Three days after polls closed, Americans continue to hear confusing narratives about the results of their presidential election. Well before many states had finished counting, Joe Biden, the Democratic challenger, assured his supporters that victory was certain. The incumbent, President Donald Trump, has claimed victory, too. He did so even as the electoral maths yesterday swung in his opponent’s favour.
Mr Trump had demanded that officials stop counting votes at the end of election night, while Mr Biden insisted on taking millions of remaining postal ballots into consideration. Mr Trump’s campaign team has already filed lawsuits in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Georgia, to contest the outcome of the elections in states, promising weeks if not months of bitter, partisan accusations.
When American electoral races are as close as this one, various imperfections in the country’s voting system come to light. Covid-19 played its own part in bringing those flaws to light, as an unprecedented number of Americans voted by post in states with completely different legal requirements for when and how those votes are counted. The end result is more delay, more room for uncertainty and a more mystifying experience for American voters struggling to understand how their own leader is chosen.
America’s unique voting system, in which states hold their own elections using their own rules, is a manifestation of deeply entrenched constitutional values. But there is considerable scope for reform, even in ways that do not undermine the spirit of state sovereignty that characterises the election. A more standardised voting process across states, and the empowerment of existing federal election bodies would be a start.
For example, as things stand, in 21 states, voters can register to vote on the same day as the election. This is not the case in the remaining 29 states. Similarly, a majority of states allow voters to cast their ballots in advance, but in some others this is not an option. The voter registration process can also be lengthy and complicated. Some states also require that people come in person to register, a deterrent for those who are vulnerable to Covid-19 and limiting their physical interactions. There is no modern-day need for this process to be so complicated. In a number of democracies, including France, registration is automatic.
The eclecticism of the rules can be discouraging for prospective voters and confusing for voters and observers. Other democracies, some with populations comparable to or greater than the US, have managed to avoid these issues by empowering an independent federal body to oversee elections and to ensure that they are free and fair. For instance, the Election Commission of India has constitutional authority to administer all aspects of the election process in the world’s largest democracy. Last year, this system allowed for more than 600 million people to vote in a marathon six weeks.
Roughly 160 million Americans voted in this year’s elections. The US has federal agencies that either oversee elections or enforce campaign finance laws, but these bodies are largely bureaucratic, and bogged down by partisan disagreements. The 2020 presidential elections have underscored the importance of balancing state freedoms with national interests. After each election, voices are raised on the need to reform the voting system and electoral college. Some say the US needs a standardised process for voting and counting ballots, others suggest using the popular vote to determine the presidential pick. The events of this week bring this issue into greater focus and should continue to garner attention after the next president is chosen. How the current presidential contest is resolved will test the laws and institutions of the US, but can also pave the path for long-term reform.