Tuesday, November 15

An outline of the US electoral system

The USA has a House of Representatives, a Senate and State Legislatures where first past the post voting system are usually employed. Non-compulsory voting applies to elections held every 4 years to choose a President and State Governors, but there is only 2 year terms for the house Representatives. I have deliberately omitted any mention of the elaborate nominating process involving primary elections not mentioned in the Constitution.
House of Representatives

There are 435 districts and hence the same number of elected representatives based on electoral boundaries reflecting population density.  
There are 2 senators for each state meaning 100 senators are elected for 6 year terms.

Presidential Elections  
The election process is separate and unrelated to those for the House of Reps, Senate or for State Governors except for convenience and cost many hold their elections at the same time as occurred recently. Citizens don’t directly elect a President but do so via an “Electoral College “

The “Electoral College” process presides over the results of votes which add up in in total to all of the districts plus the two senators to number 535. A thinly populated state such as South Dakota has just one district equaling one vote with 2 senators for a total of 3 Electoral College votes. California as the largest state has 53 districts and 2 senators for a total of 55.   

Voters in each district vote for an “elector”, who is aligned to a particular presidential candidate running for President in that state. Once the popular vote results in a candidate gaining 270 electoral votes a majority result is achieved and we have a President elect. But the voters cast their votes for electors and once final tallies are confirmed the electors then have to cast their votes for the President and Vice President. This has yet to happen so the President is known as the President elect. In practice elector’s votes always mirror the popular vote because of their loyalty and service to a party, but theoretically under the constitution they have the right to vote differently.

It seems to me the provisions in the Constitution, with an amendment in 1804, to elect a President served the people well when there was limited transport and communicative facilities, but not to day. It’s my view the system seems overly complicated and costly.    


Mercutio said...

An excellent overview, Lindsay, but you missed the true distinction which makes American politics largely unique: Single-member districts for the Representatives.
My understanding is that it is this feature which translates into two dominant political parties rather than a handful of them, as seen with proportional representation systems.

Lindsay Byrnes said...

Hi Mercutio,
How is your career path to law progressing?
Yes, single-member districts for the Representatives is a feature which translates into two dominant political parties rather than a handful of them, but in other jurisdictions the system is often called "first-past-the-post." Note I used this term to denote this distinction in my opening where I mention “The USA has a House of Representatives, a Senate and State Legislatures where first past the post voting system are usually employed.” I also thought it applied mostly to all other voting in the USA but maybe you could confirm this for me.
But the point you make about it leading to two dominant political parties is a good one since it does avoid the excesses we see here in our proportional system and in other jurisdictions. What happens is minorities are elected on a small number of votes. We had one senator elected here who only gained only a few thousand initial votes but was elected after preferences from a very large number of other unsuccessful candidates.
Let’s know your thoughts.
Best wishes

susan said...

I agree the Electoral College appears to be an anachronism but I'm not convinced it's time to change it to a more streamlined institution. "Change is Good" is not one of my favorite phrases. I remembered having read a defense written on the political magazine Slate after President Obama won the 2012 election.

Lindsay Byrnes said...

Hi Susan,
Thanks for the reference and it’s always good to get another viewpoint, especially about a system in another country, but I found the arguments made a bit unconvincing. But I noticed another thoughtful essay in Time from Robert Spiel, Associate Professor of Political Science, Erie campus, Pennsylvania State University who counters those sort of arguments for preserving the Electoral College.
I agree there is no reason to change anything unless it is broken but this 18th-century, state-by-state, and winner-take-all system for selecting a president has evolved from its early beginnings when the constitution was first drafted and no political parties were in existence. So as you no doubt are aware provision was made for electors who have the final say because it was conceived voters then might be misinformed. Hillary Clinton announced her intention prior to taking office in 2001 to introduce an amendment to the constitution to abolish the Electoral College, but never followed through. I note recent polls indicate a majority of supporters of both parties don’t support the Electoral College system.
Reference http://time.com/4571626/electoral-college-wrong-arguments/
Best wishes

susan said...

Even better would be if they could come up with better candidates.. and a shorter presidential election process. Two or more years is far too long, a period that makes one wonder what do they expect to gain?

All the best :)

Lindsay Byrnes said...

Hi Susan,
It seems to me because of the duration and cost under such a system you will always risk ending up with less than ideal candidates.Rather obviously only those capable of stumping up vast sums of money to fund a campaign have a chance. I was amazed Sanders managed to raise $95 million to fund his failed campaign against Hilary. But as you know better than me all that funding from donors or special interest groups has a habit of demanding a favor in return. As you know also for the super wealthy candidates their business and politics can become inextricably linked unless you have outstanding civic minded and ethically centered individuals.
Best wishes

Mercutio said...

Hello, Lindsay.

Not quite the same thing. It's a matter for the states here, whether a plurality is sufficient or a run-off is triggered.
I believe my preference, for historical reasons, would be for the run-off, though it takes longer.

Actually, I was referring to the individual districts subject to gerrymandering. A candidate runs in a small district where only one seat is at stake, as opposed to a proportional representation system where a number of seats are determined by the same vote.
There has been a movement in Latin American nations to mix the two, with the PR end of it going to a majority-minority system. Mexico's Chamber of Deputies is illustrative. There are 500 seats, with 300 from single-member districts in a plurality vote, and the remaining 200 through PR as determined by national returns.

Electoral College:
The level of reform needed is debatable. Much could be accomplished simply by permitting a state to split its delegates. Currently, only two states do this.
I see the electoral college as an overall moderating influence.

Quid pro quo:
There was a great deal of thought toward this in the design of the system, as evidenced by the Federalist Papers. Generally, the idea was to mitigate the influence of factions rather than abdicate those liberties whole-cloth as would prove necessary to disrupt them entirely. Multiple points of access was one of the means of mitigating the influence of factions. As Bill Clinton explained (to Leno, I believe), it is in everyone's interest if the President receives $10,000 from 500 people, and those 500 each have a bit more in the way of access, than were the same to receive $1,000,000 apiece from only five donors, as the five would have much greater influence comparatively.
Interest groups changed in the 1970's to where they are enduring beyond an immediate need. This institutionalization of interest group-level concerns led to the rise of those concerns to party-level politics at a much faster rate than previously. As a result, the parties become increasingly steered by their respective interest groups.

Bribery is far more an issue than donations. 1 in 20 in the U.S. have reported accepting or paying a bribe within the last year, according to Transparency International.

I went through the paralegal program, and found it to my advantage to continue further.
Briefly (as, to my understanding, paralegals are unique to the American legal landscape), paralegals came about as a direct result of the civil rights movement in the 1960's, and the litigation under the direction of the Southern Poverty Law Center following the Freedom Summer. There simply were not enough attorneys to process the necessary documents, and so the paralegal came to be. At present, they are largely unregulated, and can represent clients only in limited cases.

I scored exceptionally well on the placement test (the LSAT), and I anticipate going to law school at Cornell. I have been to upstate New York, though not in the finger lake region. I like it there.

I am scheduled to go to Córdoba for a semester in the fall of next year, though I have recently fell in with some others working on a project with the papers from the Illinois Supreme Court. It remains to be seen as to which path I will take on that end.

Additionally, I have a feature-length film in progress, which features Lincoln scholar Michael Burlingame. I can get it on three public television stations fairly easily through the university, though I would prefer it to premiere as a festival film.
My lead cinematographer is in Australia, as a matter of fact; in Darwin. Awaiting his return.

Warm regards,

Lindsay Byrnes said...

Hi Mercutio,
Thanks for your input. I was also interested to learn recently voters also had to consider162 ballot measures in 35 of the states which will bring about significant changes : in 3 states recreational use of Marijuana is allowed, firearm tightening in 3 of the 4 states where they were included on the ballot, Californian schools to have ability to develop bilingual and multilingual courses, and voting changes where Maine, I understand, will introduce ranked- choice voting which sounds very much like our preferential system. I also noticed an increase in the minimum wages in 4 states, but surely it remains too low don’t you think.
I take you’re point on the Electoral College and the level of bribery.
Congratulations on your law results and on getting the feature-length film in progress.
Best wishes

Mercutio said...

Hello, Lindsay.

I am intrigued by the ranked choice system.
This is one I haven't studied.
Please elaborate.

And yes, the minimum wage is definitely too low in the U.S.
There has been much discussion to realign the purpose of it to something more of a floor for unskilled work, though this is historically inaccurate.
With the prospect of writing exceptions into the code, there is little substantial to persist in resistance.
Of course, there are the arguments against loss of employment, though this neglects the increase in demand resulting from wage increases.

Not long ago, a friend & I took a mutual friend from the Gambia out to eat. The fellow kindly reminded us that we left money on the table as we left. Wait staff are typically paid well under minimum wage in the U.S., and there are various schemes for the taxing of tips.
I'm sure it looks more like we bribe even the wait staff in the States.
That notion might not be far off.


Lindsay Byrnes said...

Hi Mercutio,
I understand Maine has adopted what is called ranked-choice voting which will now apply in primaries and general elections for U.S. senator, U.S. representative, governor and members of the Maine Legislature. I understand Portland has used ranked-choice voting since 2011 for its mayoral races, so you might like to check out how that works just in case I have missed something.

How it works.
Voters have a choice to opt to rank candidates on the ballot paper. They might like to do that so they have some influence over the outcomes of other candidates. Rather obviously this only applies where there are more than two candidates in the race, where a voter has a second choice. The ballot paper will make provision to mark a further preference(s) additional to a voter’s first preference.

If no candidate succeeds in obtaining a majority following the first round of counting (that is where only the first-place votes have been counted), the last-place candidate is then eliminated. Then ballots from voters who favoured that candidate (attained last place) are examined so that those voters’ second preference choices are allocated to the remaining candidates. The votes are then counted again with the process continued until such time as one candidate ends up with more than 50% of the vote.
I hope that explains it.

I agree with you on the tipping. Better I think to have a decent wage and a more modest tipping system with larger amounts only reserved for the fine dining experience where there is more time involved in providing a quality service.

Best wishes

Gary said...

And each jurisdiction (state and sometimes down to county) regulate the voting system somewhat independently, from polling stations and times to what ID is required. One of the weakest links in this particular democracy. While often cited (usually by Americans) as the model for democracy, their system ranks mediocre on any international scale.