Reflections on the US elections


Reflections on the US elections

Earlier this month, I attended a four day programme based around the US elections, at the invitation of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES). It was a fascinating few days which highlighted a number of points of reflection on the similarities, and the huge differences, between our two electoral systems: 

  • The greatest difference is the level of decentralisation in the US. Decisions taken at state level range from the way registers are compiled and maintained, methods of voting, need for photo ID and polling station opening times. Managing an event across six time zones and fifty states (plus the District of Colombia) is complicated enough, and quite some accomplishment; but it did highlight the value of clarity and consistency for each poll, which we have at either UK or national level depending on the event.
  • Around the world, electoral colleagues are working hard to give voters flexibility of when and how they vote. The US is far advanced in its approach, with significant take up of early- and postal-voting. This is up from around 5% in the 1970s to around 40% now. In some areas, over half of votes were cast before polling day. At the other end of the timeline, some states can register new voters on polling day itself, where our deadline is currently 12 working days prior to a poll. This sets us a fresh example to inform our own work to create more flexibility for voters in our system. 
  • Campaign finance is in a different league in the US. It is estimated that $11billion was spent by campaigners this election, compared to just under £40 million at our 2015 General Election. Even taking into account population differences, this is staggering. Yet our system of transparency is significantly advanced. It was described to me that the US has a twin track system: candidates and parties must have transparency under the law, whereas campaigns funded by Super PACs spend large amounts of money with effective anonymity for some donors. There is resistance to change, including within the Federal Electoral Commission itself, but public concern is growing: in a recent survey of US voters, 85% said that there needed to be fundamental change in the way political campaigners are funded.
  • As in the UK, social media played a central role not only in campaigning but also in distributing essential voter information. And as in the UK, the issue of ‘polling booth selfies’ is also ongoing. Again, different rules apply in different states, ranging from 3 year prison sentences to rulings that a ban is unconstitutional. We continue to recommend that under current UK law, pictures should not be taken in the polling station, but that it is great to do this outside to show you have voted.

The UK democratic process has moved on at great pace in recent years, with the introduction of online registration and the development of our own party finance regulatory framework. International comparisons offer a moment to stand back and consider where we may still have work to do in our system, such as increasing security by introducing voter ID, and where we are leading the way, such as through our system of political finance regulation and transparency.

Claire Bassett, Chief Executive


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