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US elections explained

23 September 2016

Don't know your primaries from your caucuses? Fear not, Associate Professor Brendon O'Connor is here to explain how the US votes in its President.

US presidential elections are more than politics: they are now part of global popular culture, gaining a place in the public’s diary of must-see events alongside those other two major quadrennial events – the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics.

As a result, global audiences have heard of terms like the primaries, the conventions and the Electoral College. But the history and exact meaning of these terms remains a mystery to many.

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton speaking in Des Moines, Iowa. Image: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons

The candidates

The first two things people notice about US presidential elections is that they are very long, drawn-out processes, and that candidates are often running (and judged) on their biographies.

The length of the election season is partly because there is no official opposition leader in American politics. As a result, opponents only emerge when candidates announce they are running for the presidency.

With elections being held on a fixed date every four years, it has become common for candidates to officially announce their campaigns 18 months before an election.

The election date is always on the first Tuesday in November that falls after the first Monday; the election this year is on November 8.

The primaries and caucuses

Once a candidate has announced, they prepare for the caucuses and primaries. These are preselection contests held by the two major parties – the Democrats and the Republicans.

By a tradition that dates back to 1972, the first caucus is held in Iowa at the beginning of the election year. The first primary by convention is in New Hampshire. Nevada and South Carolina are also traditionally early primary states.

The first large multi-state primary is called Super Tuesday. The southern states originally organised this to have more influence on the process, but it now tends to include non-southern states.

The difference between a primary and a caucus is somewhat complex, as is who can vote in each variation. When you register to vote in the US (which, like voting itself, is not compulsory) in most states you register as one of three things: a Democrat, a Republican, or an independent.

One of the reasons you choose one of these labels when registering is so you can vote in primaries and caucuses. In some states, only registered Democrats can vote in their party’s primaries; these are called closed primaries. Other states have open primaries where independents – and indeed anyone – can vote if the state treats everyone as unaffiliated when they register to vote.

There are also semi-open primaries with state-by-state variations. This makes it easy or difficult to change your registration (including on polling day) depending on where you are.

Donald Trump

Donald Trump speaking at a rally in Fountain Hills, Arizona. Image: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons


Even more complicated is how states allocate primary votes. The short answer is some states allocate votes proportionally and some on a winner-takes-all basis. The long answer is a multi-page rulebook with massive state variation.

This is one of the paradoxes of the primaries: they are one of the most open (populist) aspects of American democracy, but are governed by an incredibly complex set of rules that are mystifying to most voters.

Whereas a primary is pretty standard in terms of how one actually votes, the caucuses can feature speeches and voters persuading each other in non-secret votes (in the case of Democratic Party caucuses). Such caucuses can be very time-consuming. Therefore the percentage of eligible citizens who vote in caucuses is often very low.

A good deal of the reasoning behind caucuses and primaries in small and not particularly populous states, like New Hampshire, is to try to replicate the town-hall democratic practices of the early American townships.

The winner of each party’s primaries is officially nominated at a party convention, held this year in Cleveland by the Republicans and in Philadelphia by the Democrats.

What is remarkable about the American system is how weak the party leadership is in being able to move against a primary candidate they disapprove of. Republican candidate Donald Trump’s success in 2016 is a prime example of this.

The US system is democracy in action with many flaws.
Associate Professor Brendon O'Connor, United States Studies Centre

The debates

Lacking parliamentary question time, speeches and debates are the testing ground for America’s aspiring leaders.

The first-ever presidential debate was rather late, all things considered. It occurred between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy on September 26, 1960; they debated three more times before election day.

Remarkably, given the TV audience presidential debates attract, there was not another round of presidential debates until 1976. It then became a permanent part of the election calendar.

Debates are run by an independent commission – not by the TV stations – which enforces strict rules, like no clapping or calling out from the audience, and equal speaking time. This differs from the primary debates, where the TV stations allow audience involvement and tend to focus on where the drama is.

The first debate between Trump and his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, is on September 26.

The Electoral College

Americans elect their presidents through a system called the Electoral College. This is a state-by-state voting system that has some of the complexity of the primary process.

In the 2000 election, Al Gore received more of the popular vote than George W. Bush nationally, but Bush won the presidency because he got 271 Electoral College votes to Gore’s 266 (you need 270 to become president).

Each state is worth a certain number of Electoral College votes very roughly proportionate to population. For example, California is worth 55, Indiana 11 and Wyoming three.

Because three Electoral College votes is the minimum a state can be allocated, an individual’s vote in Wyoming (the least-populous state) is worth three times more than a single vote in California or New York. Electoral College votes are awarded on a winner-takes-all basis for every state apart from Nebraska and Maine.

The system was created to honour the US being a federation of states. However, this theory of valuing each state does not play out in practice, because the election is truly decided by a handful of “swing” states.

The US system is democracy in action with many flaws. State-level politicians can create rules to try to disenfranchise certain voters and sometimes influence the result. Some argue a system that awards victory on the basis of who receives the most votes nationally would be better, but don’t expect a change to the Electoral College system any time soon.

Brendon O'Connor is an Associate Professor in American Politics at the United States Studies Centre, University of Sydney. This article originally appeared on The Conversation