presto – democracy!

    Yes, Mr. Black, there are greater evils and lesser evils. Yes, one party is working furiously to keep folks from voting, and that is a bad thing. But to think that if we can stop that our civic society is fine and dandy, is not within a light year of the problem.

  8. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 11/03/2014 - 09:33 pm.


    Mr. Brandon, majority of the people want secure borders and leaving the “Redskins” alone but that is not what we get. And Mr. Christensen, Reid and Pelosi are at least as bad as McConnell if not worse. It is amazing how people notice bad things in the other party only. No wonder half the country thinks that the other half is full of stupid cheater. But that is exactly what I have been talking about: electorate doesn’t know and doesn’t want to know and think about real issues; people vote because they think their party is always right and on the basis of what they learn in a few 30 second commercials (which is nothing, of course).

    Some time ago someone made an interesting point that in other countries people vote for parties to begin with so there is nothing wrong with voting for a party. But in other countries there are many other parties so people can pick the one closest to their ideas. In America, only two parties have any practical chances of winning in most cases. In theory, it should mean that voters here must be smarter, know the issues and influence the politicians. In reality, they just vote the party and let the party do whatever it wants. People see no evil and hear no evil if it comes from their party.

    The problem is that even here, on this forum, partisanship reigns supreme. When I offered some fresh ideas, I was pounded with partisan sticks and nothing else. How can we change the system if we care so little what others think and offer and don’t really want to debate anything in depth. And yes, many vote “against”, mostly the independent ones, but while they may sway the elections, they do not dictate the policies. So we end up with the same old again and again…

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/04/2014 - 09:45 am.

      Nothing fresh

      about recycled conservative talking points.
      Einstein once defined foolishness as asking the same question twice and expecting a different answer.
      Ask standard questions and you will get standard answers.

      • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 11/05/2014 - 06:25 pm.

        Questions and answers

        In this case that just means that Democrats do not have answers to reasonable questions… and unfortunately, I do not expect different answers. That is why I did not ask the questions in this case – I just tried to explain something to you…

  9. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 11/03/2014 - 11:28 pm.

    We are broken!

    When McConnell stated, on day two of President Obama’s term in office, that his “ONLY GOAL” was to make sure President Obama was a one term president that set the tone for the next six years. There has been the repeated votes to repeal the Affordable care Act. It has been six years and the Republicans still have not proposed a viable alternative. Everything the Republicans have proposed has contained a guaranteed poison pill, but they can claim they proposed something. It used to be if legisltation was broken the two sides would work to fix it. Now it is a zero sum political game because the puppeteers are running the country. McConnell said yesterday “elect the Republicans and gridlock will go away”. What that said to me is McConnell admitting the Republicans are responsible for the gridlock. They have been the minority party acting like they are the majority party. Voters can’t rely on political ads, from either side, because they are all made up of half-truths and cherry picked data. Political grandstanding is far more important than accomplishing anything for all the people. We Are Broken!

  10. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 11/04/2014 - 07:46 am.


    It’s a loaded term, but I do think people are voting for gridlock. Broadly speaking, we have two political parties in this country, one committed to doing something, the other committed to doing nothing. We also have a political system, designed to make it difficult to do things, establishing a bias in favor of the party that favors doing nothing. So if you vote for that party, you are voting to do nothing and the gridlock you establish is simply a tool the founders have provided for you to achieve that end.

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