Shortcuts / 22 October 2020

The US Elections: The Presidential Race

In the second episode of our four-part Shortcuts series in the lead up to the US election we tackle the Presidential Race – so we’re talking the electoral college system and how a the President actually wins the election. 

What qualifications you have to have to be eligible to be president of the United States?

According to the US Constitution, you must be a natural born citizen of the United States, a resident for at least 14 years, and be aged 35 years and over. But you’re out if you’ve been impeached by the House of Representatives and convicted in the Senate.

But wasn’t President Trump impeached?

Yes, but while he was impeached by the House of Reps, he wasn’t convicted in the Senate and that’s why he’s cleared for flight in this election.

So how many people have put their hand up to become President?

So the barrier to entry isn’t really very high and in this election, there are 1,218 other people who have expressed interest in running, with varying degrees of seriousness. Kanye West for one might ring some bells. While it’s pretty easy to put in the paperwork to become a candidate for president, actually getting on the ballot paper is a lot harder. And that’s because the process of working out who is on the ballot paper is up to the states.

How do the states run the Presidential Election?

So as opposed to here in Oz, where elections are managed by a federal commission, in the US it’s managed by each of the states and it’s a different process depending on where you are, but essentially a candidate has to demonstrate to each state body that they have support by submitting a petition with signatures. In many states, that means getting 500 people to support your run and demonstrate that to the election authorities.

So do American citizens vote on who becomes President and Vice-President?

While the Congress is elected directly by popular vote, the President and Vice- President are not elected directly by citizens. When Americans go to the polls in presidential elections they’re actually voting for a group of party officials who make up the Electoral College. The Founding Fathers established the Electoral College process in the constitution as a compromise. In those days, some thought the President should be elected by a vote in Congress, but others wanted a popular vote of citizens. Essentially, the process sees the public’s votes converted to Electoral College votes.

Please explain…

So before Election Day, the political parties in each state choose what they call ‘slates’ of potential electors who are most often nominated party officials. So when a citizen rocks up and casts a vote for a presidential candidate, they’re actually choosing the state’s electors. And those electors have an electoral college vote.

Each state gets a certain number of Electoral College votes partly based on its population. And it’s a pretty neat formula. Each state gets one elector for each Member in the House of Representatives and Senate, and Washington DC gets 3 electors. So with 435 members of the House of Reps, plus 100 in the senate, plus three for Washington – that gets you to 538 electoral college votes. The other important number to remember is 270, which is the amount of Electoral College votes you need to become President.

How do the millions of votes lodged by Americans translate into 538 Electoral College votes?

It’s a little complicated but basically, all but two states (Maine and Nebraska) have a winner-takes-all rule. That means whichever candidate wins the highest number of votes is awarded all of the state’s Electoral College votes.

So take the biggest state – California and its 55 electoral college votes in 2016. Hillary Clinton won 61% of the vote and Donald Trump won 31%. The remaining 8% went to other candidates or were invalid. What happened was Clinton got all 55 electoral college votes, and Trump got none.

So the the national popular vote doesn’t necessarily reflect the electoral college vote?

Sometimes, and that happened in 2016. If it was a first past the post system on the popular vote, the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton would have won. She recorded 65,850,000 votes compared to Republican candidate Donald Trump’s 62,980,000 votes. Nationwide, Clinton got nearly 2.9 million more votes than Trump. So what happened was Clinton ended up with 227 Electoral College votes and Trump got 304. That’s because Clinton’s big wins were clustered in a few, more populous states – like California, so the “excess” of popular votes didn’t help her electoral college vote total. Trump, by contrast, won several less populous states and rode the winner-takes-all system to victory.

And that’s not the first time it’s happened. In 2000, Democrat Al Gore got more votes than his Republican rival, George W Bush. And there are three other elections from the 1800s when it happened.

Squiz recommends:

Squiz Shortcut – US Elections

The Pew Research Centre analysis of the 2016 US Presidential Election


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