Is the United States the weakest democracy in the world?

Toby James, University of East Anglia and Holly Ann Garnett, Royal Military College of Canada

The defense of democracy has suddenly become one of the central challenges of our time. The ground war in Ukraine is widely seen as a front line between autocratic rule and democratic freedom. The United States continues to absorb the meaning of the riot that took place on January 6, 2021 in an attempt to overturn the outcome of the previous year’s election. Elsewhere, concerns have been raised that the pandemic could have provided cover for governments to postpone elections.

Elections are an essential part of democracy. They enable citizens to hold their governments accountable for their actions and to bring about peaceful transitions in power. Unfortunately, elections often fall short of these ideals. They can be marred by issues such as voter intimidation, low turnout, fake news, and the underrepresentation of women and minority candidates.

Our new research report provides an overall assessment of the quality of national elections around the world from 2012-21, based on nearly 500 elections in 170 countries. The United States is the lowest-ranked liberal democracy on the list. It comes in only 15th out of the 29 states in the Americas, behind Costa Rica, Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago and others, and 75th overall.

An election in Costa Rica, well ranked in the list. Ingmar Zahorsky/FLickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Why is the United States so low?

Former President Donald Trump has claimed that there was widespread voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election. These claims were baseless, but they still caused the US election standings to plummet.

Elections with contested results score lower in our rankings because a key element of democracy is the peaceful transition of power through accepted results, rather than force and violence. Trump’s comments led to post-election violence as his supporters stormed the Capitol building and cast doubt on the legitimacy of the outcome among much of America.

This shows that electoral integrity is not just about crafting laws – it also depends on candidates and supporters acting responsibly throughout the electoral process.

A ranking of nations according to the integrity of their elections.
Perceptions of electoral integrity are measured by experts for each country one month after the polls close. Experts are asked to assess the quality of national elections on 11 sub-dimensions: electoral laws; electoral procedures; neighborhood boundaries; voting record; party registration; media coverage; campaign finance; voting process; vote count; results; and electoral authorities. The sum of these elements gives an overall electoral integrity index rated from 0 to 100. F. Electoral Integrity Project.

However, the problems with the US election run much deeper than this event. Our report shows that the way electoral boundaries are drawn in the United States is a major concern. There is a long history of gerrymandering, where political constituencies are cleverly drawn by lawmakers so that the populations most likely to vote for them are included in a given constituency — as seen recently in North Carolina.

Another issue is voter registration and ballot boxes. Some US states have recently implemented laws that make it harder to vote, such as requiring ID, raising concerns about the effect this will have on turnout. We already know that the costs, time and complexity of completing the identification process, as well as the additional difficulties for people with high residential mobility or in precarious housing situations, make it even less likely that underprivileged groups represented take part in the elections.

Nordics in the lead, concern for Russia

The Nordic countries of Finland, Sweden and Denmark top our ranking. Finland is commonly described as having a pluralistic media landscape, which helps. It also provides public funding to help political parties and candidates run for office. A recent report by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights found a “high level of confidence in all aspects of the electoral process”.

Cape Verde has the highest quality of electoral integrity in Africa. Taiwan, Canada and New Zealand are ranked first for their respective continents.

Electoral integrity in Russia declined further after the 2021 parliamentary elections. A pre-election report warned of intimidation and violence against journalists, and the media “widely promotes the policies of the current government”. Only Belarus is ranked lower in Europe.

Overall, electoral integrity is weakest in Comoros, Central African Republic and Syria.

money matters

How politicians and political parties receive and spend money has proven to be the weakest part of the overall electoral process. There are all kinds of threats to the integrity of elections that revolve around campaign money. Where campaign money comes from, for example, could affect a candidate’s ideology or policies on important issues. It also often happens that the candidate who spends the most money wins, which means that unequal opportunities are often part and parcel of an election.

It helps when parties and candidates are required to publish transparent financial accounts. But in a time when “black money” can be more easily moved across borders, it can be very difficult to know where donations are actually coming from.

There are also solutions to many other problems, such as automatic voter registration, the independence of electoral authorities, the financing of electoral agents and election observation.

Democracy may have to be defended in battle, as we are currently seeing in Ukraine. But it must also be defended before it degenerates into full conflict, through discussion, protest, clicktivism and calls for electoral reform.


Toby James, Professor of Politics and Public Policy, University of East Anglia and Holly Ann Garnett, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Royal Military College of Canada

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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