Everything you need to know about the U.S. electoral system

The U.S presidential elections are always a topic of debate and prime time news, stateside and abroad, as the highest ranking democratic country in the world, the papa of democracy if you will, has a huge impact on world matters. As the U.S leads the world in a large array of fields, who’s in charge counts, a lot, for americans and for the rest of the world. The office of the President of the United States is one that represents the power of democracy and power itself. It shouldn’t be taken lightly, whoever wins the election will have an impact on all of our lives, american or not.

The irony is that for the most important office in the country and the world, for us and for what democracy stands for, and what it means for us, the election process is not really democratic, in the Ancient Greece kind of way. Because this year’s election have been more popular, not in a good way (see Trump Madness), it’s good to understand how the U.S. elections work.

The primaries

First of all what you’re seeing now on TV, on your Facebook feeds is the result of the primary elections, the step in which each party (Democratic and Republican) elects its nominee for the general election. The primaries, just like the general election, are indirect, meaning that you vote for a candidate, but your vote doesn’t go to the tally of that candidate, you are actually voting to award delegates to a certain candidate.

So the candidate, in the general election and in the primaries and caucuses does not collect popular votes, but delegates that represent each state.

The first official event is the Iowa caucus for both parties (a caucus is a meeting of supporters or members of a specific political party, where they elect delegates) followed by the New Hampshire primary. These pre-elections happen in a certain order, by a calendar, all over the U.S. both for the democrats and the republicans, meaning that each state holds both democrat and republican primary elections. This is the process in which they choose a candidate to run in the general election.

It’s particularly useful for a federal state and for a country with as many inhabitants as the United States, and with a two party system. Do you imagine how the general election would look like with 10-15 candidates from 2 parties? Worse than the Republican debates this year.

The candidates

Each ticket consists of two people, so you are actually voting for a team, President-Vice President, the latter is mostly just a decorative position, with no real power, but a very important one for voters, because if the President dies or cannot fulfill his duties, the Vice-President automatically gets sworn in as President for the rest of term and in the last 200 of so years, 9 Vice Presidents became Presidents. The VP has big shoes to fill and you don’t want him to be a raving lunatic, just in case.

president and vice president
current President and Vice President

Now, most of the country swings either democrate or republican, but, of course there are always third party candidates. They never amount to much,  mostly they just derail votes from one of the main party candidates, causing the other to win, like in the 2000 presidential election where Ralph Naders independent run (may have) caused Gore to lose by just 537 votes. The independent candidate votes usually come from those who wouldn’t have voted at all, and from both parties in various percentage, depending on each candidate’s platform and the way the voters identify with their beliefs and plan of action. That’s all about the candidates and the primaries.

The Electoral College

The most interesting part of the U.S election is the Electoral College. Here’s how it works.

As I said before, the U.S. election are indirect, you vote in a state, and whichever party/candidate gets 50+1 votes in that state gets the delegates that represent that state. The delegates are actual people, who will cast the vote that the people gave them. That’s why it’s an indirect election.

Is the Electoral vote fair?

2012 electoral college
2012 electoral college

Well, not really. There are 50 states in the United States and each state has the same number of electors as it has members of Congress, both from the House and the Senate. Sounds confusing?

So, there are 435 members of the House of Representatives and 100 senators (2 for each state) plus the 3 delegates that the District of Colombia has, just as the least populate state. That’s 538 in total. Population is an issue here, and you’ll soon know why. The number of House members are appointed to each state depending on its population, but the census is done only every ten years and the changes are often minute, so the number of people that represent an electoral vote vary from state to state.


Let me break it down by the numbers. The 2008 census says that there are 565,166 people in Wyoming. Now, Wyoming has 3 electoral votes, the minimum is 3, so by my math, one electoral vote in Wyoming is worth 177,556 votes, or the other way around. New York has 19,490,297 voters and 31 electoral votes, so each electoral vote is worth 628,719 votes. So votes in Wyoming are worth 3 times as much as votes in New York, by the electoral process. In this game, not all votes are created equal, so the states with a low population end up having more leverage. This is also because of the 3 electoral votes limit imposed, each state gets minimum 3, no matter the size of its population. The average electoral vote represents about 436,000 individuals, the problem is that the highs and the lows influence the election process greatly, as votes in New York, California or Ohio count less that votes in Wyoming, Delaware or Vermont. This is how you win the popular vote and lose the elections, just how it happened in 2000, when 50,999,897 or 48.4% of americans voted for Al Gore and 50,456,002 or 47.9% of americans voted for George W. Bush, who won the election because he had 271 electoral votes and Al Gore had 265.

The U.S. Presidential election is one where the popular vote counts second to the electoral vote.

Alabama has 9 electoral votes and a population of 4,779,736 , Alaska, North Dakota and Vermont, each have 3 electoral votes, with a combined population of 2,008,563 (710,231+ 672,591+625,741). See the disproportion? 2 million people have the same electoral power as 4.7 million.

Red or blue?

As each state has its own election, they will go either red or blue, republican or democrat. Certain states are Blue no matter what and Red no matter what. New York will always go to a democratic candidate and Texas will always go to a Republican candidate, because the majority of people in those states are either a majority of blue or a majority of red. This means that a candidate will invest fewer resources in states that will nonetheless swing his way and invest more in Swing States.

republican democrate logo
republican democrate logo

What are Swing States?

As you might have guessed fo far, Swing States are states that have a balance of republican and democratic voters, states that can go either way, that swing both ways if you will. Because neither candidate has overwhelming support in the Swing States they will campaign harder and lean more towards the voters needs in these states. As such, these states are likely to get certain concessions or compromises from a certain candidate, when default red or blue states will be set aside.

The swing states in recent history are Ohio, very famous as a Swing State, it has a key role in the 2004 election, Florida and New Hampshire in the 2000 Presidential Election. This election these state are predicted (By Politico) as Swing States: Ohio, Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Virginia, and Florida.

The U.S. election system is unique due both to the size of the country and its two tier political system. One question remains, the biggest and most powerful democracy in the world – is it still a true democracy?

Image credit 1: whitehouse.gov

Image credit 2: history.com

Image credit 3: quora.com



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