Thursday, 11 October 2012

A Curious Form of Election

I have long come to realise that the US Federal Government system is based on the model of government that pertained in the UK in 1776. The President is in effect the "King" and his cabinet the equivalent of the 18th Century system whereby the King chose his ministers and Parliament graciously 'approved' them. The House of Lords Chamber then had a great deal of power and is replaced in the US by the Senate and the House of Commons is replaced by House of Representatives or "Congress" which is, in reality, both the Senate and the lower House.

Elections for the Senate and the Representatives or "Congressmen" (which includes woman) is direct and based on Britain's "first past the post" system. While I have personally come to believe that this is a deeply flawed system in the modern and much more complex society we have created, it is, at least, 'direct.'

So I find the system for electing the President of the United States extremely intriguing and not a little confusing. First of all it isn't, as most outsiders think, a simple question of the people directly electing him or her. Each of the State Legislatures actually elects a slate of Electors based on the popular vote for the prospective candidates in their state. In theory this will mean that the candidate that gets the majority vote across all the states - but not always. It is possible for a candidate who scores big in some states who have the right to appoint more "Electors" to "win" the election even if he doesn't actually poll a majority overall. This is because the number of "electors" is in part historic and in part based on population.

In addition there is a little wriggle called "faithless electors" which allows a State to take action against anyone who pledges to vote for one candidate - and on election day, votes for the other. How this can be enforced when the ballot is supposedly "secret" I'm not sure. The fact is that the President is, in the end, elected by a "College" of electors appointed by each State and their decision is "affirmed" by Congress. The system has an historic model in the "Kurfuersten" who elected the Germanic Emperors, originally, in Carolingian times, seven "Princes" who assembled in Frankfurt's Dom and decided who would succeed to the Imperial throne. It is also why some of the States in the US are such key electoral decision makers.

Think Florida in 2000. Two court cases and several recounts before the "State" outcome could be declared and Bush one by just 2 Electoral College votes. The fact that he polled fewer votes across the board didn't count - the Florida Electors held the election in their hands and not the people themselves. Twice in the history of the US, Congress has had to make the final decision on who won, and once the Senate made the final decision. My sources suggest that at least twice a President has been elected who actually polled fewer votes than his opponent, though there are some arguments about whether or not this included all the votes caste!

As I said, it is a curious system. No doubt when it was originally set up, it made sense to those who designed it, but I'm not sure its the best way to select a Commander in Chief or a President now. It certainly seems to create greater division than unity. I think one probably has to have been born in the US and raised through their system to understand it ...

UPDATE: Going through some more records I find that four Presidents have been elected to office with minority support. One was elected with 10% fewer votes from the electorate than his opponent, another with 3% and the remaining pair with margins of less than 1% (G W Bush actually had 0.51% less than Gore). Apparently each State has its own way to decide the distribution of votes in its "College of Electors" and most go for the "winner takes all" system. A small handful actually distribute their Electors on the basis of a proportional system reflecting the 'popular' vote. What it means in the end, is that some State legislatures have the power to determine the outcome whatever the "people' may have decided.

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