International Papers

The Electoral College Flunks Out 

“America woke up Wednesday morning to discover there was no president-elect and that the election of Nov. 7 was mired in a mixture of banana-republic farce and suspense worthy of a [soccer] World Cup final decided by penalty kicks,” said Libération of France. South Africa’s Independent described world reaction to the “bizarre” election as ranging “from bemusement to contempt.” The piece quoted a Palestinian U.N. official saying, “Usually the other parts of the world are accused when this happens in their country, but today we see it in the United States,” and a German analyst calling the Electoral College “idiotic.” The Cuban state organ Granma noted, sarcastically, that while nobody was sure who had won the presidency, it was clear that a dead man had won a Senate seat in Missouri. The Times of India proclaimed, “As with most American products, the battle for the White [H]ouse showed the country’s flair for turning molehills into mountains.”

Several British commentators were similarly contemptuous of the American system. An editorial in the Times of London declared, “While this bizarre election has provided plenty of drama, it has been a parody of democracy.” An op-ed in the same paper was even more withering. “What can be described only as an absolute charade of an election will have given hope to dictatorships everywhere,” it claimed.

What moral authority … would a man have to hold his finger over the nuclear trigger when he owed his office not to a majority but the by-product of a bankrupt electoral college? … The formal powers of the President are rather few and limited; they only acquire elasticity when lubricated by moral authority. … The Electoral College is the swollen appendix of the American body politic.

Still, London’s Independent praised one aspect of the U.S. system: “At moments like this, the cumbersome precision of the American constitutional process is a blessing. Imagine, in such an impasse, that transition in Washington followed the British model, whereby power passes instantly, almost brutally, after a general election.” It was a fleeting respite from negativity, however. The Financial Times assailed the cost of American democracy, estimating that $3 billion was spent on this year’s presidential and congressional elections—a 50 percent increase over 1996. Although, at 0.03 percent of national income, this is “hardly expensive,” the fact that less than 50 percent of eligible voters went to the polls seemed shockingly low to many non-U.S. writers. La Nación of Argentina asked several experts if the low turnout was “a danger for democracy or a symbol of a mature society.” Fortunately for us, they seemed to think it was the latter—voter apathy is OK in developed countries; apparently, people are simply too satisfied to take advantage of the franchise.

While there were some murmurings about “a country deeply divided,” most papers were impressed with Americans’ ability to get along. The Times of India said, “In India, while politics remains essentially confrontationist, in the world’s richest country, where more and more people are shareholders of the economic cake, political divisions can and are often bridged by a commonly acknowledged affirmation of overall American interests which on a day-to-day basis transcend Democrat-Republican sectarianism.” Expecting a Bush win, an op-ed in the International Herald Tribune saw continuity rather than division on the horizon:

[T]he closeness of the vote shows that there is not some strong new current carrying the United States off in one direction or another. It will continue to be more or less the America that the world has grown used to in the last decade, powerful but self-conscious, concerned about the world but inward-looking and uneasy with commitments, convinced that it has only the best of intentions but unsure what to do with them.

Britain’s Daily Mirror claimed America is “a laughing stock. It can’t make up its mind who should be its president.” Referring to the confusion in Florida, the editorial concluded:

That is the sort of thing you would expect from a banana republic and could leave America in chaos for weeks. If the extra ballots, mistaken votes and recount still leave the election hung, it will have to wait for postal votes to be counted. The simplest thing might be for President Clinton to be asked to stay on for another four years. But the way things are in the States at the moment, the letter asking him to do that would probably get lost in the post.