Inauguration weekend is as good a moment as any for Americans to celebrate the political differences between say, Ohio and Syria. But let’s not forget how narrowly, back in November, we avoided another Florida 2000-style election debacle. The shambolic state of ballot design in America remains a potent threat to our democracy. Richard L. Hasen, a leading election expert says it best in his recent book: “If you think that a dozen years later the country would have fixed its [election] problems … you’d be dead wrong.” In the 2008 and 2010 elections, by one estimate [PDF], a combined total of more than half a million votes were not counted due to voter errors that imply poor ballot design. (For numerical context, Obama’s 2012 Ohio margin was around 166,000; had around 446,000 votes been different in 2008, President McCain would have won.) But 2012’s relative dearth of cliffhanger recounts, lawsuits, and Onion-caliber open warfare doesn’t mean we’ve fixed our ballots. We just got lucky.
I know it’s downright un-American to suggest we look abroad for guidance. Foreign countries generally feature only as counterexamples in our public discourse. Think Sweden (welfare snow-queens), Japan (economic stagnation), France (everything). But given the risks posed by our reckless lack of progress since Bush v. Gore, I figured it might be time—call me crazy—for America to phone a friend. What can we learn from ballot design in other countries?
The surprising answer: not much. Basically, it doesn’t matter how well other countries design their ballots, because such designs generally can’t be adapted to the unique characteristics of American democracy. Every expert I spoke to—after condemning the current state of American ballots—let out a long sigh and proceeded to explain why foreign examples aren’t much help.