Case study of democracy: the Australian electoral system
I am absolutely amazed by what I have read on the net regarding the administration of the US Presidential Election. I cannot believe that a country which (rightly) prides itself on being one of the world's first democracies is willing to tolerate a electoral system with such gaping flaws (IMO) within it.
A quick summary of areas where I think the Australian system works better than the US system (as far as I understand it):
1. an independent national electoral body who is in charge of voter registrations, running the polling (including absentee voting and pre-polling), and setting the boundaries of the electorates/boundaries - ie. no govt (esp state govts) get to decide how the voting is done
2. Compulsory voting - and I know this is a controversial point to many. As an adjunct to this, I think that holding the election on a Saturday is better than holding it on Tuesday.
3. consistent voting/balloting systems across elections at all three levels of government
4. ease of voting (largely thanks to point 1) including short waits to vote (less than half an hour), sufficient ballot papers for all (no electronic system), and ability to vote anywhere in Australia, rather than being required to vote at one particular booth
5. the role of political party participants as scrutineers during the counting process, and reconciliation of ballot papers outgoing to ballot papers which are counted
Below is explanation of how the Australian electoral system works, as a way of illustrating the administrative requirements of running such a system [if I have made any mistakes, please let me know and I will edit accordingly]:
There are a number of fundamental differences between the Australian and US system. First is that voting is compulsory - if you are over 18, then you must register to vote, and you must vote. There are fines for failure to vote, though AEC will accept excuses (eg. if you are overseas or sick).
Second is that we don't have a President, so we do not have a Presidential election. We have a Prime Minister, who is elected by the House of Representatives - so the party in power in the Parliament is always the same as the Prime Minister (leaving aside the possibility of minor parties controlling the balance of power in the House, which hasn't happened for more than sixty years). The system of voting for the House of Representatives is quite similar to the US House system, I believe - there is a preferential voting system, which means that you must number all the boxes on your ballot paper. If your first preferred candidate is eliminated from the race (ie. they get least votes in the first round of voting), they will count your vote towards your second preferred candidate; if your second preferred candidate is eliminated, they count your third preferred, etc. The Senate is also similar to US Senate - that's because we copied the US system.
Third, There are independent electoral bodies - the federal one is (not surprisingly) known as the Australian Electoral Commission aka AEC - the AEC oversees the federal election as well as some local council elections (there are three tiers of government in Australia - arguably too many for a nation of approx 20mill, but that's another issue altogether). There are similar bodies running the state elections - for example, in Victoria we have the Victorian Electoral Commission or the VEC which runs our state elections.
These bodies are publicly funded, and have responsibility for a number of functions. For one, they handle all the voter registrations, they employ people who hand out ballot papers (as opposed to 'how to vote' cards) at each polling station, and they also employ people to count the ballots. I believe that the people who work as election officials have to sign a declaration that they are not a member of a political party - the AEC site says "not politically active", though that's somewhat ambiguous IMO.
One of the most important things that the AEC do is that they draw up the boundaries of the electorates (or districts, as they are called in US parlance) - there are rules about how often redistribution (as it is termed) has to be done (at least once every 7 years) and the redistribution is intended to create a relatively even number of voters in each electorate - at the moment, I believe the average figure is around 80,000 or so voters for federal electorates? The AEC do try and draw up electorates which make common sense - for example, they often use creeks or other natural geographical features to delineate borders.
I mention this because up until the AEC was given this role, the governments in each jurisdiction had control, and there was an deplorable practice known as gerrymandering. Gerrymandering basically involved drawing up boundaries in a way which favoured the incumbent political party. Conservatives in particular relied on the fact that the population is much denser in the city than in the country - and they created the same (geographically) sized electorates in the city and the country, with the result that a country Member of Parliament (MP - more likely to be conservative) might be elected with 10,000 votes, whereas a city MP (who was more likely to be liberal) might need 30,000 votes to be elected. Many governments stayed in power for decades on the basis of such policies - Sir Henry Bolte in Victoria stayed in for 17 years and left on retirement, whilst Joh Bjelke Peterson was in power for 11 years and essentially allowed endemic police corruption to flourish in Queensland.
Voting in Australia is done on paper ballots - unlike US, we do not have state propositions at the same time (in fact, I'm unclear what propositions are - referendums at a state level?). Generally there is one ballot paper for the House of Representatives, which may have around 3-8 candidates - there's no specific number, but I find there tends to be five or six candidates. There is also a Senate ballot paper, which is horrendously complicated. The Senate ballot paper may have sixty or more candidates on it and there are two ways of filling it in. First is to number every box below 'the line' - if you get this wrong, your vote is informal and not counted. Otherwise you can put a '1' in one box 'above the line' - there is a box for each political party, and if you put a 1 above the line then the preference order is done as registered to that political party.
Voting can be done in a number of ways. First, you can get a postal vote, which is equivalent to the US absentee ballot - this is usually used by the elderly or people who are travelling on the day of the election. Second, for several weeks before the election there are 'pre-polling' stations open in each electorate, usually during business hours - J uses this method because he is Jewish, and can't actually vote on Saturday. For institutions such as hospitals and nursing homes, they may also have a polling official go along one day before the election and have people vote there. For people overseas, they can vote in the Australian consulate or embassy.
On the day of the election, you can go to any polling place and vote. For most people, there will be a polling place within walking distance. Officials prefer you to go to a booth in your own area, but even if you are in another electorate (or interstate) you will still be able to vote. When you rock up to vote, you show some photo id, they cross you off and give you the ballot papers. There is very rarely any waiting to vote - perhaps ten minutes if you are voting at the end of the day? I was listening to coverage of the US election, and an Australian girl said that the longest she had to wait was twenty-five minutes. The polls are open 8am to 6pm - there is no extension of this time, though I don't know what would happen if ever they had a situation where there were dozens of people waiting to vote outside. I've never seen it, in any case.
In most cases, counting for the House of Representative seats is finished on the night - the biggest polling booth will only have a few thousand votes, which isn't that much. Candidates are allowed to nominate 'scrutineers' to go in and watch the polling officials do the counting - they are not allowed to touch the ballot papers, just watch while the sorting and counting is done. They can pipe up if they think a vote has been put in the wrong pile, or if they think that a vote ought (or ought not) be counted as informal. It used to be considered a big deal to have scrutineers around, but I'm not so sure. If the election is so close that a dozen votes would matter, then usually there's a recount, in which case the best scrutineers will be there. I have scrutineered in a number of elections and never seen anything that I thought was suspicious - sometimes people put ballots in the wrong pile, but that's just a mistake it's easy to make at the end of a long day. A small booth may take an hour to count; a large booth may take three or four hours.