November 22, 2016

Among democracies, U.S. stands out in how it chooses its head of state

Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election this month – in particular, his winning a clear majority of the Electoral College vote despite receiving nearly 1.3 million fewer popular votes than Hillary Clinton – prompted readers of another Pew Research Center Fact Tank post to wonder how the U.S. system compares with the way other countries elect their leaders.

The short answer: No other democratic nation fills its top job quite the way the U.S. does, and only a handful are even similar.

Besides the U.S, the only other democracies that indirectly elect a leader who combines the roles of head of state and head of government (as the U.S. president does) are Botswana, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, South Africa and Suriname. (The Swiss collective presidency also is elected indirectly, by that country’s parliament.)

In more than half (65) of the world’s 125 democracies, the head of state – nearly always called a president – is directly elected by voters. Thirty other democracies are classified as constitutional monarchies, and in the remaining 30, including the U.S., the head of state is indirectly elected. (We confined our analysis to the 125 nations designated as “electoral democracies” by Freedom House, a research institute that studies issues of democracy, political freedom and human rights.)

However, only the U.S. has a system in which voters elect a body of “electors” whose sole function is to actually choose the president. The other 29 countries that indirectly elect their head of state give that task to their national legislatures, supplemented in five cases by representatives of states or regions. The German president, for example, is elected by the 630 members of the Bundestag together with 630 delegates chosen by the state parliaments. The president of India is chosen by an assemblage consisting of all elected members of both houses of Parliament and of state legislative assemblies – nearly 5,000 “electors” in total, casting more than a million population-weighted votes.

In making these sorts of comparisons, it’s important to bear in mind that not all “heads of state” wield real political power. In 69 democracies, the head of state (whether a president or a constitutional monarch) functions mainly as the personification of the nation and performs primarily ceremonial duties, while most executive power resides with the “head of government,” typically a prime minister. Most of the indirectly elected heads of state (22 out of 30) fall into this category. In 15 other democracies, the president and the prime minister share executive power.

But in the U.S. and 40 other democracies, there is no separate head of government – the president fulfills both symbolic and substantive roles. In 33 of those 41 countries, the president is directly elected; 22, in fact, require an absolute majority of the popular vote for election.

Topics: Democracy, Non-U.S. Political Leaders, Elections and Campaigns, World Elections, 2016 Election

  1. Photo of Drew DeSilver

    is a senior writer at Pew Research Center.


  1. Kenneth Bienkowski8 months ago

    Nice article except author makes the same mistake most writers do. The USA is NOT a democracy. It is a republic!

    1. Stacy Flit8 months ago

      I was going to point that out but you beat me to it. Thank you for keeping some people straight on that fact!

    2. Anonymous8 months ago

      Republic and democracy are not mutually exclusive. France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Mexico, India, Brazil, Argentina, etc. are republics too. Some of them are federal republics.

    3. Douglas Kelly8 months ago

      Constantly referring to the US as a democracy is getting tiring. The US is a representative democratic republic. That is a whole lot different than a simple straightforward democracy, which is nothing more than mob rule. People tend to believe democracy is the most fair form of governance since it’s rule by the majority, when in real practice it is the worst. 49.9% of the population under the thumb of 50.1% is an intolerable governing system.

      The quality of governance has slipped since the Progressive Era when the direct election of Senators was allowed by the 17th Amendment. That flew in the face of the founders’ purpose of a republic.

      The Senate was made up of people appointed by bipartisan committees within the States along with the State’s governors, and was intended to be above the voters/citizens reach so as to enable the cooling off of the heat of the actions of the House of Representatives and for the advice and consent of the President’s actions.

      Now due to the ignorance of many about government, we have two directly elected houses of representatives — the House of Representatives serving for two year terms, and the directly elected Senate serving for six year terms. This is not the bicameral legislature we bargained for.

      1. Ogden Stewart8 months ago

        Interesting perspective. My question to you is what you purpose as an adequate check to the real and perceived influence of money, special interests, and the entrenched bureaucratic quagmire that actually controls this “representative democratic republic”. The very words you use to describe our current status quo are without truth and meaning in today’s realm of reality. They are meaningless words unless defined by today’s actual truths. Of the people? By the people? For the people? What do you see in the reality of those words? Look around. The excess leading to the disasters of 2008 was caused by “the people”? Of course they were. But tell me who those people are. Was anyone watching those foxes in our nation’s hen house? I am using 2008 as an example of how our system has lost its way to the influences of the few sited with responsibility to govern our nation whether by election, appointment, or employment. Foxes will be foxes, and the role of a just and balance society is to understand and limit the excesses of human natures first rule “survival of the fittest” which more often than not supersedes humanity. So what I have to ask you are” whom represents the will of the people”? When you have a two party system in control of the electorate it pretty much limits the rights of democracy to the will of two potentially corrupt political bureaucracies and the republic for which they stand. A coalition government may not be as efficient but it does allow for a greater expression of the will of those people whom are represented. As a side note it also negates the two party rule which I believe has entrenched itself into the fabric without producing a true reflection of our people and their diversity. I live in a state much like our country where my vote against the majority has no sway because of things like gerrymandering which also affect the nation vote. The fact that neither party is without sin lends one to understand the basic tenant of human nature. Gerrymander, majority rules, Electoral College all represent that those on top will do whatever to maintain king of the hill status. Oh and throw some humanity crumbs to those lesser being whom are represented. It is easy for one to find fault, but I would prefer to find justice in our American way of life regardless of what name you give it.

    4. Anonymous8 months ago

      Here is the definition of a Republic:
      A republic is a sovereign state or country which is organized with a form of government in which power resides in elected individuals representing the citizen body and government leaders exercise power according to the rule of law. In modern times, the definition of a republic is commonly referred to a government which excludes a monarch.
      I see nothing there requiring an electoral college. Please show me why a Republic must have an electoral college.

  2. Anonymous8 months ago

    How many have been around as long as the U.S. System?

  3. Anonymous8 months ago

    What is meant by Head of Government in a federal system? In a parliamentary system it is the Prime Minister. In the US in’t the President is both head of state and government?

  4. Anonymous8 months ago

    1. In proportion to its total voting age-eligible population, no doubt the United States
    “stands out” in the percentage of those who do Not vote!
    2. The United States “stands out” in the number of “heads of state” and nation states
    it overthrows through creating, funding, inflaming internal strife and turmoil, as well
    as by coup or direct invasion-occupation.

  5. Anonymous8 months ago

    We are not a democracy, nowhere in the constitution is the word democracy used. You are a republic

  6. Anonymous8 months ago

    To minimize confusion, I prefer the term CHIEF of state over the term head of state.