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America is quick to criticize other nations whose political systems do not live up to what it considers to be democratic standards. Of course, countries should take to task other countries that depart from democratic norms. But if it is to have any credibility on the subject, America needs to acknowledge its own shortcomings in this area and do what it can to fix them. Only then will its critique of others have full validity. What follows below is a brief review (not in any particular order) of aspects of America’s political system that are problematic in this regard. The list does not include every flaw in American democracy, and the discussion that follows each one is admittedly just a snapshot of the topic at issue, as one could write an entire book on any of them.

Differentiation in Representation

The federal electoral system is in reality something of a departure from the principle of one person-one vote that we associate with democracy. To begin with, the Constitution grants each state two Senate seats regardless of the size of its population. As a result, Democratic senators in congress represent considerably more people (one estimate I saw put the figure at 12.5%) than Republican senators do, even though the chamber is split about 50/50 between the two parties at present. This is due to the fact that Republicans tend to do better in states with lower populations than Democrats do, with the reverse being the case in more highly populated states. To take an example from the extremes, Wyoming, with a population of less than 600,000, and California, with nearly 40 million people, each get two senators, with Wyoming sending two Republican senators and California sending two Democrats. While representation in the House of Representatives is based on each state’s population and thus would be expected to be “cleaner,” the majority party at the time generally receives a higher number of seats than its vote count would justify.

This problem is echoed in the electoral college where each state gets electoral votes equal to the number of senators it has (always two) plus the number of representatives it has in the House. This means that smaller states get more electoral votes per person than do larger states, and it gives disproportionate power to swing states. In addition, the system has on occasion awarded the presidency to a candidate who received only a minority of the popular vote.

Low Voter Turnout and Voter Suppression

Another disturbing feature of American democracy is its dismal voter turnout. Voter turnout in the 2020 presidential election, which was unusually high, was only 66.8%. This may not be considered a flaw in our democracy since one might consider it adequate that people have the right to vote even if they do not use it. In this view, if someone declines to vote, it is not a flaw, as such individuals are merely exercising their right not to cast a vote.

But the analysis should not stop there. If so many voters are avoiding the polls, even if they are not being denied the vote, we still ought to be more concerned than we are about what these figures say about our political culture. Why are these people not voting? Clearly, they are alienated from the larger political community and system, perhaps believing that their votes do not matter and that things don’t really change, regardless of the outcome of the election. Undoubtedly, something must be done to change the political culture so that these individuals will see value in casting their votes and will feel a sense of obligation to fulfill this civic duty.

Some of the low voter turnout is undoubtedly due to voter suppression efforts in certain states. In its ugliest form, such efforts might include imposing identification and other requirements for voting that some voters have trouble satisfying, making voting inconvenient (for example by reducing the number of polling stations), and allowing subtle intimidation at polling stations. Although these measures ostensibly apply to all voters and do not apply solely to specific groups, in reality they are very often aimed at reducing turnout by minority voters. With the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision to overturn the preclearance procedures of the Voting Rights Act, which required clearance of changes to voting rights laws of certain southern states, an important source of oversight over such measures was lost. And further changes to federal voting rights laws are looming. Compounding voter suppression efforts is the reluctance of federal courts to become involved in voting controversies, since voting is primarily a matter over which the states have sovereignty under the Constitution. It is impossible to say with any precision how many voters are deterred from voting by such measures, but it is almost certainly a significant number, which is why the number and activities of voting rights organizations have grown considerably in recent years.

Voting System and Ranked Voting

As readers are no doubt aware, the way most voting systems in the United States work is that there will be representatives from each of the two main parties (with candidates from other parties – normally marginal parties – sometimes also on the ballot). The candidate who gets the most votes wins, though some systems require the winner to garner a majority of votes, meaning that a runoff election may be required.

While such systems may lead to a result that most people consider “democratic,” a more critical look at them reveals a troubling flaw. That is that voters who did not vote for the winning candidate are effectively left without their perspectives being represented. In close races, this group of voters can be very large, numbering even in the millions in larger races.

One way to deal with this criticism that is becoming increasingly popular is “ranked choice voting.” In such systems, voters are not restricted to voting for just one candidate, but can cast votes for several candidates whom they rank by order of preference. If the top candidate in the race does not win a majority, then the voters who voted for the candidate who received the least votes have their votes given to their second-choice candidate, and this continues until one candidate has a majority of votes. This system does have benefits in that it gives voters who did not vote for the lead candidate more of a voice and results in a winner who enjoys more popular support than the lead candidate would without such a system.

But such a voting system also has an important flaw, although that flaw does not get much attention. A ranked choice system can indeed make an election more “democratic” when there are a small number of candidates, say three or four. However, the result is less tidy when the field is larger than that, say five or six candidates. Thus, for example, say there are five candidates in a race where no candidate gets a majority. In such a case, the voters who voted for the fifth-place candidate get a second voice in that there second-place votes will now be counted, while those of the voters who voted for the number three and number four candidates will not be. Accordingly, this system gives a certain set of voters a louder electoral voice than others, and when you take into consideration that such voters are likely to be more ideologically marginal (as they voted for the candidate who received the least votes in the first round), the results of this system can be troubling indeed.

Yet another alternative that some countries (usually those with parliamentary systems) use is called proportional representation. Under such a system, voters vote for a party rather than a candidate. Each party puts forth a roster of ranked candidates, and depending on the proportion of the popular vote the party received, a certain number of candidates from that roster will become members of parliament. Unless a party receives enough votes to form a stable government on its own, the various parties undertake to put together a coalition government that is stable. Thus, voters who supported parties other than the lead party are still be represented in the government, and even if they do not form part of the governing coalition, they will still be represented in parliament, albeit in the opposition.


Gerrymandering is the act of manipulating electoral districts for the purpose of gaining political advantage. Sadly, our nation is rife with electoral districts drawn this way, and the practice is not limited to just one party. And, until very recently, many courts (including the Supreme Court) avoided getting involved in cases challenging gerrymandered districts on the grounds that drawing districts is the province of state governments or falls under the authority of the political branches of government. They also declined to become involved in such disputes on the grounds that they have no standards by which to adjudicate electoral maps (though I have always wondered whether this is a subterfuge to protect the courts from being involved in unpleasant disputes).  This reticence on the part of the judiciary was gravely disappointing. The integrity of our voting system is central to the proper functioning of our democracy, and refusing to put an end to these machinations is a dereliction of duty.  However, several recent court cases, including two 2023 Supreme Court cases, indicate that the courts have begun taking a closer look at suspect voting districts and have recognized the power of state courts to review voting districts set up by state legislatures.  In addition, it can only be hoped that more states will migrate to using nonpartisan bodies to set electoral boundaries as some already have done.

Two-Party System

We in the United States, of course, live in what is primarily a two-party political system. There are other parties, but they tend to be marginal, even if they can cause trouble for candidates from one of the major parties, as one party did for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. Many other countries, especially those that use a proportional representation system, have more parties than the U.S. does. Having just two parties to choose from limits the choices available to voters and may force them to swallow positions they do not agree with. So entrenched is the two-party system in the U.S., that efforts to develop a third major party have been short-lived and largely unsuccessful.

Primary System

Another flaw in our democracy is found in the primary system through which political parties select their candidates. While more democratic than the “smoke-filled room” system by which parties chose their candidates in earlier years, the current primary system invites criticism nonetheless. Chief among its flaws is that it gives considerably heavier influence to earlier voting primary states in choosing candidates. That is because a good performance in earlier voting states helps candidates attract support and funds, while a disappointing performance in those states can doom a campaign. Although there are efforts to improve the order in which primaries are held, to the extent they move up voting in so-called swing states, these efforts only serve to increase the influence these states enjoy in the general election.

Non-Voting Territories

The U.S. has a number of territories whose residents do not get to cast ballots in federal elections, even if they are U.S. citizens. Among these are Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands. Although they vote in party primaries, they have virtually no representation in congress, with Puerto Rico sending only a single non-voting representative to Congress. (It should be noted that the District of Columbia also only sends a single non-voting representative to the House.) This situation is an egregious example of disenfranchisement and is especially appalling given that U.S. citizens are being denied the vote. And while there is no principled reason why D.C. and Puerto Rico in particular should not be given statehood, such proposals have gotten bogged down in Congress largely due to the fact that both are likely to fall into the Democratic column.

Campaign Finance

Campaign finance struggles in the U.S. go back to the beginning of the republic. Money plays a powerful role in U.S. elections, and efforts to rein it in have encountered robust pushback in legislatures and the courts. Some success has been found over the years concerning the reporting of contributions and public financing of campaigns. (In the latter case, candidates agree to limit the contributions they take in in return for receiving financial support for their campaigns by the government.) However, the Supreme Court struck a serious blow to efforts to limit the role of money in campaigns in its much-criticized 2010 Citizens United decision, in which the Court held that the First Amendment prohibited the government from restricting independent campaign contributions by any organization, including corporations, nonprofits, and labor unions.

The magnitude of campaign contributions in U.S. elections is staggering, with nearly $14 billion having been donated in 2020 to federal campaigns alone. The role that big money plays in U.S. elections is shameful and an affront to the principles of democracy and one person-one vote. The current system gives a disproportionate voice to those with the deepest pockets (i.e., corporations and wealthy individuals), compromises the integrity and independence of candidates and elected officials, and distracts officials from carrying out their duties while they spend inordinate amounts of time fundraising. The situation is so bad that it is not too much of an exaggeration to wonder if our country is more plutocracy than democracy.

Clearly, America has a lot of work to do if it is to have a political system worthy of the label “democracy”. I am not suggesting that enacting the necessary reforms to perfect it would be an easy task. The political and legal hurdles are very high indeed. But we must not shy away from pursuing the goal and making improvements where we can. And in the meantime, when engaging other countries about their democratic shortcomings, we should do so with some degree of humility. If those countries with which we engage see building more democratic political systems as an enterprise that we share, the dialog with them is more likely to meet with success.