Thursday, February 25, 2016

Demystifying the US Electoral System: part I

As those of you not living under a rock are surely aware, it’s election season in the USA: a time when millions of people attempt to come to terms with the most mysterious, convoluted electoral process the world has ever seen. One voter = one vote? Not by a long shot! What do you think this is, a democracy?

My tussle with the rules governing US presidential elections first began when I left the Motherland for France and found myself incapable of explaining the intricacies of the Electoral College to my bemused French colleagues. Alas, how we Americans elect our presidents really isn’t something that can just be Wikipediaed; it’s far too labyrinthine, which is perhaps why no one understands it. Seriously, no one—just ask presidential candidate (*wince*) Donald Trump:

“What the hell is [a] caucus? Nobody even knows what it means.”

In years past, I’d duck any election-related questions more nuanced than “Who are you voting for?” (Hillary) but this is 2016 and enough is enough—it’s time I understood my own damn electoral system. And it’s time you did, too, because face it: you’re just as bewildered as the rest of us. How could you not be? It makes no effin’ sense!

Or does it?

 (Help! I’m in a 3-part nutshell!)

Part I: the Electoral College

A bit of history

First of all, if our system is overly complex, we can start by blaming the Framers of the Constitution. Many of us (especially the more right-wing types) like to pretend that these guys were virtual demigods in wigs, but in reality they were just mortal men in wigs. And mortal men make mistakes, even when all they have to do is found a country. To their credit, the Framers were facing a whole mess of difficulties we don’t have to bother about today: namely, how to elect a president prior to the existence of political parties, when the very act of running for office was considered “ungentlemanly.”

Among the crazy ideas tossed around in 1787 by the Committee of Eleven—which had nothing to do with the Rat Pack—was that of direct popular vote,* but it got nixed since the Framers figured the “uninformed” (read: dim-witted) public would just go and choose some fool from their own state, who would in turn never secure an indisputable national majority and thus never enjoy a nice clear mandate. You know, like the one George W. Bush received in 2000.

Ultimately, the Framers found inspiration in the Roman Republic, settling on a system of indirect election by a select group (college) of well-informed individuals (electors) who would represent (replace) the common folk. Members of this Electoral College would be chosen from each state, by each state, according to that state’s number of representatives in Congress (based primarily on population**), and would meet every four years to elect the president and vice president of the United States. Each elector was to exercise independent judgment and cast two votes for president, one of which had to be for a candidate outside of his home state (state rivalry clearly being not funny at the time). The candidate with the most votes would become president; first runner-up would be VP. Well-intentioned yes, but clearly none too effective: the system only stuck it out for four elections, which is way worse than the Romans.

By then, political parties had emerged—oh good!—including one called the Democratic-Republicans, whose legacy lives on in the uninspired names of our two leading modern parties. In light of this development, the Framers (who must have been pretty old by then) went back and made a few strategic tweaks, which took the form of the 12th Amendment. From then on, electors could only cast one vote for president and one vote for VP, thus hopefully avoiding the awkward situation of electing a prez and a veep from two different parties. And to avoid the even more awkward situation of a presidential tie (such as that of 1800, when Aaron Burr came this close to becoming our third president instead of just “the guy who shot Alexander Hamilton”), it was decided that the House of Representatives would make the ultimate decision in case of a stalemate.

The Electoral College in 2016

Fast-forward to the present and the Electoral College of two centuries ago is pretty much still in effect: each state has as many electors as it does Senators and Representatives in the US Congress, who convene in their own state capitol every four years to cast their votes for president and vice president. What has changed, however, is that the Electoral College is no longer a deliberative body with a will of its own; rather, the electoral vote is supposed to reflect the popular vote (yet does not always do so, as we shall later see).

Today, the Electoral College has 538 members (hence the name of election whiz Nate Silver’s famous blog, FiveThirtyEight). It is their job to vote in your place, because remember: the US presidential election is in-dir-ect. So when you go to the polls on Election Day, naively thinking that you’re voting for president and vice president, you’re straight up wrong. In reality, you’re voting for the slate of electors who have been nominated by your state’s various political parties.

Let’s look at an example, because this is some complicated sh*t:
My home state of California has 55 juicy electoral votes. But it has a whopping 330 electoral nominees (each of California’s six qualified parties gets to nominate its own slate of 55 electors). If, say, the Democratic presidential candidate wins the state’s popular vote on Election Day, only the 55 Democratic electors will be tapped to meet in Sacramento to cast their votes, while the other parties’ electors will probably just Netflix and chill.

So there you go. But wait—what actually happens on Election Day? How can a candidate win the popular vote yet lose the electoral vote? And what the hell is a caucus? Ah, but you’ll have to wait for the next installments (while I go try to figure it out myself).

Quirky facts 
  • There is no physical Electoral College; electors from each state convene at their own state capitol to vote, but at no time do all 538 members party together. A shame, really.
  • Electors vote long after the presidential election has been called: on the Monday after the second Wednesday in December to be exact. The results are then read before a joint session of Congress on January 6—by which point the public is no longer paying any attention whatsoever.
  • Not all electors are legally obligated to respect the popular vote when casting their ballots. Electors who ignore the popular vote and choose according to personal preference are referred to as “faithless electors,” which for some reason makes me feel sad. Have faith, guys. It’ll all be OK.

*Popular vote: votes cast by “the people,” meaning property owning white male people until 1870 and 1920, respectively.
**Population: all free persons + 3/5 of all slaves (each slave equaling three fifths of a non-slave for taxation and representation purposes—when you hear about systemic racism in the United States today, it might have something to do with this).

1 comment:

  1. The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in the country.

    Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in every presidential election. No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps of pre-determined outcomes. There would no longer be a handful of 'battleground' states (where the two major political parties happen to have similar levels of support among voters) where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in 38+ states that have just been 'spectators' and ignored after the conventions.

    The National Popular Vote bill would take effect when enacted by states with a majority of the electoral votes—270 of 538.
    All of the presidential electors from the enacting states will be supporters of the presidential candidate receiving the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC)—thereby guaranteeing that candidate with an Electoral College majority.

    The bill has passed 34 state legislative chambers in 23 rural, small, medium, large, red, blue, and purple states with 261 electoral votes. The bill has been enacted by 11 jurisdictions with 165 electoral votes – 61% of the 270 necessary to go into effect.