World Cup of Democracy Goes to the Netherlands

by Nicholas Golden, Bogdan Popescu, Anthony Ramicone // Published July 8, 2014

Fifa Samba UpdateThe FIFA World Cup is underway in Brazil. And while that tournament will eventually crown the best national soccer team in the world, we wondered what it would look like if it was crowning the healthiest electoral democracy in the world. With that in mind, we decided to put together an index that compares electoral health across countries and then apply it to this year’s World Cup field.

In the end, the Netherlands came out on top, defeating Australia in a fairly lopsided final. You can see how the whole tournament played out in the graphic above. As to the United States, it didn’t even escape its “group of death” in our Democracy World Cup and ranks 17th among the 32 nations overall.

To be clear, this is not a measurement of the legitimacy of a democracy, nor of its capability to govern. The point of this exercise is to see which countries are using electoral practices that encourage the strongest participation and representation of the electorate. In order to ensure that democracies-in-name-only do not run away with the competition, however, legitimacy is still a factor in our calculation. High reported turnout and a diverse legislature are not particularly meaningful in a system that’s democratic foundations are suspect.

So what exactly does it mean to have the world’s strongest electoral democracy (or at least the best out of World Cup entrants)? Here is what went into our calculation:

 1) Turnout

If many people don’t bother to vote, your electoral democracy is probably not healthy – especially if turnout varies by age, income level and educational background. Political participation is at the root of representative democracy, and voting is perhaps the most basic form of participation. Our turnout metric is an average of the turnout of the last two nationwide elections as a percentage of the voting age population, as reported by IDEA. Ideally we would know more about disparities between who is and is not voting in nations, but that information was not available for all nations.

 2) Fair Representation of Political Views

How likely is it that your vote will elect someone? Do political parties receive a share of the power equal to their share of support? These questions are at the heart of measuring fair representation, or “proportionality” in political science terms. If, for example, one third of the voters support a particular political party, they should not be excluded from the system. To measure this, we use the Gallagher Index, which calculates the overall difference between how many votes that different parties get and how many seats they receive in a legislature. This index does not measure what percentage of eligible voters directly help elect someone – what we call a ‘representation index’ -- but that data is not available for many nations.

 3) Women’s Representation

Is your democracy inclusive of underrepresented groups? While an ideal calculation of this would include racial, ethnic, and religious measures, what constitutes a minority is so varied across countries that it is too difficult to encapsulate in a single metric. Instead, the percentage of women in government serves as a good barometer for understanding how well a democracy represents those who are traditionally excluded. In particular, drawing on the Inter-Parliamentary Union, we use the percentage of women in the lower house of the legislature, since almost every lower house is directly elected.

 4) Legitimacy

Is your democracy a sham? It doesn’t matter how inclusive your legislative chamber is or how many people show up to vote if your elections are rigged. We use the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, which measures the robustness of democracies, as a multiplier in our calculation. This ensures that superficial democracies, which look good on the surface, are not unduly rewarded.

To calculate each country’s final score in our simulation, the scores for the first three variables were normalized on a 100 point scale. The average of these three scores was then multiplied by each country’s Economist Democracy Index score.

You can find all of our sortable data and calculations here which allow you to see which nations are best in each category. We hope that this serves as a foundation for building an index that serves to compare democracies around the world, not only measuring how free or fair they are but also how successful they are at representing the people they serve.

Some might be surprised to see that the United States did not make it past the group stage. Not even Tim Howard could save the US from its weak turnout and poor representation of women in Congress. Out of the 32 countries, the US was 21st in terms of women’s representation. Even worse, they were 27th in turnout. Low turnout generally means a skewed electorate, and the low level of women’s representation implies that we are struggling to represent all groups equitably. This points to an electoral system that could use some tweaking. You can read more about FairVote’s proposed reforms that would enhance women’s representation , increase voter turnout and improve fair representation.

The United States in fact would not make the semifinals even if looking only at the Economist’s analysis, suggesting that our deteriorating electoral health – falling farther behind other well-established democracies on our core measures--- may be having an impact on our overall democracy.

Some will also be surprised that a country such as Argentina was able to score higher than the US. It is important to note that we are not measuring the quality of governance in our index, but rather electoral outcomes. Argentina does well in each of our categories regarding electoral inputs and outputs, and while they do not ace the Economists’ Democracy Index with flying colors, they do well enough to be categorized as a “flawed democracy” and to maintain a decent score in our exercise. Over time, we suspect Argentina’s electoral health will lead to overall improvement in its democratic performance.

Stay tuned for our next edition of Dubious Democracy, where we have rated states’ performance in congressional elections. Historically, Dubious Democracy has been a relative index, but the method presented here is a step towards an absolute measure that will allow for more meaningful comparisons.

Correction: An earlier version of the above graphic showed incorrect scores for the countries in group H.