Federalism, Democracy, and the 2020 Election

01 May 2021

In the aftermath of the 2020 election, the United States has experienced an anti-democratic crisis, with a chief executive attempting to delegitimize the general election and declare victory in an election that all impartial observers stated he lost. In comparative terms, the U.S. election system has been much maligned – it is highly localized and partisan, and lacks the independent, apex institutions such as electoral tribunals that are characteristic of many modern democracies. This brief essay builds off our recent joint work on federalism to argue that state and local governments, which administer elections and have refuted claims of widespread voter fraud, are serving as important bulwarks against this threat. By separating and dispersing the functions of governance—the day to day work of governing—U.S. federalism provides protection against authoritarianism. The decentralization of authority over elections offers one particularly dramatic example of this dynamic in action. Indeed, the U.S. model of dispersing core functions, although messy and costly in other ways, may have important advantages in some contexts over the alternative model of centralized, apex institutions, especially by reducing vulnerability to capture.