Seven Lessons the United States Can Learn from Other Democracies

International Resource
June 21, 2023
Kevin Johnson

This op-ed by ERN Executive Director Kevin Johnson and the German Marshall Fund Alliance for Securing Democracy's Rachael Dean Wilson originally appeared in The Bulwark.

Ongoing innovation is innate to the human spirit and stops at no borders. While Americans are rightly proud of being the nation that gave the world powered flight, we owe the development of the modern monoplane design to a Romanian, Trajan Vuia, who invented the critical improvement three years after Kitty Hawk. The same holds true in other fields that require a balance of performance and safety, are critical to modern life, and are used around the world—and none more so than elections.

American elections, and our democracy more broadly, are facing more stress than they have in generations. That stress has two main drivers: political polarization and election-related misinformation and disinformation.

Protections are baked into each stage of U.S. election administration, but many Americans continue to harbor mistaken beliefs about widespread fraud and miscounted votes. Malign actors—both foreign and domestic—use misinformation and disinformation to reinforce these beliefs, serving their narrow interests, be they geopolitical advantage or monetary gain. The problem is exacerbated by the political polarization that is dividing Americans into warring camps, opposing the other side on virtually every issue of social and political importance (or no importance). Each election appears as a larger, more desperate pitched battle of the ongoing partisan war.

Americans across the political spectrum realize that U.S. democracy needs new ideas and leaders willing to innovate. While we are often hesitant to take lessons in democracy from other countries, Americans from local elected officials and state legislators to governors and members of Congress should look to our allies and partners for inspiration. After all, some of the aspects of modern democracy we consider sacred civic rituals were adopted from abroad. The Australians were the first to use government-printed, as opposed to party-printed, ballots to keep voting secret and deter fraud. In 1888, Massachusetts became the first U.S. state to use the Australian ballot, which soon became the national norm. American-origin innovations adopted abroad include mail voting (1864), voter registration lists (1800), and perhaps most importantly, the Bill of Rights (1791), which many other countries have adapted as a way of safeguarding their own freedoms.

As leaders of election-focused organizations, and as individuals with Republican and Democratic backgrounds respectively, we have been working together to identify innovations in other democracies that could help America mitigate polarization and mis- and disinformation. The result of that research is a new report, “Lessons from Other Democracies: Ideas for Combatting Mistrust and Polarization in US Elections,” which explains seven innovative ideas for states and their citizens to consider.

These strategies won’t necessarily work for every state or election jurisdiction, but they can serve as catalysts for public officials as we approach 2024 and elections beyond. Some are already in use.

TO GET AT THE ROOT of the problem of polarization, many countries have focused on removing incentives to play to the extremes. Four strategies have proven effective at allowing more room for the political middle in other democracies:

1. The United Kingdom increased non-partisan fairness through independent redistricting. In 1944, the United Kingdom took the politics out of establishing political districts with the creation of independent “Boundary Commissions.” The Commissions review constituency boundaries (analogous to U.S. congressional districts) every eight years, guided by criteria like equal voting population and municipal political borders (i.e., unlike in the United States, they tend to avoid breaking up towns into multiple districts). Each commission is led by a high court judge and two individuals appointed via a public appointments Boundary proposals are subject to public consultation over a two-year period, but neither Parliament nor government ministers have any control over the Commissions’ work.

A handful of U.S. states, including Colorado, Michigan, and California, now have constitutionally-established independent redistricting commissions. Researchers have confirmed that these commissions create more districts that are competitive, incentivizing candidates to reach beyond their bases and govern more collaboratively. Where further state-based progress is stymied by concerns of “unilateral disarmament,” Congress could consider establishing national standards. Significant majorities of voters from both sides support handing election map-making powers to independent commissions.

2. Canada incentivized accountability through ranked choice voting. As many Americans are learning, with the most common version of ranked choice voting (RCV), voters rank candidates in order of preference, and if no candidate has a majority of first choice votes, an “instant runoff” uses the second and third choices, and so on, to determine the candidate with majority support. In 2020, this system helped Canada’s Conservative Party avoid a divisive election and choose a leader with broad support. Peter McKay led in the first round with 33.5 percent of the vote, ahead of the three other candidates. But Erin O’Toole emerged as the majority winner in the instant runoff. All five major Canadian parties now use RCV for internal elections, taking advantage of its tendency to forge consensus. In most cases, the winning candidate has majority support, even if they’re not the majority’s first overall choice. What works for maintaining party unity could work just as well for national unity.

There are good reasons why U.S. political parties should see RCV as in their interests, as Canadian parties do. In many states, the opportunity to rank candidates would be used most frequently at the primary level, where crowded races are becoming the norm. Parties face a significant risk of losing winnable general election races because of more extreme candidates picked under plurality rules in crowded primaries.

In Virginia RCV helped the Republicans nominate a candidate for governor, Glenn Youngkin, who reversed a losing trend for the party in the state and quickly rose to national prominence. The other leading primary candidate to Youngkin’s right, Amanda Chase, may otherwise have lost the close general election.

3. Northern Ireland broadened representation through multi-member districts. Northern Ireland uses a “proportional RCV” system to elect five representatives from each district, resulting in better representation of political minorities—Northern Ireland’s analogues of America’s urban Republicans and rural Democrats. Analysts have found that this voting system has helped bridge deep sectarian differences between nationalist and unionist parties in Northern Ireland, which was riven by sectarian violence and terrorism within living memory.

Multi-member congressional districts were common in the United States before 1842, and are still used by some states for their lower legislative chambers. They could open the door to representation in Congress of the many substantial political minorities that can’t currently gain seats. For example, Republican voters comprise nearly 30 percent of Massachusetts but haven’t won a House seat there for decades because they are too scattered to constitute a majority in any district. Representing these and other political minorities in Congress would broaden both parties and incentivize parties to be less polarized and more inclusive, fostering the mutual respect required for a healthy democracy.

4. Canada reinforced trust through impartial election administration. Canada is one of many countries with nonpartisan election administration, meaning the election referees do not play for one team or the other. Following a fraud-ridden election in 1917, Canada transitioned to elections be run by nonpartisan individuals. This nonpartisanship is ensured through a range of legal mechanisms, most importantly by the appointment, rather than election, of chief election officers, a process that often includes requirements for broad-based approval. Legislatures in Canada have delegated greater authority and discretion to these chief election officers over time, bolstering their neutrality and authority and helping manage election administration issues that often cause intense fights in U.S. state legislatures.

Growing tensions in recent U.S. elections have spawned new efforts to increase impartiality in state election administration and to change the incentives for election officials. Both Republicans and Democrats have introduced legislation at the state level this year addressing election-related conflicts of interest and reducing the ways election officials can take an active role in politics and campaigns.

PARTISAN POLARIZATION ISN’T JUST DRIVING Americans into warring camps; it’s helping drive the spread of misinformation and disinformation, including efforts to undermine the integrity of U.S. elections. Countering false election narratives is difficult, complicated, politically sensitive, and now potentially overwhelmed by advances in generative AI.

It’s important to note the work of building resilience to false election information must be carefully scoped. Countering disinformation that targets trust in elections while also ensuring the right to free speech is delicate balance. Any effort to build resilience in the information space and support accurate election communications and information should make the scope of the effort clear from the outset. Three foreign examples stand out as promising:

5. Sweden promoted accurate election information through collaborative leadership. To safeguard its 2018 general election, Sweden, a frequent target of Russian-backed information operations, took a “bottom up” approach to building resilience against false information by building a coalition across sectors. Notably, Sweden’s project started with a study of democratic resilience (both failures and triumphs) in the United States, United Kingdom, and other European democracies. It created a leadership component within the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency that collected information from municipal governments and election administrators, security agencies, and the Swedish Election Authority, and then disseminated knowledge, training, and tools needed to understand the threat of disinformation, vulnerabilities in the electoral system, and methods for responding.

Like the United States, Sweden has a highly decentralized electoral management structure. The strategy of building a coalition of non-traditional civil society and government partners ahead of an election can be adopted at any level of government.

6. Australia educated the public through a “Stop and Consider” campaign. Australia’s electoral commission found success during its 2022 federal election with a “Stop and Consider” public education campaign combined with active pre-bunking and debunking of false information. The education campaign asked people to reflect on three things when encountering election information: 1) the reliability of the information’s source; 2) the date the information was published; and 3) and whether the information was safe, or perhaps a scam. When false claims about the election process were made, the AEC acted quickly to debunk them and provide facts about how the election process actually worked.

An Australian-inspired effort in the United States could build on the work of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s 2020 Rumor Control website and similar state-level websites. A voter education campaign at almost any level of government is worth exploring. Communications staffs have become vital necessities for even the smallest election jurisdictions.

7. South Korea ensured transparency through nonpartisan observation. When South Korea stared down elections at the beginning of the pandemic in April 2020, the National Election Commission took extraordinary steps to expand election observation and trust-enhancing transparency. South Korea is a newer democracy whose recent elections have been marred by internal factionalism and political polarization. To buttress public trust in the process, election officials enacted a number of safety measures to guard against the threat of COVID-19, allowing domestic partisan and nonpartisan observers to monitor the voting process in-person at similar levels to previous elections while also ensuring polling station activities were livestreamed for the whole country to see. These measures made it easier to refute allegations of early voting fraud and Chinese interference from prominent figures.

Given the challenges to its the 2020 election and even some midterms election results, expanded observation and transparency could help build trust in the United States as well. U.S. election observation is generally governed by state legislation and in some cases even depends on the discretion of jurisdictions within a state. In a recent success, at the request of a bipartisan group of Georgia election officials, nonpartisan observers agreed to in-person monitoring of the 2022 midterm elections in Fulton County, Georgia—the setting of false assertions that the 2020 presidential election was rigged. Relying in large part on the observations of these nonpartisan observers, the bipartisan group of election officials recommended against a state takeover of Fulton County elections.

None of these ideas is a silver bullet to fix all that ails American democracy. However, if Americans continue to strive to improve our own system by learning from others, we can effectively govern at home and remain an example to others.