Elections, American style

Seattle Travel Blog

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We are witnessing the cultural experience of an American Presidential election. For those fellow travellers used to a functional democracy, I thought I would outline the American way of doing things. Let's skip the primaries, because they are even more screwed up...

Firstly, it is not actually a single election. On "Election day" (the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November, every four years) there are 51 different contests. Each Presidential candidate has to individually enrol in each of these contests, or at least as many as it is worth doing (Lincoln, for example, didn't bother to enrol in the South). There is a contest in each of the 50 states and one for the territory of Washington DC. The other territories (Guam, US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Northern Mariana Islands and American Samoa, with about 4.4 million American citizens) don't count.

So, in each of the 51 regions with first class citizens there is an "election". This isn't actually legally binding or required, and in itself doesn't actually mean anything. The actual election happens six weeks later, on the first Monday after the second Tuesday in December. During this actual, legally binding, election, a group of Electors from each state votes on who will be President. Each state gets a number of electors roughly proportion to its population, except there is a minimum of three (and Washington DC must have at least three but cannot have more than the smallest state), so the really small states get proportionally more power. The states get to chose who their electors are in pretty much whatever way they want. 48 states and Washington DC chose to have a single state-wide election on "Election Day", giving all the Electors in the state to the candidate who got a plurality of the vote (the most votes in total, no preference voting allowed). This means that the 55 Californian Electors go to whoever wins the most votes in California (it will be Obama) and the 34 Texan Electors go to whoever wins the most votes in Texas (it will be McCain), making the vote of a Republican in California or a Democrat in Texas completely worthless. Maine and Nebraska do things in a different way - they instead divide the state up into three chunks and each chunk has a plurality vote to elect a single Elector, with the final two electors being elected on the basis of the plurality of the whole state. None of these systems are set in stone though and any state can change the rules at any time. The Republicans, for example, want California to be divided up proportionately or regionally, so they can take a few of those 55 electors from the Democrats, but certainly don't want the same system in Texas where it means they'd lose a few electors to the Democratic Party in return.

The important thing to remember is that these Electors are actual people. They are pre-selected by different systems in different states (by primaries, by elections in party conventions, directly by the candidates campaigns, etc) but once the delegation (either Republican or Democratic) is chosen each individual in it acts as a free agent. This means that the actual election, on the first Monday after the second Tuesday in December, is not just for show. In this election each Elector votes for their preferred Presidential candidate. Usually, Electors vote for the candidate who won their region. However, on 158 different occasions "faithless" Electors have voted otherwise. Sometimes it is simple spelling errors (if they spell the candidates name wrong on the ballot their vote isn't counted), other times they just had a personal agenda they hadn't told anyone about beforehand, and chose to vote for the other person. They can even vote for a person who didn't even run for President. In 26 states and Washington DC there is nothing anyone can do about it. In 22 states the "faithless" Elector can be punished afterwards, but their vote counts, and in Michigan and Minnesota they can be punished and their vote is disqualified (but not counted for the correct person either). Another disqualification is for a voter from one state to vote for a President/Vice-President pair if both are from the same state as the Elector (so if President and Vice-President were from California, no Californian Electors would be allowed to vote for them, regardless of who won California - both Bush and Cheney are from Texas, so the Texan electors should have been disbarred from voting for them, but Cheney moved his official residence to Wyoming a few months before so they scrapped through on a technicality).

Unfortunately there are an even number of Electors (538), which means a tie is possible (and even comes up under a few scenarios for the McCain-Obama polling). In the case of a tie, the Electoral College is disbanded and the President and Vice-President are elected by Congress. Even without a tie, it goes to a tie-breaker if no candidate gets a majority (for example in 1824 Jackson got 99 votes, Adams got 84 and the other votes were split between two extra candidates). Under the tie-breaking system, the President is elected by the House of Representatives and the Vice-President is elected by the Senate, making McCain-Biden and Obama-Palin results possible. The Vice-President election is pretty straight forward - each Senator would vote between Biden and Palin, and they would keep on voting until there was a winner. The Presidential election is more complicated (of course!) - each State Congressional caucus (ie the 53 Californians, the 32 Texans, the single Alaskan, etc) meets separately and votes for a single representative. Those 50 representatives then meet and vote amongst themselves between McCain and Obama, so all of California is equal to the single Alaskan. This result would be hard to predict, as some Democrats like McCain and some Republicans like Obama, and the sole representatives of states like Montana and North Dakota have lots of power. Amusingly, if these 50 people can't chose a President by the 4th of March, the Vice-President chosen by the Senate becomes President (giving President Biden or President Palin). The Vice-President can then nominate anyone they want to be Vice-President, but they must be approved by both houses of Congress.

So now us foreigners can start to understand the arcane tradition that will take place on the 4th of November. Let's just hope they elect Obama and don't screw it up the way the have the last two times.
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photo by: diisha392