Analysis

Antiquated but decisive - how America votes

06.11.12 @ 08:47

  1. By Benjamin Fox
  2. Benjamin email

There is something satisfying about an election process that sees people vote and find out who their new leaders are on the same day.

  • America's electoral college has stayed unchanged in over 200 years (Photo: barackobama.com)

Most European elections are not so clear cut - the proportional or preferential voting systems tend to result in several days of counting followed by days or weeks of tense negotiations as party bosses try to cobble together a governing coalition.

But in the US case, the (usually) decisive end-product is the result of a bewilderingly intricate system that has barely been touched in over 200 years. In comparison to the US electoral college, the EU's system of qualified majority voting seems like a beacon of simplicity.

Like the allocation of seats in the European Parliament and voting weights in the Council, America's political system over-represents smaller states, guaranteeing them at least three each of the electoral college's 538 votes. Under the US Constitution the number of electoral college votes allocated to a state is the same as its combined total of congressmen in the House of Representatives and the Senate.

The other point is that technically Americans do not actually vote for their President.

Instead their votes determine which electoral college delegates are nominated to appoint the President. For each of the 50 states, Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney will select the people they want to form the electoral college.

However, it's still not a surety that delegates will do as they promised. There have been 11 occasions where an electoral college delegate has not backed the candidate who nominated him.

One of the other constitutional quirks is the possibility, albeit slim, of an electoral college tie.

The Fivehundredandthirtyeight blog by New York Times writer Nate Silver has identified half a dozen scenarios in which the candidates could tie with 269 electoral college votes each.

Although Silver estimates that there is only a 1 percent chance of a tie, which has never happened before, it would probably lead to a Romney-Biden presidency, with the Republican majority in the House of Representatives selecting the President and the Democrat-controlled Senate picking the Vice-President.

An electoral system involving 50 separate first past the post elections also means in practice that only a handful of marginal states are truly decisive and that a candidate can win the White House without winning the popular vote.

On Tuesday, the world's eyes will be on the same key swing states as in 2000, 2004 and 2008 - Ohio and Florida, with Virginia, Colorado, Iowa and New Hampshire the other toss up states.

In 2008, Barack Obama swept them all but this time it is expected to be far closer, with polls showing these states in a statistical dead-heat.

But the President has the edge, needing just a couple of these swing states to take him over the magic 270 electoral college mark. By contrast, Romney probably needs the lot to win. If you had to pick just one, then Ohio is the big one. No Republican has ever won the White House without the BuckEye state.

Another oddity is that it is the states themselves, not Washington, that determine how to administrate the election, setting the rules on who can vote, where they vote and how it gets paid for. The US must be the only advanced Western country without a national registry of voters.

As with the UK and France, America's first past the post system has prevented regional or extremist parties emerging to challenge the two-party system. Over the past 100 years only conservative billionaire Ross Perot has managed to turn the presidential election into a three-horse race and, even then, his financial war chest only secured 18 percent of the vote.

The same is true for Congress, where the two-party system and judgements by the US Supreme Court that allow "partisan redistricting" - whereby parties can re-draw constituency boundaries to protect their Congressmen - have created an election system where few seats can realistically be contested.

This, combined with increasing polarisation between the Republicans and Democrats, has led to increasing political deadlock.

Jay Newton-Small, Time magazine's Washington correspondent, told this website that the political deadlock, which has stymied bi-partisan budget talks and a raft of legislation, will remain in place regardless of Tuesday's results. Anything other than a decisive Obama victory will still "make it very difficult to get anything through the House," she says.

As a result, Congress is deeply unpopular, with a mere 15 percent approval rating among Americans.

US election expert, Professor Jeremy Mayer of Virginia's George Mason university, joked with EUobserver that "Congress is about as popular as crabs in a whore house."

One of the results has been declining turnout for Congressional elections. Voter turnout for the Senatorial and House elections on Tuesday will be nudged over 50 percent by dint of being held on the same day as the Presidential elections, but mid-term elections over the past five years have seen turnout slump to just over 40 percent, roughly the same as turnout at the 2009 European elections.

That said, Mayer maintains that political participation is higher among Americans than in Europe, pointing out that with state elections usually taking place at least once a year, Americans also vote a lot more often on anything from state legislative elections, local referendums, police and judicial heads, school boards and primaries.

For all that, US elections are the most expensive, glitzy and advanced event in terms of spin and campaigning and its electoral system is a throwback to a narrow and elitist politics.

But those calling for the US to re-write its antediluvian election system should not hold their breath.

Changing the system would mean amending the Constitution, a process which requires a two thirds majority in the Senate and House to propose a change, which would then have to be agreed by the states. The Democratic and Republican parties are unlikely to behave like turkeys voting for Christmas.

COMMENTS

EUobserver encourages comments that contribute to an intelligent debate. It reserves the right to delete comments which it deems abusive or which incite hatred. For questions about any aspect of community participation, please write to mm@euobserver.com.

View comments