President Joe Biden, left, speaks on Aug. 10, 2023, in Salt Lake City, and former President Donald Trump speaks on June 13, 2023, in Bedminster, N.J. Image Credit: AP

As the United States approaches another crucial presidential election, the spotlight once again illuminates the complex nature of the American electoral process. Dissatisfaction of the political system has never been higher; a December 2023 poll by the Associated Press and the University of Chicago’s NORC Center found only 46% of respondents were “quite” confident votes in the 2024 election would be counted accurately, including only a quarter of Republicans.

Particularly concerning is apathy among young voters, 58% of whom aren’t sure they will even vote in November, according to a recent poll conducted by Axios and the Generation Lab Youth. The upcoming election underscores the urgent need for a critical examination of the challenges and flaws inherent in the US presidential election process.

Limitations of a two-party system

The American electoral system stands as a cornerstone of democracy, yet its efficacy and fairness have come under scrutiny for quite some time now. One aspect that compromises the integrity of the electoral process is the entrenched dominance of the two-party system, which stifles genuine competition and limits voter choice.

The Democratic and Republican parties wield significant influence, effectively monopolising the political landscape and marginalising third-party candidates. In 2000, for example, Ralph Nader ran for the Green Party and managed to receive just 2.7% of the vote, yet was roundly criticised by Democrats for costing them a close election to George W. Bush.

Republicans were similarly upset in 1992 when Ross Perot, running as an independent, won almost 19% of the vote, allowing Bill Clinton to defeat incumbent president George H. Bush. The Big Two seem to have learnt from these examples: no third-party candidates have had such an effect since.

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This duopoly perpetuates a cycle of partisan polarisation, where voters often feel compelled to align with one of the major parties rather than supporting candidates who better represent their values and interests. Consequently, the diversity of perspectives and policy options within the political arena is severely constrained, undermining the principles of democracy.

Third-party candidates such as Perot and Nader have faced significant challenges in gaining traction primarily due to stringent ballot access requirements imposed by states, such as tough signature-gathering thresholds and filing deadlines.

Party loyalty, fuelled by partisan rhetoric and identity politics, further entrenches the divide between ideological camps and contributes to political gridlock. Rather than engaging in constructive dialogue and compromise, politicians often prioritise loyalty to their party over the common good, perpetuating a zero-sum mentality that hinders effective governance.

This tribalistic mindset not only undermines the spirit of bipartisanship but also erodes public trust in democratic institutions, fostering cynicism and disillusionment among voters. The spectacle of the 2020 presidential election serves as a stark reminder of the fragility of American democracy and the erosion of democratic norms under the guise of partisan politics.

The advent of social media has revolutionised the electoral landscape, providing a platform for the dissemination of information and political discourse. However, the unchecked proliferation of disinformation and fake news on these platforms has undermined the integrity of the electoral process, sowing confusion and distrust among voters.

Manipulative tactics, such as targeted advertising and algorithmic bias, have the potential to sway public opinion and distort electoral outcomes, thereby subverting the principles of free and fair elections.

Negative campaigning has become a pervasive feature of the US electoral landscape, often overshadowing substantive policy discussions. This tactic involves candidates attacking their opponents’ character, record, or policies rather than focusing on their own qualifications or proposals.

Big money, little choice

The proliferation of Political Action Committees (PACs) and the influx of major financial donations exacerbate the imbalance of power within the electoral system. Wealthy individuals and corporations can exert disproportionate influence by bankrolling candidates and campaigns, thereby skewing political priorities and agendas in favour of their own interests.

This system of legalised bribery undermines the democratic ideal of equal representation and empowers elites at the expense of ordinary citizens. The reliance on big money perpetuates a cycle of dependency for candidates, who may prioritise fund-raising over genuine engagement with constituents and substantive policy debate.

The Federal Election Commission (FEC), the primary regulatory agency overseeing federal elections in the US, is responsible for enforcing campaign finance laws, disclosing financial information, and providing advisory opinions. The FEC operates with an equal number of Democratic and Republican commissioners, however, which often results in gridlock that impedes decision-making.

The FEC’s enforcement powers are also limited to civil penalties, and regulatory loopholes allow for the exploitation of campaign finance laws through dark money groups and Super PACs, who can raise unlimited amounts of money for advertising, even though they are prohibited from giving directly to candidates or parties.

Moreover, the FEC’s jurisdiction is confined to federal elections, leaving gaps in oversight at the state and local levels. These shortcomings have contributed to concerns about the FEC’s ability to ensure fairness, transparency, and accountability in the electoral process.

Need for electoral reform in America

The US’ failure to modernise and reform its electoral infrastructure has left it trailing behind other democracies in terms of electoral integrity and fairness. While other countries have embraced innovations such as ranked-choice voting, proportional representation, and automatic voter registration to enhance inclusivity and participation, the US remains mired in an outdated system.

An example of an oddity of the American electoral system is the Electoral College, which was set up at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 to balance the interests of both large and small states by ensuring that smaller states have a proportionally larger voice in presidential elections than they would in a purely popular vote system. The Electoral College reflects the framers’ intent to create a republic rather than a direct democracy.

Today the system has been criticised as antiquated since it can lead to a candidate winning the presidency without winning the popular vote. The US also has a winner-takes-all system, which can lead to a lack of representation for voters in states where the winning candidate does not receive a majority of the popular vote.

The lack of political will and bipartisan cooperation to enact meaningful reforms has perpetuated a status quo that disenfranchises marginalised communities and perpetuates inequalities in representation.

Dr. Kristian Alexander is a Senior Fellow and the Director of International Security & Terrorism Program at TRENDS Research & Advisory (Dubai)