Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A Guide to #USelections for my international friends, ask me your questions!

I love getting these little stickers after voting, especially when it turns out my friend is working at my polling place.

Morning, all (or whatever time of day it is where you are). I am tired today, because we apparently had an election in the US last night, and as I am an East Coaster (I just imagined myself holding a nice cold drink, if you’re curious… get it? Coaster? TIRED), it took until 1:30 in the morning for our newly re-elected president to take the stage for his victory speech. I fell asleep, woke up at 2, I seem to remember (it’s all very fuzzy at that point) he was still talking, so I went to bed.

And I was pleased, that at the very least my dear city of Boston didn’t riot last night. Whichever way the election went, I thought it was a supremely bad idea for Mitt Romney to hold his post-election do here, as he’s not a particular favorite around these parts. It stings to have our former governor spend no effort trying to get our vote, have a vacation home right across the border in New Hampshire (because those property taxes would support our schools…), and yet plan a big stompin’ party right here. Ouch.

Now, anyone who caught any of my tweets last night can probably guess which political stripe I belong to. But this post isn’t about that. Rather, I wanted to take a quick moment to break down some of the confusion around the American election system for my international friends, because I am always asked about our… peculiar customs. I am not a political expert, just a passionate American voter, so if I get anything wrong, you should definitely leave me a comment!

Why is the US election so damned long?

Well, that’s got a few answers. One, the fact that our presidents have a fixed term of four years (and a maximum term limit of 2) means that everyone knows when the next election will be, and similar to the way that Halloween and Christmas decorations now sit side-by-side for the month of September, we have started pushing back, and back, and back. There is also the fact that we don’t have a true federal body that oversees elections and can establish rules about them. 

One of the major provisions of the Constitution is that any power not explicitly granted the federal government MUST fall to the power of the states, so states are free to conduct their caucuses and elections pretty much whenever they please. Fun fact: Iowa has a provision in their state constitution that requires them to hold the first caucus. So as other states pushed back and back and back, Iowa legally had to push back further (there’s a lot of money and national attention that floods a state when they vote early). So we have caucuses in January for an election in November. 

(Pity your American friends, we are VERY worn out by now.)

Why do politicians spend so much money on campaigning?

The Federal Election Commission is supposed to rein that in, but I believe the best phrase for what has happened is “regulatory capture” – the thing the commission is supposed to control has ended up controlling it. Part of the unique (twisted?) manifestation of the free market has been the exploitation of this particular dilemma. (I am struggling to find it, but I heard on an NPR interview with this year’s economics Nobel winner that a better analogy for the free market, rather than a totally regulation-less market, is a market that is governed by efficient rules, like the way an axle on a wheel allows free movement, rather than inhibiting it. If you know the quote, let me know!)

Why are states worth points?

This is the doing of the electoral college, a particularly contentious little holdover from the colonial days. See, though our Constitution says lots of pretty words about equality (oh, by the way – go LGBT rights!), the fact of the matter was that women, people of color, and the uneducated or disabled were summarily excluded from enjoying any particular level of privilege for… well, a while. The point of the Electoral College was to ensure, in this nascent country, that elections weren’t too democratic, that in fact white landowning men could make the final decision if the popular vote of the people ended up in what they considered a “wrong” choice. 

So every state was assigned, based on population (and we had a census in 2010 so this electoral map varies slightly from 2008’s), a certain number of representatives, and their votes would be the ones that mattered. The confusion has been that almost all states function as winner-take all – so if you win the popular vote in that state, you get ALL the state’s votes. A few states, however, try to divide their votes based on the proportion of people that voted each way. 

Some folks say this is because each state should function as an independent entity that gives one ringing endorsement, though there is a vocal (and growing) faction, mainly of people who are minority voters in their state (Republicans in Massachusetts, Democrats in Texas, etc.) who feel wholly disenfranchised by this system. I’ll share my personal thoughts on this if you ask nicely (not trying to incite a riot here, I’m just your friendly neighborhood travel blogger). 

This ties very nicely into the last question…

Why is Ohio so important?

Not only Ohio, but Florida, Virginia, and New Hampshire. Because of the winner-take-all system in most states, it is pretty easy to predict far in advance which states will go which way. Vermont always votes Democratic, my father’s home state of Arkansas almost always Republican. So that leaves just a couple of states that are in play (don’t ask me how we got so gridlocked in our easily-predicted states. Ask this guy or this), the “swing states.” 

So Florida, with its 29 votes, is a major state to win, but given its population with three major cities (which tend to go Democratic), a large retiree population (which tends to be conservative), and a fairly conservative if thinly populated panhandle, Florida is usually a toss-up. New Hampshire (fondly referred to by my friend as the “south of the north”) is unpredictable because it is surrounded by liberal states, yet has historically stood for lower taxes and little government involvement and, well, living free or dying. And so on with the other swing states - they happen to be states with unusual demographics.

Do you have anything to add? What are you feeling now the US election is over (I am personally thrilled to go back to a regular, slightly less bubble-like (yeah, yeah), news cycle)? Do you have any other questions about the US electoral system that I can help you puzzle through? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

(image via, under Creative Commons)

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