The actual US Presidential Election method explained, plus the National Popular Vote movement

It never ceases to amaze me how the process of electing the political leader of a “super-power” nation of over 300 million people is so much simpler than that of the Republic of Ireland with its mere 5 million.

You try to tell American voters about surpluses, quotas, transfers and first preferences and they’re likely to head for the hills.  In fact, I’m pretty sure a lot of Irish ones head for the hills as it is.  No matter what defence you make for the PR-STV method we use here, it can’t involve one which claims it’s in any way “straightforward”.

But anyway…this post is meant to focus on the US.  I often get asked how it works, which reminds me how much of a nerd I am on things like that when my initial reaction (in my head) is “Doesn’t EVERYONE know this?”  Why should Irish people have a working knowledge of how things work in other countries?

The first phrase you need to know is “Electoral College”, because you’ll hear it a lot in official explanations.  This doesn’t mean a place you go to learn out about elections.  It simply refers to the body of people who actually choose the President.

The U.S. Constitution specifies that the President and Vice President of the United States are to be chosen every four years by a small group of people who are individually referred to as “presidential electors.” The electors are collectively referred to as the “Electoral College.”

The Constitution specifies that each state is entitled to one member of the Electoral College for each of its U.S. Representatives and U.S. Senators. Today, there are a total of 538 electoral votes in the Electoral College. This total corresponds to the 435 U.S. Representatives from the 50 states plus the 100 U.S. Senators from the 50 states plus the three members of the Electoral College to which the District of Columbia became entitled under the 23rd Amendment…

The 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia, have been allocated their own number of members (or “votes”) of this Electoral College based on population.  For example, a big state like California has 54 while a small one like Vermont has just 3.

On the first Tuesday in November an election will be held in each jurisdiction and whomever tops the poll receives ALL the electoral votes going.  So even if a candidate wins California by just ONE vote, they still get ALL FIFTY-FOUR members of the Electoral College to vote in their favour. (Note there are a couple of exceptions like Maine but this is the case in the vast majority of the states)

For the purpose of the 2016 Election, the “magic number” is 270…in fact it has been for many years now.  Once a candidate reaches that total, no matter what combinations of states brought it about, then that’s it.  They get to live in the White House for four years.

Before I go on I should clarify one thing…technically (not to mention unbelievably) speaking, the Electoral College members do NOT have to actually vote for the candidate their state chose.  I could write volumes on this, but I won’t because in practice it never comes to that eventuality.

Now to examine how this method relates to the actual campaigns, and here is where we have problems.

With the size of the US as it is, travelling isn’t easy.  This means that candiates have to be selective when deciding where they go.  And while you’ll hear a lot in the press about about national polls, in reality what matters are the indivual polls within states.  This, in turn, gives the candidates a road map of where they need to be shaking hands and kissing babies.

All of the above makes perfect sense, when to take into account the electoral system.  Why should Hillary Clinton, for example, spend a lot of time and money showing her face in California when she pretty much knows she can put its 54 EC votes in the bank?

This virtual “guaranteed” nature of some places’ vote creates what are known as “red states” (Republican) and “blue states” (Democrat).  Basically there is no earthly reason for either candiadte to go there.  Which leaves the real battleground in what are known as the “swing” states.

Ohio and Pennsylvania are two of the best known swing states, which is precisely why the two major parties held their conventions in Cleveland and Philadephia respectively.  Another well known one is Florida, where Al Gore arguably had the election “stolen” from him by George W Bush in 2000.

There is a movement in America which wants to change the process of electing the President to one which will ensure the candidates will have to listen to the whole country throughout the campaign.

National Popular Vote” is exactly wht it says on the tin…a campaign to have the President be the one for whom the most citizens voted, period.

And it’s not just a bunch of “crackpots” protesting outside Congress with a placard reading “Down with this sort of thing” either…they are actually getting elected bodies from jurisdictions around the country to sign up to the concept.

The bill has been enacted by 11 jurisdictions possessing 165 electoral votes—61% of the 270 electoral votes necessary to activate it, including four small jurisdictions (RI, VT, HI, DC), three medium- size states (MD, MA, WA), and four big states (NJ, IL, NY, CA)

So to put it simply,  once the bill has been enacted by enough states to bring the total electoral votes to 270, they win!

Only 105 to go.  We wish them well.

Personally, I wouldn’t mind some electoral reform here in Ireland.  Maybe not exactly the same as across the pond, but definitely something other than the mathematical maelstrom that is PR-STV.