The Electoral College Versus the World?


America's presidential election process is not so unusual after all

Opponents of the Electoral College often imply that America’s presidential election process is undemocratic and out of step with the world. But is it?

The 2010 Winter Olympic Games featured athletes from 82 countries. I decided to investigate, using that list, which goes from Albania to Uzbekistan and includes all of the largest nations. How do other countries elect (or select) their executives?

A note about titles: in the United States, the president is both “chief of state” and “head of government.” But this is only true of 14 Olympic nations; in most, the chief of state is more-or-less symbolic and the head of government is a separate office with the power to actually run things. I looked at both, focusing on the head of government position because that is usually the more powerful office.

The first thing I noticed is how many chiefs of state are still hereditary monarchs. The Winter Games featured 17 nations that recognize a king, queen, emperor, or prince. These include not only small countries like Monaco and Morocco, but three members of the G7: Canada, Great Britain, and Japan. Many other chiefs of state are elected by popular vote. Half of the Winter Games countries directly elect their chief of state. Yet most of these nations–31 out of 41–select some other person as either prime minister, premier, chancellor, or chairman. None of these offices are directly elected; they are either chosen by a legislative body or appointed.

In only 10 of these countries does a directly elected chief of state also serve as head of government. These are the national popular vote nations.

  • Argentina
  • Brazil
  • Chile
  • Columbia
  • Cyprus
  • Georgia
  • Ghana
  • Mexico
  • Peru

And how are most heads of government selected? Most–40–are chosen by legislative bodies. Another 26 are appointed by other elected officials. Hong Kong elects their “Chief Executive” at a convention. Altogether, 68 of the countries at the 2010 Olympics use other elected officials to select the head of government. These systems are similar to the original design of the Electoral College. But in practice, America’s current Electoral College system is likely the most democratic of any of these indirect methods of election.

In addition to these 68 nations and the ten national popular vote nations mentioned above, Monaco and Morocco’s monarchs appoint their heads of government, Iran’s is elected, and North Korea’s Kim Jong Il is a dictator. (All this data is from The CIA World Factbook.)

Comparing America’s presidential elections to the world, we find what we should expect to find: a process that is more democratic than most while incorporating checks and balances in the interest of political stability and individual rights.

There is one other distinction worth mentioning. No other nation’s executive is considered “the leader of the free world,” or is commander-in-chief of so much military power. Anyone who calls for restructuring America’s presidential elections owes it to the world to be thoughtful and deliberate. The burden is on reformers to explain why anyone should consider rejecting a time-tested system.

As the Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby wrote, defending “The brilliance of the Electoral College,”

the Electoral College remains the best system for picking a chief executive suited to a nation like ours: a geographically large, ideologically diverse, socially complex federal republic. No political process is foolproof, but this one has survived 220 years and 54 [now 56] peaceful presidential elections.


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4 Responses to The Electoral College Versus the World?

  1. Daniel on 2010/03/09 at 5:12 AM

    First of I agree with what you have stated. In addition to this however, I am against our current tax policies which were permantly changed during WWII. During previous wars taxes were collected directly by the Fedral government to expedite the war cause (I believe the first was the civil war). However during times of peace the Federal government only taxed for transportation and Defense. Social security was added later. After WWII however our leaders decided that it was best to allow the Federal government to keep taxing directly. This is not how our government was originally designed. Also it takes the power of the purse away from each individual state and gives it to the few people who lead the House and Senate. It also removes responsibilty from our Senators and House memebers elected from our state. They can now claim they voted against a bill even though money from our state is going to fund it. I would never suggest making a drastic change because of the people who depend on entitlements. However gradual change over time with a goal of restoring our government to it's original form would allow the states to slowly take responsibility for themselves.

  2. Trent on 2010/03/10 at 6:03 PM

    The undermining of Federalism that you identify really goes back, I think, to the 1913 constitutional amendments. Those changes, allowing federal income taxes and forcing the direct election of U.S. Senators, unleashed a tidal wave of federal government power that continues today.

  3. Susan Goding on 2011/08/04 at 6:19 PM

    Parliament is more democratic. Presidential elections require massive amounts of money to mount a national campaign for a party leader. Why not elect the party and let the party choose the leader. Prime ministers only need to campaign in their district, a much less financial onerous effort.

    • Trent on 2011/08/04 at 7:30 PM

      It is simply not true that parliament is more democratic, as the amount of money spent campaigning has nothing to do with how democratic a process is. Blame a combination of big government (as power increases, it becomes worth more for people to influence the outcome) and that darned First Amendment.

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