Elections: The American Process of Selecting a President: A Comparative Perspective

By Shugart, Matthew Soberg | Presidential Studies Quarterly, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Elections: The American Process of Selecting a President: A Comparative Perspective


Shugart, Matthew Soberg, Presidential Studies Quarterly


The United States has fallen well behind worldwide trends in presidential elections. Its electoral college regionalizes the contest for the national executive, contrary to a worldwide trend toward direct election. U.S. states continue to select presidential electors via plurality rule. resulting in vulnerability to third-party "spoilers," even at a time when third-party voting is on the upswing. The worldwide trend is toward runoffs to guard against spoilers. Only in nomination methods is the United States the trendsetter, as primary elections only recently have been adopted in other countries, mainly in Latin America. Yet the American regionalized and sequential nomination process contrasts with the national primaries preferred elsewhere.

The United States was the first country to have a chief executive selected through an electoral process distinct from the election of legislators. Despite the absence to this date of a constitutional mandate for states to hold popular elections for presidential electors, by early in the nineteenth century nearly all states did so. In the two centuries since, many more countries have implemented popular elections for a president. France in 1848 was probably the next example, although French presidential elections soon thereafter became indirect again until 1965. In the second half of the nineteenth century and in the early twentieth century, nearly all countries of Latin America established popular presidential elections, and in more recent decades the number of countries with such elections has grown immensely.

The United States may have started the trend toward popular presidential election, but in more recent times it has fallen behind worldwide trends in the methods by which those elections are conducted. The United States has continued to use its electoral college, while elsewhere the trend has been unmistakably toward methods that are not only popular (voters allowed to vote for presidential candidates) but direct (popular voting is decisive and final). Indirect methods raise the possibility that one candidate could win the popular vote yet not be selected president, as happened in 2000 in the United States. In the world today, the only other country in which such an outcome could occur is Bolivia.

In addition to the trend toward direct election, there is also a trend in the decision rules away from the plurality method, because of that method's vulnerability to so-called spoilers. A spoiler is a candidate with no realistic chance of winning the election outright, but whose presence in the race may affect which of the other candidates does win, by siphoning votes disproportionately from one of those other candidates. To guard against spoilers, while simultaneously permitting a wide range of partisan options to participate in the campaign for president, more and more countries are adopting runoff procedures. The U.S. use of an electoral college, in which the electors are chosen by plurality (usually statewide) stands against these two trends.

In a third trend, on the other hand, the United States has been the pacesetter. More and more countries are joining the United States by using primary elections to select parties' presidential nominees. Interestingly, however, even in this one area where the United States is ahead of the curve in presidential selection methods, it still retains features not found elsewhere that mirror the general-election process. First, primaries are indirect, whereby voters select party convention delegates rather than decisively determine the nominee. Second, like the electoral college, primaries take place on a state-by-state basis--in this case, spread out over time rather than on a single date. No country in the world uses a similar set of rules in its primary elections.

Before turning to the variety of election methods used elsewhere in the world, and how U.S. methods compare, let us first turn to some theoretical considerations regarding executive elections. …

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