The US electoral system: Explained… almost

As one of, if not the most powerful and influential country in the world, it should come as no surprise that its process for electing a leader and figurehead is far from straight forward. What may come as a shock is just how convoluted, inconsistent and, arguably, undemocratic the whole process is.

First of all, and contrary to what we as outsiders are led to believe, American citizens don’t directly vote for their presidential candidates. Instead they vote on mass, for a number of votes to be put forward by their state. This means that when Mr or Mrs America goes down to vote, they are saying what they want their state to be – republican or democratic.

Of all 50 American states, 48 of them, all apart from Maine and Nebraska, operate a system whereby all of their electoral votes are given to the candidate with the majority of votes in that state. So if a candidate wins a state with 1 million registered voters in with a total majority of 500,001 votes they receive the full allocation of electoral votes.

To confuse things further the number of electoral votes varies from state to state and changes based on the population determined at each census. This means that a sparsely populated state such as Alaska gets 3 electoral votes, whilst California gets a massive 55.

This means that a presidential candidate who wins by small margins in the larger populated states can win the US elections without receiving the most individual votes across the country. This is exactly how George W Bush defeated Al Gore in the 2000 elections.

This is before you take into account what we would know as ‘safe seats’ and the number of states who are almost guaranteed to vote a certain way, to the extent that candidates usually don’t bother canvassing there at all. For example, the days of a democrat taking the 38 Texas electoral votes are a long way off.

by Tom McBeth (November 2016)

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