Wednesday, January 30, 2008

[u.s. presidential elections] how they work

Honest to G-d truth - overslept this morning and woke up at 9:11 a.m.!

Yesterday, I was explaining the U.S. presidential election system to my Min, as best I could, using yesterday's post but it was woefully inadequate when he started asking curly ones like:

1. Who are these electors? Are they the senators? Who chooses them?

2. What's the difference between a primary and a caucus?

3. Are these primaries and caucuses to select delegates for the Electoral College?

4. Why do they need an Electoral College? Why don't the people elect the President?

He's particularly interested in this because he has his own little election coming up over here and they're thinking of different systems in the future - Westminster, American, French and so on. Hope he doesn't ask me about the French.

So, if you're American, don't laugh at this piece, still in draft form, prepared for the Min and my students but please check it for accuracy. If you're non-American and were as much in the dark as I was, it might be useful. Of course you could look it up yourself but this is more summarized:

As everyone knows, the U.S. system is a series of checks and balances - hence the Constitution, hence the three way split of power - legislative, executive and judicial, hence the presidential election system.

The second thread running throughout is the traditional rivalry between constituent states and the desire to preserve states' rights.

As far as I can see, the presidential election goes through this procedure [reducing it to basics]:

1. Certain candidates emerge through the party system by wheeling and dealing and through attracting cash for the coming process - this happens in the year before the election;

2. The primaries and caucuses are used by the different parties, the two most important being the Democratic and Republican. within the 50 states, plus DC, to select delegates who will go to the party conventions later. Delegates are selected according to the methods the party decides it wants to adopt within that individual state - it's party business, not the state's [see below] - this happens from December onwards and the most important is Super Tuesday in February through March in the election year, when [currently] 22 states will select their delegates to the convention;

3. Conventions are held to formally select a party's candidate for the presidential election later that year but in recent years, they've largely been razamataz and everyone already knows the state of play. Not always though - there've been some surprises over the years. Each delegate attending that convention has basically "pledged" his or her vote to one candidate but only on the first ballot, after which they are "free".

4. Out of this come the various parties' choices for president and vice-president and these are voted for on election day in November by the people of the U.S., who are not voting for the candidate directly but from the people's votes, members of the Electoral College are elected and they vote 41 days later for president. It is therefore their vote and not the people's which elects the president and vp.

5. The whole thing is confirmed later.

Primaries, caucuses and conventions

The two methods for choosing delegates to the national convention are the caucus and the primary.

The Caucus

Caucuses were the original method for selecting candidates but have decreased in number since the primary was introduced in the early 1900's. In states that hold caucuses a political party announces the date, time, and location of the meeting. Generally any voter registered with the party may attend.

At the caucus, delegates are chosen to represent the state's interests at the national party convention. Prospective delegates are identified as favorable to a specific candidate or uncommitted. After discussion and debate an informal vote is taken to determine which delegates should be chosen.


The Primary

In the early twentieth century there was a movement to give more power to citizens in the selection of candidates for the party's nomination. The primary election developed from this reform movement. In a primary election, registered voters may participate in choosing the candidate for the party's nomination by voting through secret ballot, as in a general election.

There are two main types of primaries, closed or open, that determine who is eligible to vote in the primary. In a closed primary, only a registered voter may vote. For example a voter registered as Democratic can vote only in the Democratic primary and a Republican can vote only in the Republican primary.

In an open primary, on the other hand, a registered voter can vote in either primary regardless of party membership. The voter cannot, however, participate in more than one primary. A third less common type of primary, the blanket primary, allows registered voters to participate in all primaries.

In addition to these differences, there are differences in whether the ballot lists candidate or delegate names. The presidential preference primary is a direct vote for a specific candidate. The voter chooses the candidate by name. The second method is more indirect, giving the voter a choice among delegate names rather than candidate names. As in the caucus, delegates voice support for a particular candidate or remain uncommitted.

In some states a combination of the primary and caucus systems are used. The primary serves as a measure of public opinion but is not necessarily binding in choosing delegates. Sometimes the Party does not recognize open primaries because members of other parties are permitted to vote.

Further notes on primaries and caucuses

Each state is given a number of delegates by the party machines, proportional to the state's population and each state has its own method of choosing delegates.

The Democrats use a higher ratio than the Republicans, which means they have more delegates overall. So from Colorado, the Democrats selected 61 delegates and the Republicans selected 40.

Some give all their delegates to the winner, some break them down by districts, and others dole them out depending on the percentage of the total vote each candidate receives.

Nowadays, all delegates are "pledged" to a candidate before they are elected to go to the convention. However, these pledges don't last past the first round and, after that, delegates are free agents. Prior to this, delegates elected on behalf of one candidate often went to the convention and made deals with one of the other candidates, essentially making the primaries meaningless.

Now, with pledged delegates, it is the conventions that are probably out of date as it has been a long time since there was even a second ballot at either major convention. (Compare this to the 19th century where at one point the Whig convention went through over 250 ballots to elect a majority candidate).

So when Bush won Colorado, what that means is that he got most of CO's delegates to the GOP convention to represent him.

The conventions are effectively over when one candidate gets over half of the total national delegates, which gives him a majority at the convention. That happened in March for both Bush & Gore, so the primaries after March didn't matter very much.

The delegates from each state meet at the convention to vote for the candidate they represent. They have a big party, wear silly hats, and hold up signs saying things like "Colorado for McCain".

Remember, the delegates determined in the primaries are committed to vote for their candidate only on the first ballot at the convention. After that, they can vote for anyone. McCain "released" his delegates to vote for Bush so that Bush could have a unanimous vote.

At the convention, the party delegates also write the official party platform.

The whole delegate system was intended to replace the "smoke-filled rooms" where powerful members of the party secretly chose a candidate. The Constitution doesn't talk about how party nominees are chosen, so every party can decide for itself. Smoke-filled rooms and secret processes are perfectly legal; we just use this primary process because people like it better.

A caucus, on the other hand, is a bunch of people of a political party who show up at a party meeting and decide, by whatever system they want to use, who their choice is.

The Republican Party uses a winner-take-all system in which the delegate or candidate with the most votes in a state's primary or caucus wins the right to be represented by ALL of the party's delegates at the national convention.

Federal law doesn't dictate how states choose their delegates.

The term caucus apparently comes from an Algonquin word meaning "gathering of tribal chiefs," and the main crux of the caucus system today is indeed a series of meetings.

In Iowa, the caucuses themselves are local party precinct meetings where registered Republicans and Democrats gather, discuss the candidates and vote for their candidate of choice for their party's nomination.

The Republican caucus voting system in Iowa is relatively straightforward: You come in, you vote, typically through secret ballot, and the percentages of the group supporting each candidate decides what delegates will go on to the county convention.

The Democrats have a more complex system -- in fact, it's one of the most complex pieces of the entire presidential election. In a typical caucus, registered democrats gather at the precinct meeting places (there are close to 2,000 precincts statewide), supporters for each candidate have a chance to make their case, and then the participants gather into groups supporting particular candidates (undecided voters also cluster into a group).

Again - the whole business is entirely according to how the party wants it to be - the government doesn't come into it officially.

The Electoral College

It may surprise you to know that Russia has a more direct presidential election process than the United States. In the United States, a system called the Electoral College periodically allows a candidate who receives fewer popular votes to win an election.

In fact, there have been several presidential candidates who won the popular vote, but lost the election because they received fewer electoral votes. In Russia, where no such system exists, the candidate who receives a majority of popular votes wins the election.


Every four years, on the Tuesday following the first Monday of November, millions of U.S. citizens go to local voting booths to elect, among other officials, the next president and vice president of their country. But the results of the popular vote are not guaranteed to stand because the Electoral College has not cast its vote and what the people actually voted for was not the president and vp but for the Electoral College.

The Electoral College is a controversial mechanism that was created by the framers of the U.S. Constitution as a compromise, some politicians believing a purely popular election was too reckless, while others objected to giving Congress the power to select the president. The compromise was to set up an Electoral College system that allowed voters to vote for electors, who would then cast their votes for candidates, a system described in Article II, section 1 of the Constitution.

Each state has a number of electors equal to [but not actually comprising] the number of its U.S. senators plus the number of its U.S. representatives. Currently, the Electoral College includes 538 electors, 535 for the total number of congressional members, and three who represent Washington, D.C., as allowed by the 23rd Amendment.

On the Monday following the second Wednesday in December, the electors of each state meet in their respective state capitals to officially cast their votes for president and vice president. These votes are then sealed and sent to the president of the Senate, who on January 6th opens and reads the votes in the presence of both houses of Congress. The winner is sworn into office at noon on January 20th.

Most of the time, electors cast their votes for the candidate who has received the most votes in that particular state. Some states have laws that require electors to vote for the candidate that won the popular vote, while other electors are bound by pledges to a specific political party. However, there have been times when electors have voted contrary to the people's decision, and there is no federal law or Constitutional provision against it.

In most presidential elections, a candidate who wins the popular vote will also receive the majority of the electoral votes, but this is not always the case. There have been four presidents who have won an election with fewer popular votes than their opponent but more electoral votes.

In 2000, for example, Al Gore had over half a million votes more than George W. Bush but after recount controversy in Florida and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Bush was awarded the state by 537 popular votes. Like most states, Florida has a "winner takes all" rule. This means that the candidate who wins the state by popular vote also gets all of the state's electoral votes. Bush became president with 271 electoral votes.

Today, a candidate must receive 270 of the 538 electoral votes to win the election, so George W. Bush won the 2000 election by one electoral vote. In cases where no candidate wins a majority of electoral votes, the decision is thrown to the House of Representatives by virtue of the 12th Amendment. The House then selects the president by majority vote with each state delegation receiving one vote to cast for the three candidates who received the most electoral votes.

Here are the two elections that were decided by the House of Representatives:

1801: Thomas Jefferson

1825: John Quincy Adams.

The goal of any candidate is to put together the right combination of states that will give him or her the 270 electoral votes plus. It's a numbers game.

Nomination of electors

If you're wondering how someone becomes an elector, it turns out it's not the exact same process across the board. It can actually differ from state to state. In general, though, the two most common ways are:
  • The elector is nominated by his or her state party committee (perhaps to reward many years of service to the party).
  • The elector "campaigns" for a spot and the decision is made during a vote held at the state's party convention.
Qualifications to be an Elector
  • He or she cannot be a Representative or Senator;
  • He or she cannot be a high-ranking U.S. official in a position of "trust or profit";
  • He or she cannot be someone who has "engaged in insurrection or rebellion" against the U.S.
Usually, electors are people who are highly politically active in their party (be it Democrat, Green, Libertarian, Republican ...) or connected somehow to the political arena, such as: activists, party leaders, elected officials of the state and even people who have ties (political and/or personal) to the Presidential candidates, themselves. Potential elector candidates are nominated by their state political parties in the summer before the Election Day. The U.S. Constitution allows each state to choose its own means for the nomination of electors.

In some states, the Electors are nominated in primaries the same way that other candidates are nominated. Other states nominate electors in party conventions. All states require the names of all Electors to be filed with the Secretary of State (or equivalent) at least a month prior to election day.


Hope that clears it up.

9 comments:

Jesica said...

Wayne Allyn Root is contesting for the 2008 US Presidential Elections as the candidate of the Libertarian Party. To campaign for the election, he has planned to start a TV reality show to be broadcast in the countries of US, Canada and UK. He is also writing a book 'The Conscience of a Libertarian' to make campaigns.

Gracchi said...

James I'd add one thing that the Republican primary is winner takes all- so McCain will get all the Florida delegates to the convention. Whereas the Democratic one is proportional to the votes cast so Hillary say in New Hampshire only got half the delegates.

Anonymous said...

C'ya

Anonymous said...

Couple of points:
- Some R primaries are winner-takes all, others are by congressional district
- The presidential electoral college reflects the fact that the US is a federation of States; originally State legislatures appointed the people who would choose the federal president; now they are chosen by election, but the president is still chosen by the states rather than the people (This is something the smaller states have always insisted on, so that a handful of big states cannot just cut them out)

UBERMOUTH said...

You forgot to mention missing ballots and brothers in high places.

Great post James. That must have been a lot of work.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Yes, very informative and clear. I never did understand the system over there.

Colin Campbell said...

I think that all you need to mention is the need for large amounts of dough just to play.

Verlin Martin said...

"The Republican Party uses a winner-take-all system in which the delegate or candidate with the most votes in a state's primary or caucus wins the right to be represented by ALL of the party's delegates at the national convention."

Not sure where you are going with this, some states use a winner-take-all, some dont'; it's not the party that does it.

Florida is winner take all, but South Carolina was not (republican), its a state issue.

Popular vote; the Electoral college was made so that urban communities could not outvote the 'people'. As would happen today, major cities would make the rest of the country superfluous to the nomination.

W did not if fact win by ONE electoral vote. He got 1 more than the majority, but he beat Kerry by more than 1. :)

(anon #2 has the electoral college up-to-date better than i said)

Lots of missteps here, but all minor :) very good work James!

Bretwalda Edwin-Higham said...

Thanks, people.