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4 things Americans should consider when thinking about European elections

May 09,2017 17:16

After Sunday's presidential runoff in France, we're now halfway through a series of major elections taking place in Western Europe this year. Dutch voters were the first to go to the polls in March, followed this month by the French and soon to be ...


Candidate Emmanuel Macron casts his ballot in the French presidential runoff on May 7.  (Pool photo by Christophe Ena via AP)
After Sunday's presidential runoff in France, we're now halfway through a series of major elections taking place in Western Europe this year. Dutch voters were the first to go to the polls in March, followed this month by the French and soon to be joined by the Brits in June and the Germans in September.
These elections have been watched with unusual anticipation in the United States. After President Trump's surprise victory last year, not to mention the shock of Brexit, there was concern that anti-establishment views had irreversible momentum. But in both the Netherlands and France, the mainstream has held off attacks from far-right populists.
Europe's series of elections offers a chance to look at some of the major differences between electoral systems on the continent and in the United States. Below, in no particular order, we break down four of the biggest differences and consider how they might change American politics if implemented in the United States.
Voting is encouraged in various ways
Both rounds of voting in the French election were held on a Sunday. In fact, every presidential election in France has been held on a Sunday since 1958, the first vote of the Fifth Republic. Germans will also go to the polls on a Sunday later this year.
Americans, meanwhile, vote on Tuesdays. That dates back to 1845, when it was decided that Tuesday would be the most convenient day because it clashed with neither the Sabbath nor farming day, which was generally Wednesday. It also took into account that many voters might have to travel long distances to get to their polling stations.
There has been plenty of debate over whether the United States should move its voting day to a weekend, which would in theory enable more people to vote. Activist groups note that countries that vote on the weekend tend to have higher voter turnout that the United States. However, even if voting were changed to Sunday, the United States would still have to grapple with a far bigger problem: getting citizens to actually vote.
Voter turnout in the United States is lower than in most developed countries, but, as this study by Pew Research Center noted, turnout is less of an issue than the fact that a relatively low percentage of Americans are registered to vote. In a country like the Netherlands, for example, almost all eligible citizens will be able to vote: Voter identification cards are automatically sent to eligible voters two weeks before the election, using information from the local municipality.
There are far shorter election seasons
Most other nations have far shorter electoral seasons than the United States, either because they are parliamentary democracies where elections can be called at will, or they have set campaign periods (as in France, where the election campaign officially began only on April 9).
But why is the U.S. election season so very, very long? Again, a lot of the reason is historical. The United States is a vast country, so a lengthy campaigning season made more sense in the days before telecommunication and air travel. Changing the system would require an amendment to the Constitution, which itself would require a lot of political unity — not something in great supply at the moment.
It's also true that there are some benefits to a lengthy election season: Candidates face years of scrutiny, in theory at least offering voters a greater chance to see their flaws and foibles. But the lengthy politicking period requires vast sums of money, for one thing, and policymakers are forced to focus on campaigning when they should probably be thinking about the requirements of their offices.
Some polls suggest that voters don't gain much knowledge in the process either: By July 2016, most Americans said they were “worn out” thanks to “so much [campaign] coverage.”
There are attempts to restrict media influence on the vote
In much of Europe, there are also restrictions on what the media can do ahead of an election.
This point was made clear over the weekend, when the so-called Macron leaks had to be ignored by French outlets because of a 44-hour media "blackout” imposed on both the press and the candidates. French media rules extend further than that: The amount of coverage given to each candidate is strictly regulated, and the candidates themselves face big restrictions on the types of advertisements they can put out.
It's hard to imagine exactly how these rules would play out in the United States. Some people in France already criticize their logic, especially given the rise of social media. But some studies have suggested that negative attack ads in the United States have a major impact on news outlets and can actually work to disenfranchise voters. Others have suggested that the large amount of coverage given to Donald Trump when he was a candidate ultimately worked in his favor.
The political systems encourage diversity
When voters turned out for the Dutch elections, they were greeted by an enormous piece of paper that listed not only the 28 parties running, but also their candidates. In the end, 13 different parties surpassed the threshold to enter the Dutch parliament, including niche parties devoted to pensioners and animal rights.
The Dutch system is based on the concept of proportional representation. It has its drawbacks — no party won a majority, so complicated talks are needed to form a government. This can result in instability, but it also means that there is an incentive to work toward consensus — and divisive politicians such as Geert Wilders often find themselves barred from power.
The German Bundestag is partially elected through proportional representation, which has helped smaller parties like the Green Party gain political influence. In France, a two-round system is used in both the presidential and parliamentary elections. While such systems don't always encourage political diversity, this year something unusual happened — notably, there were five serious contenders in the first round of voting, and the eventual winner, Emmanuel Macron, formed his political movement only last year.
The odd one out here is Britain, which uses a pure first-past-the-post system. Britain is mostly a two-party system, although third parties such as the Liberal Democrats and the United Kingdom Independence Party also exhibit a strong influence.
The situation is, of course, different in the United States, where the electoral college strongly supports a two-party system. Last year, Trump won the election despite losing the popular vote by a considerable margin. It's notable that France actually had a similar system — but ditched it after just one election in 1958.
More on WorldViews
Macron’s emails got hacked. Here’s why French voters won’t hear much about them before Sunday’s election.
Marine Le Pen beat the one person she needed to beat: Her father
French election: How the pollsters got the last laugh

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