How does the US election work?

us election
The US electorate votes on a long list of positions when they come into the polling booth. Source: Lars Plougmann (via. Flickr)
On the doorstop of the 2020 US presidential election, we take a look at how the US election works, and what implications the system has.

By Tom Kingsbury | Political Editor

The US electoral system can seem frustratingly complex. Voters cast a vote for a president (and vice-president), so why doesn’t the person with the most votes always win, what is the electoral college, and what else do we need to know about US elections?

Let’s start with the president. Each presidential candidate must be nominated as their party’s candidate. The Democrat and Republican parties (and other, smaller parties) hold primary elections, where they choose who among them will be their candidate for president.

Candidates campaign, ramping the scale up as the election draws nearer. Campaigning is a broad topic, but a key aspect to note is how well-funded American electoral campaigns are. There are much fewer restrictions on spending and methods of campaigning in the US than in the UK.

One important area is that of political advertising. Political Action Committees (PACs) raise and spend money to advertise in favour of their preferred candidates. These are the adverts that will play at the end “I’m … and I approve this message.” But PACs have spending limits, forcing political strategists to come up with loopholes if they want to spend more than the (by American standards) stringent spending limits.

Thus was formed the Super PAC, which avoids spending limits completely by endorsing ideas, not candidates or parties. Advertising is still intended to favour or harm candidates, but by not mentioning or being officially endorsed by parties or candidates, Super PACs can spend unlimited amounts on advertising.  This is why the amount raised by candidates is a big issue in the US.

The next vote is the big one: the Presidental Election, where voters are given a choice (among many others on the ballot) of who to vote for as President of the United States. The US, unlike the UK, explicitly chooses its leader. The votes towards who will be president, however, are not counted all together, but state-by-state.

This is where the electoral college comes into play.

The electoral college is a group of individuals who truly have the power to select the president of the United States. There are 538 electors, so the magic number of electoral college votes needed to confirm the president is simply a majority – 270 votes.

The electoral college functions as a filter, or an obstacle (depending on interpretation), between the votes of the public and the confirmation of a presidential victory. In each state, voters decide on a candidate, and in almost all states the winner of that state gains all the electoral votes the state has.

This system is controversial for two main reasons: not all states have proportional electoral college votes to their population, and the system does not necessarily give victory to the candidate who gains the most votes.

This was on stark display in 2016, where even though Hillary Clinton won a little under three million more votes than Trump, he won the electoral college vote by almost 80 votes.

After all the votes have been counted, and the election decided, the winning candidate becomes President-elect, and will be inaugurated as President of the United States in January next year.

The choice of president is not the only vote on a US ballot though. Voters often have enormous sheets to vote on, selecting positions all the way from president to local offices such as school board members.

Next, let’s take a look at the vote for US lawmakers. During this election, every voter’s ballot paper will have on it a choice of district representative in the US Congress’ House of Representatives. The winner of this vote represents their district in one of the legislative chambers in America, voting on laws with (hopefully) their district’s best interests in mind.

Each US state has a number of districts allocated roughly on population. California, for example, has 53 districts, and so 53 members in the House of Representatives. It is not exactly proportional to population though – California has a population of 39.5 million people, making over 745,000 people per electoral college vote, whereas Wyoming has less than 580,000 people living in it, but three electoral college votes.

The entire House of Representatives is elected and re-elected every two years, and therefore highly accountable to the people its members represent, though as with the UK, some ‘safe seats’ rarely change hands.

The US Senate, on the other hand, holds elections for each of its seats every six years (a third of the Senate every two years). The Senate has two representatives for every state, regardless of population, making for 100 Senate seats. This year, the so-called ‘class 2’ senators (the second lot of the three electoral sets) are being voted on. This means the elections will decide on 33 Senate seats from across the US.

This year, Democrats have an advantageous chance to take control of the US Senate, since only 12 Democrat senators are up for election, compared to 23 Republican senators.

There are a number of models and views as to why the US legislature functions like this. One such conception is that the House functions as the voice of the people, more actively pushing for change at a faster pace. On the other hand, the Senate is seen as a more cautious and slow paced body, defending against ‘tyranny of the majority’ in a similar, though much more influential, role to the UK’s House of Lords. The Sentate’s other role is to prevent flip flopping back and forth and constant law changes at the whim of whichever party is in control.

This perception is enforced by the frequency of each chamber of Congress’ elections, and that the standard to pass a vote is significantly higher in the Senate, at a two thirds majority rather than half of the House.

A final area of note that the election will affect is state and local government. This means 50 governors, and a Senate and House of Representatives for each state will be elected.

These elections are much less hotly contested than the national – or ‘federal’ – government elections, but they are just as important – state governments can enact laws on taxation, health, justice, and many other issues, just as long as they do not contradict federal laws.

As with any country, the extent to which an election is democratic relies on – amongst many other things – how many people vote. Though the 2020 US election is being held in the context of a global pandemic, which has hit America hard, turnout is expected to be the highest in decades.

The election will be different from any other, and mail-in voting more important than ever before, but despite concerns about interference in mail-in voting, an expected turnout this high is only good for democracy. 

Follow @gairrhyddpol for all of the latest updates from the world of politics.

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