Hear Ye! Since 1998.
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15
Feb 04
Sun

US Electoral Processes

Both Australia and the USA are due for a federal election before this year is
out. In Australia, we already know either Labor or Liberal will gain a lower
house majority thereby making either Howard or Latham our Prime Minister. For us
Aussies, the US electoral system is somewhat more arcane. From what I can piece
together, this is what is currently going on. Let me know if I have got anything
wrong.

In Australia, we do not directly elect our Prime Minister. We elect our
preferred party by voting for that party’s representative at our local
electorate, and a Prime Minister is appointed from the ranks of that party. (The
Prime Minister must himself be elected in his local electorate.) By convention,
this is always the leader of that party, who is elected by the rest of that
party’s politicians. The public has no direct say in who should lead our
political parties, although it can indirectly influence things (such as Crean’s
removal after producing consistently low popularity results in the polls). In
America, the process is a bit more democratic than that. We know Dubya is
seeking his second four-year term in office for the Republicans. What we don’t
know is who will be running for President for the Democrats. Members of the
Democrat party must seek nomination for this, and run a campaign to get elected
by the voters. That is, ordinary citizens have a direct say in who should lead
the Democrats.

In order to be nominated to run for President, a candidate must win over a
majority of states. At a national convention, delegates represent states and
candidates. For a candidate to get successfully nominated, they must get 50
percent plus one delegate vote. In other words, they must win support from a
majority of state delegates. How do they "win a state", though? And exactly who
gets a say in these nomination processes?

Each state’s selection process is different, but there are two main mechanisms
by which this occurs: primaries and caucuses. Primaries are straight-forward
ballots: tick or number a box and whoever gets the majority of votes wins.
Pretty familiar stuff.

Caucuses are a strange but intriguing concept. Caucuses are essentially a series of "mass
meetings" where a group of people gather at a location – someone’s home, a
community hall, or wherever is handy. At these meetings, local supporters of the
various candidates (and I would imagine, sometimes the candidates themselves)
make speeches extolling the virtues of their candidate. After these speeches, a
vote is held, which may sometimes involve a physical division in the room where
one candidate’s supporters move to one side, and another candidate’s supporters
move to another. Any candidate which garners less than 15% support has "lost",
and his or her supporters must then pick another still-standing candidate to
support. This is where the supporters of other candidates attempt to persuade
these people to join their group. At the end of it all, one candidate will have
the majority of supporters, and this candidate gets to send a delegate
(representing him or her) to represent them at a higher-level caucus (or indeed,
the national convention). There are normally three or four levels or "tiers" of
caucuses, such as a local tier, county tier, district tier and statewide tier.
The statewide tier (at a state party convention) usually selects the statewide
delegates which then go to the national convention. Each district tier caucus
also selects district delegates to go to the national convention. Caucus
attendees tend to be older adults.

So now you sort of know what it means when you hear "Iowa caucus" and "New
Hampshire primary". It seems that the trend is moving towards states using
primaries rather than caucuses.

Apparently for the Democrats, delegate support at the national convention is
proportional. For example, if a candidate wins 40% of a state’s votes, they’ll
get 40% of that state’s delegation’s support at the convention.

Note that should, in the event of Bush getting his second term, both
Democrats and Republicans will have to hold candidate nominations for the 2008
elections as Bush cannot stand for a third term.

Primaries and caucuses can be open, closed, or "modified open", which affects
who is allowed to vote in them. In a closed system, only voters registered with
a particular party may vote. In an open system, anyone may have a vote,
including people not registered with any party. However, a Republican voting in
a Democrat primary/caucus, forfeits the right to vote in the Republican
primary/caucus (ie, you may only vote once).  In some circumstances, a
person participating in an opposing party’s primary/caucus will automatically be
re-registered under that other party, which makes them think twice about
tinkering with an opposing party’s voting. In a modified open system, registered
voters are restricted to voting in their own party’s primary/caucus.
Unaffiliated people may vote in either party’s nomination process. It seems
though that some sneaky provisions automatically register unaffiliated people
with the party whose process they decide to participate in.

All this means that candidates have to extensively campaign in each state (which
is both financially and physically taxing). In turn, a nation may get to know a
previously obscure candidate quite well. Howard Dean, once considered the
forerunner for the Democrats lost Iowa in one of the first caucuses held. His
popularity further declined after making a wildly emphatic speech where he
claimed he was going to "take back the Whitehouse" before sealing his place in
Internet techno remix history
with a deranged screech of "Yeeeeeaah!"

John "who the hell is he?" Kerry has since taken over as a more viable choice for nomination as a Presidential candidate and media coverage on the man has multiplied. The national convention should be held mid-year where the whole Democrat party will finally rally behind their nominated man who will fight against Dubya for the Presidency.