US Election 2020: Nomination, electoral college and popular vote; how American polls work
The US goes to the polls on 3 November and voters will decide whether Donald Trump gets a second term or Joe Biden becomes the next president
What is common between Burkina Faso, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Myanmar and the United States?
Answer: They all have national elections scheduled in November 2020.
One would be spared a judgmental stare for not making that connection promptly since the only General Election that has consistently captured global attention and newspaper columns is the elaborate spectacle taking place in one of the world’s oldest democracies, the United States.
Between outrage over mispronounced names, a fly landing on well-set hair, conspiracy theories from the White House podium, and a serving president infected by a deadly virus, the bizarre events leading up to voting day in the United States elections have been hard to miss. This piece, however, will stay clear of this political circus and focus instead on the mechanics of the United States presidential election.
The electoral process in the United States is far from straightforward. Right from the moment a candidate announces intentions of running for president, through campaigning strategically in select states, to having the right number of supporters in the Electoral College, several processes and institutions decide one’s chances of working out of the Oval Office for four years. The architecture of representation, as political scientists like to call it, is quite unique in the United States as several of its electoral institutions exist nowhere else in the world, and therefore can be more confusing to non-citizens than the plot of Tenet.
This piece will attempt to break down the purpose and function of these electoral institutions, and provide an overarching picture of how the United States will get its next president later this year.
As of 19 October 2020, a total of 1,222 candidates have filed with the Federal Election Commission to run for president this year. Out of the 1,222, only two — Donald Trump of the Republican Party and Joe Biden of the Democratic Party — stand realistic chances of winning the polls as the United States has never elected an Independent candidate after its first president George Washington.
The post of president is lucrative (see Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution for a brief summary of the perks and powers), and anyone can run for president as long as they fulfil three criteria. These are: The presidential candidate must be (a) a natural born citizen, or someone who has been a United States citizen from birth, (b) at least 35 years old, and (c) a United States resident for at least 14 years. These requirements also hold for candidates running for the post of vice-president.
The process of nomination
As in any political system, people with similar political outlooks and ideas get together to form political parties. In the United States, candidates who run for president typically seek the nomination of one of these parties through a process of internal, indirect elections within the parties. The following procedural details vary from party to party and from state to state, but the underlying principles remain common. In party gatherings (called caucuses), party members meet to discuss and vote for the presidential candidate best suited to represent the party. In these primary internal elections (or primaries in short), voters registered with a particular party cast ballots for party delegates who have in turn endorsed a particular presidential candidate.
These party delegates, at a later national convention of the party, then officially nominate a presidential candidate to run on the party’s behalf. On being nominated by the party, the presidential candidate subsequently chooses a vice-presidential candidate to run alongside, who is also endorsed by the party delegates.
Although the purpose of both caucuses and primaries is the same, that is to nominate a presidential candidate to run for the party, there is a slight technical difference: primaries are held by state and local governments while caucuses are organised by political parties. Depending on electoral tradition, some states hold only primaries, some hold only caucuses and some hold a combination of the two. The organisation of these primary elections, the regulations guiding their outcomes and other steps involved in the process also vary significantly between parties, and they continue to evolve. The reason for the (perhaps surprising) lack of uniformity in this stage of the process can be traced back to the United States constitution, which does not specify any laws or regulations to govern primary elections.
In 2020, incumbent Trump sailed through the nomination procedure within the Republican Party alongside Vice-President Mike Pence. There was much stiffer competition in the blue corner, where former vice-president Biden had to surpass senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to secure the Democratic nomination for president. Biden picked California senator Kamala Harris as his running mate for the 2020 elections.
Although the Republican and Democratic parties are by far the biggest in the United States, and most likely to send the next president, there are a few others also fighting for the top post. For instance, Jo Jorgensen received the Libertarian Party nomination for president along with Spike Cohen for vice-president, while Howie Hawkins and Angela Walker are contesting on a Green Party ticket in 2020.
The popular vote
As in the primaries, United States citizens do not vote directly for the president. When they cast their ballots on voting day, they actually vote for a group of people called electors, who in turn cast votes for the presidential candidate (more on that in the next section).
United States federal law requires election day to be the “first Tuesday following the first Monday in November” (such a date was considered to be the most practical in 19th Century America). This means that the popular vote is cast between 2 and 8 November of the election year. Although a civic holiday in Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia, election day is yet to be a federal holiday, forcing many workers in other states to choose between voting and a full day’s pay.
There are multiple ways of casting this popular vote, the most common of which is voting in person. People queue in their local school gymnasium, library or church and make their mark on ballot papers when their turn comes. A provisional ballot is allowed for those without proper identification or whose names are missing from the voters’ list, provided such problems can be addressed before local deadlines. Apart from longer lines and waiting times, the COVID-19 pandemic is unlikely to affect this process significantly.
Most states also allow for ‘early voting’, which lets registered voters cast ballots on specified dates prior to election day. The difference between early voting and in-person voting is usually just the place and time. Owing to the pandemic this year, a record number of Americans opted to cast their votes early, with over 22 million votes registered by the end of last week, the BBC reported.
The third way to vote in the United States presidential election is voting by mail or absentee voting, a process allowed by every state but with varying rules. Here, a registered voter can request an absentee ballot online, which is sent to them by mail. Upon receipt, they fill the ballot in and return it following the specific state’s guidelines, either by post or in designated drop boxes. This year, over 30 states have allowed no-excuse absentee voting (wherein the voter can ask for an absentee ballot without specifying a reason), and over 20 percent of the country’s voters will receive such mail-in ballots automatically (without them having to apply online).
However, many have expressed doubts on the United States Postal Service’s (USPS) ability to handle the tens of millions of mail-in ballots expected to be cast this year. While employees and experts believe that the USPS can operate as usual, the agency has warned some states that the added burden might affect its performance while delivering last-minute ballots. Meanwhile, Trump continues to oppose efforts to expand voting by mail amid the COVID-19 pandemic, claiming without evidence that the mail-in ballots might be manipulated to favour the Democratic Party. “The fraud and abuse will be an embarrassment to our country,” he tweeted about mail-in voting, even as government documents term the process “secure and convenient”.
The Electoral College
The votes that citizens cast on election day do not directly elect a president, but only help choose a group of people called electors, who form the Electoral College and in turn vote for the president on behalf of the state’s citizens. The outcome of the general election, also called the popular vote, decides who the electors from that particular state will vote for. All states other than Maine and Nebraska have adopted a winner-takes-all principle, wherein the party that wins the majority of the popular vote wins all of that state's allocated electoral votes and thus have their list of electors chosen to vote in the Electoral College. For instance, if more than half of the citizens of New York cast their vote in favour of Trump, all of New York’s allocated electors are bound to cast their vote for Trump.
All 50 states in the country and the territory of Washington, DC have a set number of electors in the Electoral College. This number, which is equal to a state’s total number of senators (members in the upper house) and representatives (members in the lower house) in Congress, is proportional to the population size of the state. California, the most populous state, has 55 electors in the Electoral College, followed by Texas with 38, and New York and Florida with 29 each (see here for the rest of the states).
A total of 538 electors constitute the Electoral College. In December of the election year, with each elector casting one vote towards a presidential candidate, the candidate who receives 270 or more electoral votes wins. While the Electoral College system often reflects the outcomes of the popular vote, the United States constitution does not require the electors to follow the trends of the popular vote. There are exceptions to this rule, with some states requiring electors to reflect the popular vote by law. In American history, presidents have lost the popular vote but have gone on to win the electoral vote only five times, with Trump’s win over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election being the most recent instance.
The candidate with over 270 electoral votes then takes oath of office in the January of the following year.
The Electoral College might seem like an unnecessary step in the way of citizens choosing their own president. If it is the electors who finally choose the president, do the citizens really have a say in these elections? Yes, says United States government publication, justified by the following words: “During the general election your vote helps determine your state’s electors. When you vote for a presidential candidate, you aren’t actually voting for president. You are telling your state which candidate you want your state to vote for at the meeting of electors. The states use these general election results (also known as the popular vote) to appoint their electors. The winning candidate’s state political party selects the individuals who will be electors.”
Election calendar for 2020
- Autumn 2018 to Spring 2019: Candidates announce their intentions to run, and file with the Federal Election Commission
- June 2019 to April 2020: Primary and caucus debates
- 3 February to 16 June 16 2020: Primaries and caucuses
- Late May to August 2020: Nominating conventions
- September and October 2020: Presidential election debates
- Tuesday, 3 November 2020: Election Day
- Monday, 14 December 2020: Electors cast their electoral votes
- Wednesday, 6 January 2021: Congress counts and certifies the electoral votes
- Wednesday, January 20 2021: Inauguration Day
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