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Counting the US vote

The US presidential election shows the fragility of electoral institution against demagoguery

Counting the US vote
Trump or Clinton: Electoral college is unique in a sense that it relies more on the select vote system.

Any current political system that claims to be democratic is in fact an electoral democracy, since it is through the institution of election that political elite gain legitimacy to form government and regulate political community. In other words, political elite in any modern polity, in order to take control of political decision-making ought to compete for popular (or in the case of US Presidential elections, the electoral college) vote. In today’s world, electoral democracies are characterised by aggressive electioneering strategies, and politicking by the political elite.

World over in all electoral democracies, electoral cycle comprises certain interrelated levels; first is political mobilisation initiated by political parties on policy issues; second is campaigning and electioneering for popular support; third is vote balloting; fourth is to patiently wait for results; and final is to accept electorates’ verdict to formulate governing authority.

But no matter how mature electoral democracy is, its institutions remain vulnerable to renegade politicians-to-be. The reality of fragility of institutions is also exemplified in the current US presidential election. Furthermore, it also provides evidence that in contemporary democracies, logical, and teleological pattern in electoral politics is not an easy ideal to achieve.

The case of US presidential election is unique in a sense that the characteristic features of this institution have not changed much from early days of American democracy; rather the rules for electing president evolved with time and according to the needs of society.

This electoral system is distinctive for a variety of reasons, because; a) it is based on a system of electoral college; b) early voting by the citizens prior to the election day; c) the application of the first-past-the-post or plurality rule on electoral college. These features mark American exceptionalism, as over the years, each of these features were protected so as to solidify the norms of democracy.

Let us look at these features characterising the distinctiveness of US electoral system;

First the electoral college. It is unique in a sense that it relies more on the select vote system. In total there are 538 of electoral college votes from all across the US. And, the magic figure for any presidential hopeful is to secure 270 of the electoral votes to reach to the White House.

In the 2000 presidential elections, it was Florida with its 29 votes that famously decided the 2000 election in favour of George W. Bush. Though Bush had lost the popular vote nationally, he however was announced a winner when the US Supreme Court intervened and declared him the winner.

So what happens is that each state is allocated a certain number of electoral college votes based on the state’s population (as noted from the most recent census: and is based on number of constituencies as represented in US Congress and Senate). Thus, populous the state, bigger is its electoral college. For example, California has 55 of electoral college votes while Texas has 38 of the electors.

Each political party nominates and selects its electors for electoral college. Electors are selected based on their political activism in each state; these electors can either be political activists, party leaders, or those people who have personal or political ties to the presidential candidates. However, electors must not be holding public office when nominated as elector by the respective political party.

The US system of electing the president through electoral college is distinctive also because through the electors, the candidates are able to engage with political activists so as to better focus on issue politics relevant to the respective electoral constituencies. This electoral system enables political activists to come to the fore, voice, deliberate, and have an effect on national politics.

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So in couple of days, on November 8, when US citizens go out to vote for their preferred candidate, they are actually voting for the electors and not for one of the two candidates. Because in US, it is the electoral college vote that determines the winner of US presidential race.

The second interesting fact about the US presidential election is the provision of early voting and ballot by mail. What this means is, Americans can cast their votes well before the day of election (which is the second Tuesday of November after every four years). This convenient feature of early voting and ballot by mail, enables voters to avoid long queues and delays that otherwise would have demotivated them to vote. According to one estimate (by www.electproject.org) all across US, early balloting has started and almost 2 million votes have already been cast; the result, however, shall be announced only after the election day.

The third characteristic feature of the US presidential election is the application of plurality rule in all states (except Maine and Nebraska). Plurality rule means that a candidate who secures the most electoral college votes in a state takes that entire state no matter how close the vote count or large the popular vote share was. For example, state of New York has 29 electoral college votes; in this state, if Trump is able to win 14 electoral college votes, he would still lose to Hilary Clinton, because she would have won the 15 electors’ vote and thus she would take the entire state from Trump’s so-called home state.

Along with these three features of the US presidential election, there is another interesting fact of undecided voters in those states that have never exhibited any clear pattern of support for either of the two political parties.

It is because of this very reason that political commentators contend, battle between the candidates is in those states that are neither Blue (for Democrat) or Red (for Republican) but are Purple States. These states are neutral in a sense that registered voters in these states, have not come out to support either of the two candidates.

These are the battleground states, and are also known as “swing states”. Political pundits believe these are the states that would decide whether it is going to be Clinton or Trump who shall take over the role of the president of USA for the next four years.

In 2016, the states that have been termed “swing states” are Florida (29 votes), Ohio (18 votes), Virginia (13 votes), Colorado (9 votes), North Carolina (15 votes), and Nevada with 6 electoral college votes.

Not long ago, the effect of electoral college votes from one of the “swing states” decided the outcome of the US presidential elections. That moment in the US political history left an indelible mark on the geopolitical outlook of the world.

In the 2000 presidential elections, it was Florida with its 29 votes that famously decided the 2000 election in favour of George W. Bush. Though Bush had lost the popular vote nationally, he however was announced a winner when the US Supreme Court intervened and declared him the winner; because Bush was able to win the total electoral votes from Florida. Bush’s win in Florida was the game changer. Al Gore, the crestfallen nemesis of Bush admitted to his defeat; letting political institutions to take effect on the polity.

Swing states in the US presidential elections matter!

But as we have seen in the ongoing presidential campaign and hustings, one of the candidates have cast doubts on how he would behave in the event of unfavourable election results. Donald Trump’s claim that elections will be rigged is indicative of his disdain for democratic institutions. Furthermore, his futuristic aspersion is derived from his vindictive election campaign, and is testament to the prejudice he holds against political institutions.

Not so long ago, the grace to admit defeat in electoral competition and conceding to the result of electoral college was considered to be the one defining characteristic of the so-called American exceptionalism in the experiment of democracy. However, conduct of Donald Trump, the presidential hopeful of the Grand Old Party (the name reserved for Republican Party because of its contribution to the abolishment of slavery) has brought American exceptionalism to an exceptional disrepute.

The preemptive act of alleging that electoral results will be rigged was never an issue in US politics — but then again there has never been a US presidential campaign that authenticates the fact that democratic system of governance is vulnerable to demagoguery.

Beenish Kulsoom

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