Friday, July 22, 2016

USA Presidential Elections

With the United States presidential election in full swing, some of my German friends have asked me to explain the American election process to them, a process which can be quite confusing - not only from a German perspective. Even though having been a voter in United States elections since reaching voting age, I was hard pressed to come up with a short answer to my friends' questions - I had to do some research.

First of all, the process by which political parties in the United States choose their candidates for president is not dictated by the constitution of the United States, but rather has evolved over the years as political parties in the United States evolved. That requires some explaining and involves the description of state primary elections and state caucuses.

State primary elections and caucuses are events where prospective candidates for president are judged, so to speak, by members of their party. That means that in each state of the Union each political party holds its own primary election or caucus. Sometimes these events take place in a particular state at the same time (at different places), sometimes they take place on different dates in a particular state, or some are held in several states on the same date. Primary elections are held at official polling places and involve a secret ballot. Caucuses on the other hand, are events where members of a political party divide themselves into groups according to the candidate they support. Each group gives speeches supporting a candidate and tries to persuade others to join their group. At the end of the caucus the number of voters in each candidate's group are counted. Most states hold primary elections, only a handful hold caucuses, and each state has its own rules governing primary elections and caucuses, as the case may be.

Here is where it gets even more complicated. As mentioned above, since the United States Constitution does not dictate the process to be followed for the selection of a candidate for president, the rules governing the selection process are made by the political parties. To go into the details of the rules each of the political parties in the US follows goes beyond the scope of this brief overview. Let it suffice to say, that based on the outcome of the primary elections and the caucuses, each political party establishes the number of delegates it sends to their national convention which the political parties hold in the summer before the general election. The potential candidates for president who are still in the race present themselves to the delegates of their party who then choose the person who will be their presidential candidate in the general election.

Secondly, Americans do not elect their president directly - but indirectly. Each state has designated intermediaries called “electors.” The number of electors a state can have is equal to the number of representatives and senators the state has in the United States Congress. The number of representatives a state has depends on the state's population, in addition, each state has two senators. Currently there are a total of 538 electors. They are collectively referred to as the Electoral College. The more votes a particular presidential candidate receives in a state, the more electors he gets from that state.

Now there is one more hitch: the difference between the “popular vote” and the “electoral vote.” At the general election, the public's ballots result in the popular vote. However, at this time the intermediaries, the Electoral College, enter the picture again. They never meet as a body, but cast their votes in their respective state capitals for the presidential candidate who received the most popular votes in their state. At least 270 votes from the 538 members of the Electoral College are required for a candidate to win the election. It is possible, that the Electoral College will come up with a different winner of the presidential race than the popular vote indicated. The reason for this is that states with the highest populations, and therefore the most electoral votes, can overturn a close victory based on the nationwide popular vote. This has happened in 1824, 1876, 1888 and again in 2000 when George W. Bush received fewer total popular votes than Albert Gore Jr., but received a majority of electoral votes.

There are many more details that would have to be explained to fully describe this complicated process. One question I always get after trying to explain the American election system is: “Why so complicated?” The only answer I can think of is that this process has evolved over 200-plus years and has become an American tradition.

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