I’m guessing you may have heard there’s this little “election” thing happening in my home country today, yes?
When people learn I’m American, one of the first things they want to talk about with me is politics. More recently, I get asked to explain the process of how we elect our officials. Short answer—it’s a giant unwieldy clusterfuck that makes no sense to the outside world (and many Americans). Just writing this entry about this process gives me a headache, and I have a solid understanding of the process.
But I am a certified history teacher, which means I am qualified to teach civics and government, so I will also give the longer answer to the questions of what is the experience of voting in the US and how does the election process work.
What is the experience of voting in the US/for Americans?
This is my first time voting from abroad, but my second time voting with an absentee ballot.
During the last election, I was one day post-partum, and still in the hospital. Which means Ellie began her indoctrination at a VERY young age. In that case, though, voting via absentee ballot meant that Ravi and his dad went to our city hall, got my ballot, brought it to me, I filled it out and gave it back to them, and they physically took it back to our city hall.
This year is obviously a bit different. On our last trip home, we stopped by our city hall to ensure that our voter registration is up to date. About a month ago, I received an email with a zip file containing my ballot, instructions, and various forms (an affadavit to attest that I had filled out my ballot, and a waiver of privacy as I can return my vote by email or fax–but that means someone will see my vote and know from whom it came). I filled out my forms, and my ballot. Ravi scanned the documents and sent them to me as a file. I emailed it back to my city hall in Massachusetts. (More information about voting as an expat, including a state by state breakdown of deadlines can be found here)
If we still lived in the US, I would have gone in person to vote today. For my non-American readers, this is what that would’ve looked like–
- I would have looked up my polling station-usually located at a public school, and driven there.
- I would have walked past people holding signs for various candidates an ballot initiatives (although the national election is obviously the race that international news outlets are discussing, it is not the only election we are voting in).
- I would have gone to a table with volunteers (usually retirees) to sign in (so that they could note I had been in to vote).
- They would give me a blank paper ballot (not every state uses them, more on this in a minute)
- I would enter a private booth, much like the one in the picture above, where a marker would be provided to mark my ballot
- I would then anonymously mark out my choices for President, Senator, Representative, State Senators, State Representative, and a few other races like Registrar of Deeds and Sheriff. I would also vote on ballot questions (more about those in a minute)
- Once I was done, I would walk over to a machine into which I’d feed my ballot
- I would get an “I voted” sticker and leave
Now here is where it gets confusing
My experience in Massachusetts is not necessarily the experience my friends in Seattle, or San Francisco, or Florida will have. There are many kinds of ballots.
Not every presidential candidate is on the ballot in all 50 states (other than Obama and Romney). Did you even know there are people other Obama and Romney running? Each state has its own laws about who can be on the presidential ballot, which are usually related to money (see more here). I had 4 to pick from. I voted for Obama (given the first photo, not a shocker).
Not everyone is currently up for re-election. Senators serve 6 year terms, so only one of our two Senators is currently running for office. Only 1/3 of the US Senate seats are up for relection this year. Representatives serve 2 year terms, so all of them are up for election.
Each state has it’s own version of congress (in Massachusetts we call it the General Court) with senators and representatives from the various parts of the state. You vote for the people who hold office in your part of the state.
Finally are the ballot questions (also called ballot iniatives). Every state has it’s own procedures as to how these questions reach a ballot…if you’re interested, here are those from Massachusetts. This year there were 3 binding questions (which, if passed by a majority of the voters in MA require a change to the laws of Massachusetts) and 2 nonbinding questions (which if passed, require nothing to actually be done). The 3 binding questions dealt with legalization of medical marijuana, legalization of assisted suicide in terminal patients, and a question dealing with information given to dealerships versus individuals about cars. The 2 non binding questions were whether the people of MA wanted our national office holders to propose certain legislations/speak out publicly on certain issues.
How does the election process work?
Apart from the office of President, the election process is fairly straightforward–you vote for an individual or yes/no on a question, and majority wins. If Elizabeth Warren (the challenger for the MA Senate seat) gets more votes than Scott Brown (the current Senator), she will be the new Senator from Massachusetts. If the ballot question about medical marijuana has more than 50% of the vote, “A YES VOTE would enact the proposed law eliminating state criminal and civil penalties related to the medical use of marijuana, allowing patients meeting certain conditions to obtain marijuana produced and distributed by new state-regulated centers or, in specific hardship cases, to grow marijuana for their own use. A NO VOTE would make no change in existing laws” (direct quote from the ballot, but here’s a source)
The way we elect our president is much messier.
You will hear about two votes when it comes to the president-the popular vote and the electoral (or electoral college) vote.
The popular vote is a direct national accounting of the people’s votes without regard to where they are from. A candidate can win the popular vote, and still lose the election (the most recent example was Al Gore in 2000).
The electoral vote is the one that matters. We have an indirect method of electing our President and VP. Following rules set up in Article 2 of the US Constitution, there are electors for each state of the Union. The number of electors is based upon how many representatives a state has in Congress (which in turn is based upon the population of the state). Densely populated states like California have a high number of electoral votes, while sparsely populated states like Alaska (although physically the largest state) have very few. There are a total of 538 electoral votes between the 50 states (plus the District of Columbia-aka Washington, DC, which is not a state). A candidate needs 270 to be declared the winner.
So why does my vote count? In every state but Maine and Nebraska, the person who wins the state’s popular vote gets all of that state’s electoral votes. (In Maine and Nebraska, they can apportion their electoral votes–say it was half and half, Maine could give 2 electoral votes to each candidate.)
The truth though is that certain states lean very specific ways. Massachusetts has only voted for a Republican candidate for President twice in the last 10 elections (Reagan in 1980 and 1984). While it is true that Romney is a former governor of Massachusetts, he wasn’t a terribly popular one. It is easily predicted that Obama will win Massachusetts, so our 11 electoral votes are considered safely “his.” By comparison Mississippi has only voted for a Democrat once in the last 10 elections (Carter in ’76), so it and their 9 electoral votes are considered safely Republican. So each candidate is walking into Tuesday night with a certain expected number of electoral votes.
However, those expected numbers are not enough to get either candidate to 270, which means some states end up being more important from a campaign perspective, because they (and their electoral votes) could statistically go either way. These are referred to as “battleground states” or “swing states.” Battleground states see more political ads by both candidates. They see more personal visits by candidates (and those stumping for the candidates).
Ohio is looking to be the decisive state this year–and my friends who live there say it’s a constant barrage of commercials, robocalls, and attention. By comparison, Massachusetts residents see some of the national ads (which are broadcast on national cable channels) and a few local ads because some of our local tv channels are seen in New Hampshire (which is a swing state). But mostly we’re not that exciting because we’re seen as reliable for Obama, so the candidates are spending their money elsewhere.
What you will see in terms of election results coming in is that reliable states will be called almost as soon as polls close. Battleground/swing states will be called later.
You’ll hear a lot of rhetoric that this election is too close to call, and from a popular vote perspective that is true. It is possible that Romney could win the popular vote by a slim margin, although Obama is currently leading by a percentage point (which is statistically still an irrelevant lead). However, from an electoral perspective, Nate Silver of the 538 blog explains it better than I can as to why Obama is very likely to win re-election.
But statistical models aside, we won’t know until Wednesday morning here in Singapore who will be the next Americana president. Although I’m hopeful that it will be Obama.
Still have questions? See this electoral college FAQ