• Wed, 9, Nov, 2016 - 10:50:AM

RECAP: US presidential elections explained

Image: Hillary Clinton at the Brown & Black Presidential Forum / Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia Commons

Unless you’ve been living under a literal rock and/or have recently returned from a long, strange journey in the Triangulum Galaxy, you’ve probably heard there’s a presidential election coming up in the United States. Unfortunately, it’s also among the most complicated election systems in the world. Villainesse helps explain how it all works.

So what is happening?

Americans will elect a new president on Tuesday, November 8 (Wednesday, November 9 in Aotearoa). New because current US president Barack Obama has served the maximum two four-year terms that are allowed by the US Constitution. Whoever is elected will serve as president for at least four years, unless they die, resign, or are impeached and forcibly removed from office.

How is a president elected?

A president is not chosen on the basis of who gets the most votes, at least not entirely. Instead, a president is chosen through what is known as the Electoral College system. Each of the 50 US states holds an individual election for president (all of which are held on the same day), and whoever gets the most votes in a state receives a certain number of points based on how many people live in that state. The number of points varies widely, from as little as three for winning the most votes in states like Wyoming and Alaska to 55 in California. A candidate needs at least 270 points – called electoral votes – to win.

What are the primaries?

Political parties choose who will represent them in the election. To decide who their representatives will be, they hold a vote among party members known as a primary. The primary system is quite similar to the general presidential election – each candidate gets a certain number or points for each state they win. Again, though, the primary is only for members of parties – so Hillary Clinton would not be allowed to run in the Republican Party primary, for example, and Donald Trump could not run in the Democratic Party primary.

Since candidates are competing against members of their own parties in the primaries, they will often take more extreme positions (more liberal for Democrats, and more conservative for Republicans) in the primaries, before adopting more moderate positions in the general election. The notable exception, of course, is Donald Trump this year, who has continued with his campaign promises (such as building a wall between the US and Mexico that Mexico would pay for and banning Muslims from coming to the United States). Many see Trump’s pledges as more extreme than perhaps any other candidate in history.

What are running mates?

A running mate is the person a presidential candidate chooses to serve as their vice president if they win the election. The vice president becomes president if a president dies, is removed from office, or resigns. This year, the running mates from the major parties are Virginia senator Tim Kaine (for Hillary Clinton) and Indiana governor Mike Pence (for Donald Trump).

Typically, a running mate is chosen to cover up any weaknesses a candidate might have. For instance, in 2008 Barack Obama selected Joe Biden as his running mate because he had decades of experience in government, while Obama was still in his first term as a US senator from Illinois. A running mate might also be chosen because they are popular in a battleground state.

However, a running mate can also derail a presidential campaign. In 2008, Republican Party candidate John McCain chose Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. Palin’s lack of experience and numerous disastrous interviews with the press ultimately harmed the campaign.

What is a battleground state?

A “battleground state,” sometimes called a “swing state,” is a state where polls of potential voters have indicated that the candidate from either of the two major political parties – the Democrats or Republicans – has a good chance of winning. Winning a battleground state is crucial in any election, as many states almost always will vote for a candidate from one party (like New York, California and Massachusetts almost always voting Democratic, and states like Texas, Alabama and Mississippi almost always voting Republican). This year, battleground states include places like Ohio, Florida and North Carolina. With dozens of points at stake, winning them could make or break either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump’s campaigns.

What is the popular vote?

The “popular vote” refers to whatever candidate gets the most overall votes nationwide. But as mentioned earlier, the election is not determined by who gets the most overall votes. In 2000, for example, Democratic candidate Al Gore received more overall votes than Republican George W. Bush, but still lost the election.

What if there’s a tie?

Technically, it is possible for each candidate to receive the same number of electoral votes. If that happens, then the US Congress holds a special session and votes on who will be the president. In 1824, Congress chose John Quincy Adams as president when none of the four candidates received a majority of electoral votes. However, this has never happened since then, and the chances today seem remote at best.

What are the debates?

Traditionally, the Democratic and Republican candidates will debate each other three times prior to the election. These debates usually take place in September and October. They are usually the only time the candidates ever directly face each other before the election.

Covered live on virtually every major television network and on the internet, and analysed extensively in print, online and on social media, the debates can have a dramatic impact on how voters perceive a candidate. In 1984, Ronald Reagan was running for a second term and was somewhat unpopular as president. However, a masterful performance in a debate against opponent Walter Mondale on October 21 (when he uttered the famous phrase “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience”) helped lead Reagan to the biggest win in the history of US presidential elections.

This year, debates are expected to take place on September 26 (September 27 in New Zealand), October 9 (October 10) and October 19 (October 20).

Who votes?

Any US citizen 18 years old or older can vote in a presidential election. They do not need to be part of a political party to vote, and unlike places such as Australia, voting in the United States is not mandatory. They also can live outside the United States and vote. However, if a person has been found guilty of a felony (defined as any crime for which they can go to jail for a year or more) then they cannot vote. Only one vote is allowed per person.

Most Americans vote by going to specially-designated polling places on election day, and fill out paper ballots in person. The ballots are then counted by volunteers. Oregon, Washington and Colorado are the only states with an entirely vote-by-mail system. In those states, ballots are mailed to residents several weeks before the election, and simply need to be put in the mail before election day.

For Americans living overseas, they can vote by going to a US embassy or consulate, filling out a ballot to be put in the mail, or, in very rare cases, emailing a ballot to a US election office.

Because voting is not required, the number of people who actually vote (known as the “turnout rate”) is usually very low. Typically, only half of people who are able to vote (known as “registered voters”) actually do vote. Getting people to take the time to vote is usually one of the biggest focuses of a candidate’s presidential campaign.

What is the role of money in elections?

It’s no secret that massive amounts of money are spent on US presidential elections – perhaps more than on any other election in any other country. This year alone, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are expected to spend more than US$1 billion on their campaigns – an all-time record.

Most of the money campaigns spend goes towards advertising, such as television commercials, internet adverts, signs displayed in public, and flyers that are mailed to potential voters. Other money goes towards the salaries of people working on their campaigns, rent for office space for campaigns, transportation and lodging as a candidate travels throughout the country to speak to potential voters, and more.

Each candidate is given an equal amount of money to spend on their campaign by a group known as the Federal Elections Commission (FEC). If a candidate wants to spend more on their campaign, they can do so, but must spend their own money. This is why candidates spend large amounts of time trying to convince potential donors and groups of donors, known as Political Action Committees (PACs), to give them money to spend. Historically, the candidate that spends the most money has usually won.

There is no limit how much money a candidate can spend on their campaign.

What does “winner take all” mean?

US elections are known as “winner take all” elections. What this means is there is no reward of any kind for finishing in second place. This is why candidates will often be focused on winning at all costs, since even a loss by a single vote is still a loss.

Are there any parties other than Democrats and Republicans?

Besides the two major political parties, there are dozens of smaller parties taking part in the election, such as the ultra-conservative Libertarian Party and the ultra-liberal Green Party. However, as these parties lack the resources and organisation of the Democrats and Republicans, candidates from these parties have little real chance of winning the election.

What the parties can do, however, is play “spoiler” in the election by drawing potential voters away from the major parties. It has been argued that Green Party candidate Ralph Nader’s campaign took votes away from Al Gore in 2000, ultimately causing him to lose to George W. Bush.

What happens after the election?

After a candidate wins the presidential election, they become known as the “president-elect” until they actually take office on January 20 (January 21 in New Zealand) the following year. This is no time for a president-elect to rest, however, as they need to put together a team – known as a cabinet – to help them govern once they take office.

What if a vote is too close to call?

If an election is too close to easily know who won, then a recount of ballots can be ordered by a court. The most famous example is in 2000, when the ballots in Florida were recounted, as winning the state would mean either Al Gore or George W. Bush would win the election.

So what does a president actually do?

Despite all the media bluster, the president actually has few political powers because of the US system known as “checks and balances.” While the president can overrule any decision made by Congress, Congress can also overrule a decision by the president. The US Supreme Court, whose job is making sure all laws follow the US Constitution, can also overrule a presidential decision by declaring it unconstitutional. Congress can also remove a president from office through a process known as impeachment.

As commander-in-chief of America’s armed forces, a president can order the military to invade a country for up to 60 days. Any longer than that requires Congressional approval through a formal declaration of war. But a president can also order the use of nuclear weapons – a major concern considering Trump’s claims he would not rule out using such weapons against enemies (Hillary Clinton has said she would never use nuclear weapons unless America was attacked with nukes first).

This piece was originally posted on August 30th, 2016.


  • United States /
  • Elections /
  • 2016 presidential election /
  • Hillary Clinton /
  • Donald Trump /
  • Barack Obama /
  • Al Gore /
  • George W Bush /
  • USA /
  • Politics /

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