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The US election for dummies

By Jordan Hunter

Glasgow Guardian’s resident American gives you an insight into why the US election is weird and what might happen by answering common questions.

Why does America have the electoral college?

This question has been posed many times and many of you are probably somewhat familiar with how it’s weird, arguably undemocratic, and unnecessarily complex. I think the best understanding is to look back in history.
The US, first off, is not a democracy, and never has been in the traditional sense. It defines itself as a republic with representatives coming from the people in some form or another at every level. The process was formed out of several different compromises. States were not going to be told how to manage the elections. Prior to this, states were more like the EU with near full autonomy with only certain powers delegated to the US government. 

States also were not about to give up their representation, even if it meant being disproportional. This thinking also underlies the other levels of government, which is why we have the House and the Senate. The House was designed to represent the general will of the country by electing members from proportionally drawn districts. That was until gerrymandering – a tactic that redrew district boundaries in a partisan manner to give a party an electoral advantage. The Senate was originally not elected; Americans would wait 127 years to vote on senators. The original aim was that the Senate was supposed to represent the states and therefore senators were instead chosen by state legislatures as their delegates to the national government – each state having two senators regardless of population.

Now you might wonder why they didn’t just have the representatives and Senate pick the president? The short answer is they did not trust politicians and those who would work with the president to make those decisions. However, they did like the way they were represented by both houses, so decided on the electoral college. Basically, every state would have as many electoral college delegates as it has representatives and senators. Now that’s not too bad… until states more or less to make themselves more important decided each to do the winner take all (minus Maine and Nebraska, whose delegates are split proportionally).
States today still think this way, which is why the electoral college continues to exist. Most of the states are currently overrepresented and do not want to lose power. However, as Democrats keep losing due to the electoral college, we might see a Democratic state government push for either proportional distribution, or ultimately (but unlikely), an end of the electoral college in favor of a popular vote.

How can the supreme court decide the election?

Generally they can’t. While people point to Bush v Gore they ignore that it was a weird case, which didn’t have to do with the outcome directly, but the way Florida (the deciding state) counted their ballot. Granted we could go into the weird legal specifics of that case and the theory, but even if the supreme court had sided with Gore, the Floridian government could have just ignored the ruling and sent its delegates anyway. The supreme court is interestingly a court with no actual means to carry out its decisions. Individuals, states, and more often presidents can ignore the decision and do what they want. They tend to comply out of trust for the system, but not always. The US constitution has two whole sentences about the supreme court. One saying it should be established and the other saying that they should be paid. They work as the final decision makers on cases that wished to still be argued. That’s why they got Bush v Gore. The lack of clarity is also why it’s dangerous to question its decisions, go outside the norms associated with it (like how and when to confirm justices), and possibly appoint more justices, as it diminishes the value of the court itself to decide important cases.

Are there not other elections going on? 

Yes, but the media always tends to focus on the presidential election, as it typically shakes out that the other houses fall the same way as the president. That being said, there is a real possibility that Biden wins but there is a Republican majority in the Senate, or conversely, Trump wins but with a Democrat-led House. Polls thus far indicate a return of a Democratic House – bearing in mind that polls for House races can be very inaccurate due to sample size. The Democrats have a razor thin lead in the polls for the Senate, but it’s close enough that it would not be surprising if the Republicans won it. Then you can also talk about the state, county, and local races but that would require infinite articles (fun fact: Americans in many states even elect their coroners. That’s right… the dead body people are elected and it is a partisan race). 

If Trump loses could he stay in office?

Yes and No. He could do what Gore did but on a larger scale and demand recounts… but if he has lost he will be removed come Inauguration Day. He could be removed from the White House physically if that’s what is deemed necessary, but I like to imagine he tries to still pretend to be the president sleeping on Joe Biden’s couch. 

Surely Biden and Trump aren’t the only options?

They’re not. Most ballots will have at least six candidates on them, including Kanye West. Libertarian candidate Jo Jorgensen is on every state ballot and is polling at 5%. Libertarians also have a chance of unseating Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, as there’s an 11% difference and 13% undecided with no Democrat challenging. Beyond them there is also the Green Party candidate, Howie Hawkins, who is on 29 state ballots (enough to win and more than Kanye). To Kanye’s credit, I think he has exposed how there are many ways third party candidates are shut out in terms of ballot access. Additionally, you only need to look at the debates, where people polling 1% in the primary elections were able to debate but not third parties, because the Commission on Debates is formed of Republican and Democratic party elites. 

Who’s going to win?

No one can honestly can’t say for certain but I will say don’t bother staying up all night trying to watch, as states will likely be behind on counting results and not announce until later. It could be the next day, the next week, or even the next month. Biden is doing well in the polls, but after 2016, skepticism is warranted, especially with how mail-in ballot access might deter the turnout Biden desperately needs to win. Trump is also making some late gains as he hits a more aggressive, and definitely not Covid friendly, campaign trail. It could be too late for him, or we could wake up to 2016 all over again. If I were a betting man, which I’m not, I wouldn’t take the odds on Biden based upon the difficulty many people are having with voting – be it in person or mail in, which is a discussion for another time but one that needs to be heard. One thing is for certain. This will definitely be a unique election.


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