Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Demystifying the US Electoral System: part III

Okay, so for all those who missed my last post—and that would be 99% of you because it’s kind of TMI so I didn’t exactly publicize it—here’s the short version: I’m a new mom. Again. And it’s awesome but it’s also sort of kicking my ass because three year olds are way more terrible exuberant than two year olds, and so when one’s eldest turns three that is maybe not such a good time to go and add a newborn, but then again that’s what my parents did and it worked out pretty well for them, so I’m remaining hopeful, plus both of my kids are amazing and I’m over the moon for them even if they’re totally winning in the parent-child tug of war we call “life.”

But enough about me. Let’s discuss politics! With only a few short weeks left until I either celebrate the election of the first woman president in American history or renounce my citizenship altogether, it is time to take a good close look at this grand shindig known as the US Presidential Election. I’m assuming you’re all read up on the Electoral College and the Presidential Primaries (I mean why wouldn’t you be?), so we can cut straight to the chase.


(Help! I’m in a 3-part nutshell!)

Part III: the Presidential Election

After the incredible complexity of the primary process, the actual election seems relatively straightforward. Ha ha! Except it’s not! What actually goes down on Election Day? What’s the difference between the electoral vote and the popular vote? What would the Framers have thought of Trump v. Clinton? Let’s find out.

Even more history

As you’ll recall from our fascinating look at the Electoral College, the US Presidential Election is an indirect one, meaning we plebeians don’t vote for the president him (her!) self, but rather for a bunch of electors who go vote in our place. Why do we do this? Because the Framers thought it was a good idea. As Alexander Hamilton wrote, “A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.” In other words, the average citizen cannot be trusted to vote intelligently. Anyone who disagrees need look no further than the basket of deplorables supporting Trump. “Yes,” you might say, “but why do we still use electors?” Because the electoral vote tends to produce clear winners, that’s why, whereas the popular vote does not. Clear winners mean fewer riots. Also, we fear change.

So in 1845, Congress passed a federal law that established Election Day as the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, meaning that Americans go to the polls on what could possibly be the most depressing day of the year: a Tuesday, which is way worse than a Monday, in November, which is almost as sucky as January. Again, what were the Framers thinking?

They were thinking of logistics (aren’t we all?). Back in the day, most Americans worked on farms and lived far away from the county seat where voting took place. In order to allow them the three-day travel time necessary (and we complain about having to drive across town to vote), without interfering with worship days, market days or holidays, Tuesday was the clear winner. As for the time of year, spring and summer were dedicated to planting, so they were out, winter travel was a pain in the ass, so it was out, and early autumn was harvest season, so it too was out. That pretty much left November. Chilly, dark, boring November. No wonder turnout is always low.

What actually happens on Election Day?

The roughly 60% of Americans who can be bothered to vote get themselves to the polls (or just the post office in some states) and cast their ballot for a major party candidate or a write-in candidate, although not all states allow write-in candidates and even those that do require a bunch of paperwork to be filed beforehand, so Homer Simpson is never going to be elected president, alright?

Once the polls close, usually between 7:00 to 8:00 pm local time, the votes are tallied manually or electronically. The results are reported by each precinct (which can mean anything from a few city blocks to an entire county) to a central elections office, which then releases them. Meanwhile, exit polls allow the media to start making projections state by state long before the final vote count is completed.

And this is when the Electoral College at last comes into play. The result of the popular vote in each state determines which slate of electors has to get off its duff and do its duty ... in December. Every state but two (I’m looking at you, Nebraska and Maine) applies the winner-takes-all approach, meaning that the candidate who receives the greatest number of the state’s popular votes gets all of the state’s electoral votes.

The goal of each candidate is to reach the magic number of 270 electoral votes, which constitutes an “absolute majority” in the Electoral College. The candidate who reaches this number wins a four-year, all expenses paid trip to the White House. Should no candidate reach it, the election is “thrown” (or “chucked”) into the House of Representatives, where each state delegation casts one vote for president. If it’s still a tie, arm wrestling ensues.

What’s the difference between the electoral vote and the popular vote?

Glad you asked. The popular vote is quite simply the one-man-one-vote thing, i.e. the total votes cast by the voters in each state. However, the Constitution clearly stipulates that the presidency is decided not by the popular vote but by the electoral vote. The electoral vote is of course the vote cast by the members of the Electoral College, and as you may recall from the 2000 election, a candidate can absolutely win the electoral vote while losing the popular one. This is due to the winner-takes-all rule discussed above. Remember Florida? Gore and Bush were fairly evenly tied in popular votes there, yet Bush was ultimately declared the winner and thus made off with all 25 of the state’s electoral votes—bringing his Electoral College total to 271 and deciding the whole damned election, despite trailing Gore by over half a million popular votes nationwide. I moved to France the following year. The two may not be entirely unrelated.

What would the Framers have thought of Trump v. Clinton?

They would have thought, “Hot damn, we were right about the Electoral College! The general mass truly does lack the discernment to vote responsibly! Also, what is Twitter?”

Quirky facts
  • U.S. territories can vote in the Primaries but not in the General Election.
  • Washington, D.C. has its own electors (three of them) despite not being a state.
  • Donald Trump does not drink alcohol. Cocaine, however, is probably another matter.