Argument

Five Voting Systems Even Worse than the Electoral College

Think the United States has a crazy way to pick a president? You should see how Lebanon does it. 

Grousing about our arcane and nonsensical Electoral College, and calling publicly for its end, have by now become time-honored election-season traditions in the United States. This year, even the Russians, themselves no paragons of functional democracy, have gotten in on the fun. Admittedly, the U.S. system is problematic, as Electoral College math dictates that Americans living in the battleground states, and no one else, will play the deciding role. On at least four occasions, including the 2000 election, this system has produced a president who failed to carry the popular vote yet won the office anyway.

The fact is that, despite the griping, the Electoral College is not going anywhere anytime soon. Originally put in place (in part) to protect the rights and interests of slave states, who might otherwise have been hesitant to join the Union, it has survived as long as it has because smaller states still value these protections. And there are more than enough small states to block any attempt at a constitutional amendment to dissolve the Electoral College -- particularly since of the three required majorities for doing so, only one, the House of Representatives, is actually dependent on population.

Yet despite these weighty burdens, United States voters can take solace in the fact that they do not bear them alone. And while culturally engrained notions of exceptionalism may lead some Americans to the patriotic presumption that "our" arcane and ridiculous electoral system must be the worst in the world (if only by virtue of it being "ours"), it's a pretty big world out there. When it comes to picking leaders, there are a few systems that are even crazier than America's.

5. France

In 1962, the French Republic abolished its own electoral college and established a system of direct popular elections to be undertaken every seven (later reduced to five) years. Out of concern that direct elections might produce a flood of fringe candidates that would needlessly complicate the process, a unique set of laws were set in place so as to weed out potentially unelectable candidates ex ante by way of some stringent vetting mechanism. Here's what they came up with...

To get on the ballot in France, a given candidate must secure at least 500 signed endorsements from among a pool of 45,000 eligible state officials, 36,569 of whom are French "mayors." These mayors, who can endorse only one candidate each, may themselves "represent" constituencies ranging in size from millions (in major cities like Paris) to the very, very small. The smallest technically represents a "village" constituency of one person: themselves.

Beyond the obvious risk for potential horse-trading, corruption, or coercion as candidates traipse around the French countryside seeking the support of elected bureaucrats and micro-constituent mayors, the fact that the lists are subsequently published has proven particularly problematic for potential outsiders. For example, although Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate in this year's election, had been polling at 20 percent in public support, she struggled greatly to fulfill the mayoral requirement as many potential nominators were hesitant to publically endorse the controversial candidate. Meanwhile, less popular figures -- like Philippe Poutou, an auto worker who leads the minor New Anticapitalist Party and did not particularly want to be president -- were able to clear the hurdle with comparative ease. While Le Pen eventually did get on the ballot, the system would seem to fall a bit short of "égalité," to say nothing of "logique."

4. Myanmar

While America's Electoral College system seems perplexing, consider the way presidents are picked in Myanmar. The two houses of parliament each form a constituency, excluding the 25 percent of each house that is directly appointed by the military. The military representatives from both sides of the legislature are then organized into a third body, whereupon each group elects a vice president; then, the presidential electoral college (composed of all three groups) selects one of the three vice presidents to be the new president and the other two remain vice presidents. What might this look like in America, you ask? Well, it wouldn't be far off to imagine a tricameral Electoral College picking between Harry Reid, John Boehner, and David Petraeus. Yikes.

The system was used in Myanmar's 2010 general election. With the two largest parties in the parliament both having strong military ties, and with Aung San Suu Kyi still under house arrest, there was little chance of a surprise. True to form, ex-military leader Thein Sein was elected president.

3. Lebanon

In the United States, the disproportionate power of swing-state voters often creates resentment among the electorate in California, Texas, or New York. Now, imagine if this relative lack of voting power stemmed, not from geography or districting, but rather from the ethnicity and religion of each individual voter -- a scenario plucked directly from Justice Antonin Scalia's night terrors. Welcome to Lebanon's fractious political landscape.

As designed, the respective weight accorded various ethnic and religious groups within the system both undermines democratic legitimacy and exacerbates the very same sectarian tensions it was designed to ameliorate. The system dates from a political agreement among Lebanese Muslims and Christians in 1943, and was renegotiated in the 1989 Taif Agreement, which stipulated that, in perpetuity, the nation's parliament would be required to remain half Christian and half Muslim.  Hundreds of government positions, ministerial posts, and appointments are ethnically pre-assigned this way -- including the presidency (which must go to a Maronite Christian), the prime ministership (a Sunni Muslim), and the parliamentary speaker (a Shiite Muslim). To make matters even more complicated, each voter is allowed a vote on every seat within their heavily gerrymandered districts including those representing other religious or ethnic groups -- meaning that minority populations within a given district sometimes get outvoted by outsiders on their own representative.

Whatever sense this spoils system may have made at the outset, there has been no mechanism for readjustment as demographic trends in Lebanon have changed. While the government has deliberately avoided holding a census since 1932, according to U.S. State Department estimates, the three largest ethnic groups at present are Sunni Muslims (27 percent of the population), Shiite Muslims (also 27 percent), and Maronite Christians (21 percent). Yet Maronites possess 34 parliamentary seats, while the other two larger groups possess only 27 seats each out of a total of 128. Meanwhile, demographic trends seem likely to continue increasingly favoring Muslims communities, but the Maronites and other overrepresented groups will almost certainly be loathe to reform the system in the future.

2. Hong Kong

When China regained sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997, its agreement with Britain stipulated that the "special administrative province" would continue governing itself for a period of at least 50 years. And while it was always clear that balancing provincial democracy with Beijing overlordship would be tricky, few could have foreseen the veritable perfect storm of systemic flaws that recently lead the Economist to describe Hong Kong's election process as "the worst system, including all the others."

Try to stay with us: Hong Kong's Legislative Council is evenly divided between "geographic constituencies" (whose parliamentarians are designated by political parties through a not-atypical list system, which accords seats based on support received during a general election) and so-called "functional constituencies" (trade and professional syndicates deeply tied to Beijing, whose members will likewise get to vote again as individuals in their respective geographic regions for the lists).

When choosing Hong Kong's chief executive, things get even shadier. The elections are irregularly spaced, varying in frequency from every two years to every five. Of Hong Kong's 7 million-plus population, only around 1,200 individuals are able to vote as members of the electoral college, most of whom are drawn from the Beijing-friendly functional constituencies.

And yet, somehow, the saving grace usually found in centralized authoritarian transitions (the lack of costly, rancorous, and divisive elections) is stubbornly absent under Hong Kong's system. In the past, a Beijing-backed candidate had often run unopposed, but the 2012 election saw multiple contenders. Of the three candidates, the democrat never gained traction and the two Beijing-backed contenders tore each other to shreds in a campaign marked by sex and financial scandals and incompetence.

1. Germany

While Germany may seem a surprising choice for the No. 1 spot, it resides there under the logic that the only thing worse than a ridiculous and complex electoral system would be ... having no functioning electoral system at all.

The Basic Law of Germany -- which has functioned as a constitution in West Germany since 1949 and over unified Germany since 1990 -- establishes a voting system where each voter casts two ballots, one of which is candidate-specific and the other which goes to a party, allowing the latter to assign seats in parliament (the Bundestag) based on its level of relative support. The Bundestag's members in turn elect the German chancellor. Yet in cases where more candidates win as individuals than would be warranted by a party's overall level of electoral support, all of those elected will serve, resulting in an "overhang seat" and thus making the eventual number of politicians serving in the German Bundestag unknowable.

In 2008, the German Constitutional Court ruled this practice unconstitutional -- as it makes it theoretically possible for a party that wins fewer votes to wind up with a greater number of seats. The court ordered that the government fix the law within three years, making July 2011 the final deadline for a reformed process. Immediately prior to that deadline, the Chancellor Angela Merkel's government -- whose party base has traditionally benefited from this system -- turned in a draft for a new revised electoral law that was rejected as unconstitutional along similar grounds, thus leaving the nation devoid of an electoral process.

A new electoral law will now have to be drafted and approved prior to the scheduled fall 2013 general elections, or else a considerable constitutional crisis may result. Meanwhile, hanging over the process is the very real possibility that should a dissolution of parliament or a vote of no confidence against Chancellor Merkel take place, either one of which would require a new election before the next scheduled contest, there would be no functional system under which to do so. So, with one hand tied and each step planted with the greatest of care, the German government limps along.

* * *

So, in the end, remember this as you settle down in front of the television tonight after waiting in long lines to listlessly cast your ballot alongside the other 79 percent of Americans whose individual votes will be largely symbolic: it could always be worse.

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

Peace Talks

How war disappeared from American campaign rhetoric.

The 2012 election has certainly not felt like a contest carried out in a nation at war. Though 68,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan and the 2,000th American was recently killed in the decade-long conflict, President Barack Obama has largely relegated his promises of winding down the war to an afterthought in his stump speech. His rival, Mitt Romney, barely mentions the war at all. The U.S military pulled out of Iraq at the end of 2011, but that has gotten far less play in the campaign than the killing of Osama bin Laden. And neither candidate discusses how or when the open-ended U.S. war on terror might finally come to an end.

Americans traditionally vote with their pocketbooks, but the extent to which war has been relegated to the political backburner is still striking. It's possible that, in an era when war is carried out by a dwindling percentage of Americans -- increasingly by remote control -- in an undefined territory and without a clear end, Americans have simply accepted a permanent state of low-level war. Obama likes to talk about how he wants to do "nation-building at home, but perhaps the very idea of a peacetime presidency is a thing in the past.

In previous decades, elections have often hinged on questions of war and peace -- with candidates pledging peace on the campaign trail as they plan for war. "He Kept Us Out of War," was a Woodrow Wilson campaign slogan in 1916, yet Wilson sought a declaration of war with Germany five months after the election, bringing the United States into World War I. Franklin D. Roosevelt campaigned in 1940 on a commitment to keep the United States out of the war then raging in Europe. "Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars," he told voters as Election Day neared -- even as American men were already being called up in a new draft, long before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

Lyndon Johnson, who would escalate American military involvement in Vietnam, campaigned in 1964 as a peacemaker. Portraying his Republican opponent as a dangerous warmonger, Johnson ran an infamous TV campaign ad showed a little girl pulling petals from a daisy and counting down to zero, until blotted out by the countdown to a nuclear explosion. Electing Republican Barry Goldwater, the ad suggested, was a sure path to Armageddon.

This year's candidates have played their own version of this game. During the 2008 campaign, Obama promised to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He did bring formal U.S. involvement in Iraq to a close, and has a plan to gradually wind down the U.S.-led effort in Afghanistan. But a war against al Qaeda -- a war without an endpoint -- continues to serve as a justification for military detention and targeted killings. Romney has urged greater defense spending, including more Navy ships, but made no mention of war and peace at the Republican National Convention, so that voters might well wonder what conflicts an expanded naval fleet is meant to be fighting.

But as viewers of the third presidential debate -- the one devoted to foreign policy and national security -- couldn't help but notice, the two candidates largely seemed on the same page when it came to withdrawal from Afghanistan, combating terrorism, and staring down Iran's nuclear ambitions. The contrast to the fireworks that erupted over arguments on health care and the deficit was striking.

It was different in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, when Americans were so deeply engaged with questions of war and peace that it affected the course of the campaign. Criticism of the war undermined Johnson's presidency, leading to his decision not to seek reelection. Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey won the nomination over antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy, but the Democratic National Convention dissolved into chaos as antiwar demonstrators clashed with police in Chicago. The Republican nominee, Richard Nixon, promised "peace with honor" in his successful campaign, though he would go on to intensify the air war, including secretly expanding the bombing campaign to Laos and Cambodia.

But Nixon's more consequential political decision may have been calling for an end to the draft. In so doing, he set the stage for the eventual disappearance of war from the domestic political scene. The all-volunteer armed forces, coupled with increased reliance on military contractors, meant that, over time, fewer American families had direct ties to the armed forces. The United States continued deployments around the world, but young Americans were not vulnerable to being drafted to fight.

Once American families were less directly affected, American war -- always conducted in other lands -- did not require widespread personal sacrifice. War could be an ideological matter. Or it could simply be ignored. After 9/11, Americans were not asked to sacrifice for the war effort, but to continue business as usual. Many complained about intrusive airport screening, but this inconvenience, of course, could hardly compare with an earlier generation's draft board screening. Soldiers and military contractors were sent to Afghanistan and Iraq, but for more than 99 percent of the country, war is now experienced on television or online, if at all.

Wartime is traditionally thought of as a temporal state. Because peacetime is supposed to follow war, wartime is, by definition, temporary. But a war on terrorism, a war against a group or a tactic, has never fit very well with the traditional concept of wartime. The boundaries around war dissolve further as U.S. military action expands to Pakistan, Yemen, and other countries America is not "at war" with. Meanwhile, war becomes simultaneously more personal and impersonal. The president himself makes decisions about which individuals should be on the kill list for drone strikes, and the killing is accomplished by remote-controlled drone.

Wartime and peacetime on the homefront have been transformed from temporal states to geographical divisions. It feels like peacetime in most American suburbs, but not in towns like Fayetteville, North Carolina -- home to Fort Bragg. Deployed soldiers and their families bear the cost of U.S. military action. But the vast majority of the American voters who will determine this election seem to be living in peacetime.

The absence of wartime from the political scene enables the sort of election campaign we've had this year. Volunteer members of the armed forces continue to fight overseas, but the election turns on the economy. With the voters disengaged from American military policy, their representatives in Congress lack the incentive to act as a check on the war powers.

It turns out, then, that peacetime in American politics doesn't lead to peacetime policies. It enables American presidents of both parties to engage in a war without end.

BAZ/AFP/Getty Images