Saturday, May 17, 2008

Elections in America

There are many things that confuse my British friends about America, and at the top of the list has to be the American election system. In the UK it's so simple: the person with the most votes in your region is elected to go to Parliament, and the party with the most Parliamentary seats gets to choose who the Prime Minister will be.

Well actually, it's not quite that simple. But it's still true to say that compared to the American system British elections resemble a paper airplane compared to a jet engine. For example, read the following description of the Democrats' Iowa Caucus lifted from
THIS Wikipedia article:

"Participants indicate their support for a particular candidate by standing in a designated area of the caucus site (forming a preference group). An area may also be designated for undecided participants. Then, for roughly 30 minutes, participants try to convince their neighbors to support their candidates. Each preference group might informally deputize a few members to recruit supporters from the other groups and, in particular, from among those undecided. Undecided participants might visit each preference group to ask its members about their candidate.

"After 30 minutes, the electioneering is temporarily halted and the supporters for each candidate are counted. At this point, the caucus officials determine which candidates are viable. Depending on the number of county delegates to be elected, the viability threshold can be anywhere from 15% to 25% of attendees. For a candidate to receive any delegates from a particular precinct, he or she must have the support of at least the percentage of participants required by the viability threshold. Once viability is determined, participants have roughly another 30 minutes to realign: the supporters of inviable candidates may find a viable candidate to support, join together with supporters of another inviable candidate to secure a delegate for one of the two, or choose to abstain. This realignment is a crucial distinction of caucuses in that (unlike a primary) being a voter's second candidate of choice can help a candidate.

"When the voting is closed, a final head count is conducted, and each precinct apportions delegates to the county convention. These numbers are reported to the state party, which counts the total number of delegates for each candidate and reports the results to the media. Most of the participants go home, leaving a few to finish the business of the caucus: each preference group elects its delegates, and then the groups reconvene to elect local party officers and discuss the platform.

"The delegates chosen by the precinct then go to a later caucus, the county convention, to choose delegates to the district convention and state convention. Most of the delegates to the Democratic National Convention are selected at the district convention, with the remaining ones selected at the state convention. Delegates to each level of convention are initially bound to support their chosen candidate but can later switch in a process very similar to what goes on at the precinct level; however, as major shifts in delegate support are rare, the media declares the candidate with the most delegates on the precinct caucus night the winner, and relatively little attention is paid to the later caucuses."

And that's just one state caucus. Wait until we get to the general election and then you have to start contending with the Electoral College - that complex mechanism which allows George Bush to be elected president even though Al Gore got more of the popular vote.

My outline of the American election process (which can be downloaded
HERE) may help to alleviate some of the mystery my British friends feel about American elections. For further reading, I suggest George Grant's book The Importance of the Electoral College. Dr. Grant shows how this complex and messy system is actually central to American democracy.

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