US Elections Aren’t as Free and Fair as They Should Be. Here’s How Science Can Help  

March 11, 2024 | 8:00 am
We the people sign outside US CapitolAntenna/Getty Images
Liza Gordon-Rogers
Research Associate

Two respected assessments of democracies around the world were released recently and, once again, our democracy in the United States scored poorly. Of course, most of us recognize that US elections have not been free and fair for everyone for much of our country’ s history. The bad news is that, despite some of the progress we’ve made since our founding, annual scores from both The Economist’s “Democracy Index” and the “V-Dem Index” from the Varieties of Democracy Institute (VDI) indicate that our democracy is “backsliding” or undergoing “democratic erosion.”  

The good news is that science can help us determine which policies and practices we can implement to improve our democracy and move closer to truly free and fair elections.  

Eroding ratings  

In the latest rankings, experts tracking the quality of democracies around the world have lowered the ratings for the US democracy. Since 2010, its rating has been downgraded by The Economist’s “Democracy Index,” the Freedom House’s “Freedom in the World” measure, and by the VDI’s “V-Dem Index.” For eight years in a row, The Economist’s “Democracy Index”, which analyzes democracies in 167 countries, has categorized the United States as having a “flawed democracy,” ranking it 29th in 2023 according to its new report released last month. Freedom House lowered the United States’s score by nearly 10 points between 2015 and 2023.  

Finally, VDI’s “Electoral Democracy Index”, which measures whether elections are free and fair, decreased the United States’s score by six points between 2016 and 2022; its 2023 report warns that the United States has “autocratized to a significant degree.” VDI’s new March report notes that the 2024 election will be pivotal, cites former President Donald Trump’s attempts to undermine our democracy, and warns that his reelection could have perilous consequences for the health of American democracy.  

If those rankings weren’t enough, a survey of roughly 1,000 democracy experts and scholars conducted by Protect Democracy, found that the US democracy is under significant threat. An index of several variables, this group’s “Threat Index” offers mean scores for countries to try to calculate the threat they face from authoritarianism. The index found the United States and our elections are under “significant threat” of authoritarianism as of February 2024 whereas, by comparison, this threat was classified as low for the United Kingdom, Germany, and Canada. 

Those examining the health of our democracy and elections at the state level also report bleak findings. “The State Democracy Index”, created by political scientist Jacob Grumbach, draws upon more than 50 indicators to assess the quality of state democracies. This index finds that many US states have experienced democratic backsliding from 2000 to 2018. While the democracies in 17 states experienced improvements in quality over that time, the remaining states have declined. Given that our elections are run at the state and local level, it is particularly concerning that so many state democracies are backsliding.  

The “State Democracy Index” finds some of the most significant negative changes in the state of North Carolina. Back in 2000, North Carolina ranked among the most democratic states. But changes to election processes and procedures, along with the deeply problematic redrawing of voting districts in the early 2010s, have resulted in North Carolina now ranking as one of the most undemocratic states in the nation.  

A flawed electoral system  

According to scientists at almost all of these organizations, a crucial contributing factor to US democratic backsliding are problems within our electoral system. In 2016, Freedom House downgraded the United States, in part, because of the “cumulative impact of flaws in the electoral systems…”

Since 2018, VDI has pointed to concerns about the freedom and fairness of our elections as a prominent reason for democratic erosion. Freedom House cited “partisan pressure on the electoral process” as a reason for their decreased rating of US democracy in their 2023 report.  

Researchers at the Brookings Institution agree that the strategic manipulation of our electoral process is largely to blame for the erosion of US democracy in recent years. Brookings says this manipulation takes various forms: the intentional addition of administrative barriers to voting, unfairly drawing electoral maps, the subversion of the election certification and counting process, and the violent coup attempt on January 6, 2021.  

Fixing our election systems 

The Center for Science and Democracy is actively working now to develop a set of recommendations to address these problems. In particular, we’re trying to lessen administrative obstacles to voting, including poor ballot design. We’re working to address unfair map-drawing processes, often known as partisan gerrymandering. And we’re working to increase election data transparency to counter disinformation and subversion of the election certification process, especially in the target states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and North Carolina. We believe our work on equitable ballot design and voter education materials, fair maps, and election data transparency, can have a significant positive impact on the state of our democracy and the health of our elections. Using rigorous scientific analyses, we’re drawing up a list of recommended best practices that states can implement to improve the conduct of elections.  

On the topic of ballot design and voter education materials, for example, we’re exploring recommendations for states to increase accessibility for those for whom English is a second language and to implement “usability tests” and public comment periods to get public feedback on ballot design before they are finalized. We’re also examining recommendations to increase public input into the redistricting process, including holding a specific number of public hearings and trainings to help people draw and submit their own maps of voting districts. Finally, we’re planning to encourage states to publicly release voter files, incorporate ballot tracing technology, and to report election results in machine-readable formats—all to increase public confidence in the accuracy of election results.  

To help develop our election science recommendations, the Center for Science and Democracy has established an Election Science Task Force, bringing together leading experts and scientists from around the country with extensive knowledge and experience about election administration and processes. Working together, we hope to examine both past and upcoming elections to identify the best practices states can adopt to make our elections more free and fair for everyone. Stay tuned for how you can help to amplify and implement these recommendations. 

Unfortunately, the United States is not currently the bastion of freedom it claims to be. At UCS, we believe that science has a major role to play. By working directly with election experts and administrators, we hope to make reforms to the electoral system that can help the nation come closer to achieving the standard of democracy it has set for itself over the past nearly 250 years.