October 29, 2008

How the Election Will Actually Work

Posted in Outside Malaysia tagged at 1:05 pm by egalitaria

The Democrats and Republicans are not organised the same way ours are in Malaysia. We tend to think of “political parties” as strict systems, with strict party lines, constitutions, manifestos and membership. This is not the case in the United States. As many have been telling us on this program (International Visitors Observe The Elections or I-VOTE), there are 51 different Democratic and Republican parties, for each state.

This tells of the Federalism the US practices, one where even the elections are run by the State or Local Authority. There is no such thing as a National Elections Commission. As a result, each state has their own voting system, and rules can even vary within a state.

It is a misconception to think that Americans are voting their President on 4th November, next Tuesday. What they are doing is to vote either the Democratic or Republican representatives to become members of the Electoral College. The moment there is a majority of those selecting either party, that party will sweep all available seats for that particular state. Oklahoma, for example, where I am going to be on Election Day, has 7 electoral college seats. If the voters give a majority vote to the Republican, all 7 representatives will “win” their right to vote in the Electoral College. There are 538 Electoral College seats to be filled, and a candidate would need 270 to win the Presidency.

The Electoral College then meets on the 15th December 2008, where they officially vote the President of their choice. Most of the time they vote according to the candidate their party has endorsed. There have been times where delegates have voted the independent candidate. Finally, on January 8th after the votes are tallied, only then can the new President of the US of A be officially announced as head of the country.

What continues to fascinate me is that there is no one hardline stance taken by the parties, neither do they shove their party belief system down any of their supporters (nay, not even the Presidential candidates themselves). The words Democrat and Republican have become more adjectives than nouns, in that they are descriptive of the character of people. I can be “Democrat today, Republican tomorrow”. Presidential candidates hence become their own agenda setters, each choosing to champion a particular policy stand of choice.

Presidential elections are really, at the end of the day – determined by the state. It gives further truth to the meaning of “United States” of America, since really, it is about the states independently choosing their representatives, and then uniting because they happen to think they want a common leader who will take care of the Federal issues. Any other issue, leave it to the State and National governments!

511,000 people hold public office in the United States. Yes there is 1 Federal Govenrment, but also 50 States and the District of Columbia, 561 Native American Indian tribes (that have their own elections), 3033 County Governments (like our States), 14561 School Systems (voters elect their own School Boards who can shape education policy!!), 35949 Towns, Townships and Municipalities, and 17381 other special districts.

This Election is NOT just about Obama and McCain. There are Senate elections going on; other township and school board elections going on too. I will be observing all of these simultaneously! And THIS is actually the heart of American politics. The fact that it is locally-driven, bottoms-up, participatory. (Unfortunately, this is also the reason why Americans are so myopic and think little about foreign policy. Because they spend all their time keeping their representatives accountable to the voters, and what makes them care are the details of everyday living, not so much, at the end of the day, what happens in Iraq or Afghanistan).

American politics is Local, Local, Local. I have to keep reminding myself of this!



  1. ong said,

    While the election system in USA is more state oriented than Malaysia’s-the truth is probably more to do with the overly Federal centered orientation of Malaysia’s governing system and practice. To properly compare the decentralisation in USA the better comparisons would be federal states like Australia, Canada, India etc.

    Another point is: while there is an impression that election is a very localised matter in USA the influences of very centralised media, business influences and campaign funding mean that there is a very top down supply-side politics in USA. 3rd party candidates can hardly stand a chance in such duo-poly system!

  2. egalitaria said,

    Thanks Ong. That’s true, but there’s other arguments as to why the two party system comes about. And a comment came through on my email on the following:

    Just a small note on one of your posts. While elections are organized by state and locally, the federal government does have some leeway as to how elections are run / conducted in local areas. The FEC or the Federal Election Commission oversees campaign finance. The Civil Rights office in the Justice Department has to okay changes in electoral laws in states which are ‘covered’ under the Voting Rights Act. These are mostly jurisdictions in the South. Congress can pass laws such as the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) which gives funding to states to improve their voting processes.

    But you are absolutely right about the many differences across localities in regard to the different electoral offices and the elections laws and regulations. Some states elect their judges, others don’t. Some sherrifs or police commissioners are appointed, usually by the mayor, in other places they are elected. Lousiana doesn’t have primaries which means you get all possible Republicans and Democrats running at once during the general elections for seats at the federal and national level. You have different procedures for getting onto the presidential ballot in the different states.

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