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Oct 04

The US Election

On 2 November, in one week’s time, over 100 million Americans will go to the polls and elect their a new President. While the majority of the world has no say in who should hold the position of “Most Powerful Person in the World”, most are gravely interested in the outcome of this election because it has international consequences. Therefore, I thought it would be interesting to know about how the American electoral system works, because it is a lot different from Australia’s, and of course, I might as well share it here. Americans are welcome to correct my mistakes.

Americans directly elect their President and Vice-President, who head up the Executive branch of the Government. Unlike Australia, the President must not be a member of Congress (the Legislative branch). Therefore, if Senator Kerry is elected, he must resign from the Senate in order to become President.

The Americans use an “Electoral College” voting system. Each State is allocated a number of votes in the Electoral College. Each State has at least three votes, all the way up to the largest State, California, which has 55. The number of votes a State has roughly correlates with its population, but as a result of a three vote minimum, it can be said that individuals in smaller States have a vote that’s “worth more” in per capita terms. The 50 States and District of Columbia combine to produce a total pool of 538 electoral votes. A Presidential candidate must therefore win a majority of electoral votes (270) to become elected. (In the event that no single candidate wins 270 votes, because of third party candidates winning some, the election is decided by the House of Representatives as per the US Constitution’s 12th Amendement.)

So, how do candidates win electoral votes? In Australia we have electorates – areas of Australia which contain a roughly similar number of people. Candidates run for single electorates, and the candidate who wins the most votes via the preferential voting system wins the electorate. The party with the majority of electorates won will govern. In America, their States are very roughly the equivalent of our electorates. Candidates who get the majority of votes in a State win all the electoral votes that the State has – a “winner takes all” rule that is subject to much criticism. Therefore, if a candidate won California (55 votes), they would still be doing better than another candidate that had won several States which only offered, say, 5 votes.

In Australia we have “swing electorates” – those electorates which are closely fought. The US has “battleground States” and it’s these States that really determine the outcome of the election. (If you’re voting in a Democratic or Republican stronghold State, you won’t be making any practical difference to the election outcome, at least not as much as a battleground State voter.) These States are crucial.

In 2000’s Bush vs Gore election, with all but one State decided, Bush had 246 votes versus Gore’s 266. It all came down to who could win Florida. Bush won the State by about 500 votes (out of the nearly 6 million cast), and therefore took Florida’s 25 votes and went on to win the election. The side effect of this is that candidates spend their campaign time pretty much exclusively in battleground States. Bush doesn’t have to worry about campaigning in New York because that’s pretty much Kerry’s. Likewise, Kerry wouldn’t really bother campaigning in Bush’s home State of Texas.

For a better picture, there are sites which aggregate polls from States, such as Electoral-Vote.com and ElectionProjection.com (though the latter seems to be run by a pro-Republican).

Most polls see Bush in front of Kerry by about 6%, with Bush getting in the high 40s, and Kerry in the low 40s (the rest of people polled are undecided, with a couple per cent going to Ralph Nader). Interestingly, some pundits, despite the 6% margin, are calling the election a close one – or even one that the Democrats will take out easily unless Bush captures Osama or something like that. This is due to what’s known as the “50% rule”, described nicely here. In a nutshell, it says that if an incumbent President does not poll at least 50% of votes in a State, they are in danger of losing that State. This is because the percentage of people polled who are undecided, tend to vote against the incumbent when it comes to polling day (the explanation is that their vote evaluates the performance of the President, rather than the challenging candidate, and more often than not they are dissatisfied with the President).

Voting in America is voluntary. It may be instrumental to this election that if enough people who didn’t vote in 2000 are worried about the direction Bush has taken the country over the last four years, they may turn up to vote this year (the converse is also true, but probably to a lesser extent). Incidentally, I had an animated, lengthy discussion with a friend over whether compulsory or voluntary voting was the better system. I came to the conclusion that compulsory voting was more democratic, and he was of the opposite opinion (especially when you have debacles like this). But this is a debate for another time.

In other news, The New Yorker magazine has endorsed John Kerry in a 5 page editorial. It is their first political endorsement in 80 years. Contrast this with the SMH recently deciding to stop endorsing political parties for reasons of journalistic integrity.

Also, a Republican placed an ad in the Washington Post that cost US$100,000+ of his own money.