The primary and the electoral college

By September 30, 2020Other, Politics

This is the second piece on the coming US presidential election. As I explained in the last essay on this theme, November 3rdis not simply an election of the President, but the election of a host of other candidates for a host of other offices. The ‘primaries’ are gone, but I mention them now  because we in Australia don’t have them, and they are a good thing. The primary system is a device, organised a long time ago by progressives, to get the business of endorsement of party candidates out of the hands of the party machines and back to the citizens. The US has a great variety of them. Without going into minute detail of the nuances, which vary state by state, there are open primaries, in which anyone can participate in the selection of any party’s candidate, closed primaries, available only to registered members or supporters of one of the parties, and semi-open and semi-closed, with different meanings in different jurisdictions.

The great advantage of these primaries is that they can to a degree stop party organisations from flying in a favoured son or daughter to a constituency and pushing locals aside, and they give weight to the view that those elected are actually representative of the constituency they claim to represent. The lower houses in both our nations are called the houses of representatives. That seems to have been forgotten in Australia, which is a great pity, and I would like to see some such system in place here, though neither major party would have a bar of it for a moment. Actually, the Nationals have had a go at it, and they have run two candidates in the past in the same seat, which is a form of primary selection, allowing the National voters (and indeed all voters) a choice. Tony Abbott proposed a primary system to the Liberal Party’s NSW conference a few years ago, but it was voted down. Oh no, the feeling must have been, where would the power go? Well away from the State Council, and with it the real joy of being a senior member of either major party: of being able to choose who goes where, and indeed, the possibility of one’s being selected for the Senate. No, no, we don’t want that, the old and powerful say.

That’s probably enough about the primaries. Now to the electoral college. Its purpose is to elect the President and Vice-President only. Before we get into the necessary details, note that we have what amounts to an electoral college in Australia too. We elect a representative who meets with other representatives to elect our political leader. We don’t directly elect the prime minister, though the republicans would like this (I wouldn’t). There are lots of fine details in the American system, but its core can be summarised like this.

  • Each state legislature decides how its electoral college members are chosen.
  • Each state has the number of electoral college members that is the sum of its state’s membership in the Senate and the House of Representative. There are 100 members of the Senate (each state has two) and 435 Reps.
  • In 48 of the 50 states the candidate with the largest number of votes gets all the electoral college votes for that state.
  • Electoral college members usually have to pledge that they will do just that, to stop ‘faithless’ voting.
  • Electoral college members don’t meet together in Washington in some sort of giant national meeting, but in their states.

In 2016 Donald Trump received 304 of 538 electoral college votes, Hillary Clinton received 227. ‘How can that be?’ you ask. ‘Didn’t she win more popular votes?’ Ah yes, but she won them in the wrong places. Donald Trump won the electoral college votes in all but twenty of the fifty states. The same thing can occur here in Australia, where a party with less than a majority of the two-party-preferred vote can win office over its rival. Labor is usually the victim, because it has some super-safe seats that lock up a lot of Labor votes. The Coalition parties usually receive their votes more widely.

Who can be an electoral college member? Any citizen who is not an elected or appointed federal official. In fact, in most states the names of these members do not even appear on the ballot paper. You just vote for the list (it’s called the ‘short ballot’). You think you are voting for the president, but in fact it is these electors who will do the job for you, all being well. Of course, you will know on the night, all being well again, just who is going to be the next President, so the work of the electoral college members is formal. But it is undoubtedly important.

So the core message from all this detail is that the number of vote cast for the candidates has to be set in the context of where the votes were cast. California has 55 presidential electors, Texas 38, Florida and New York both 29, and Pennsylvania 20. Hillary Clinton won all of them other than Texas, but that’s still only 133 presidential electors. She did win an additional twenty states (add in Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, DC, Hawai’i, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia and Washington), but most of these other jurisdictions were small. She needed 270 votes from the college, and didn’t really get close. And though she did win a plurality of the popular vote, her margin over Donald Trump was quite small.

The key questions for November 3 are whether or not the Democrats can win back the voters of the industrial Midwest, whether the Covid-19 pandemic and the President’s handling of it have become really important issues, and whether Joe Biden will able to counter the incumbent President in any of the three debates. I should add also whether the Democrats’ apparent move to the left has offended a lot of the middle class. Oh, let’s add in BLM and violent protest, and who is responsible for all that. These issues will become more obvious in October, as the campaigns enter their last weeks. And although it is said that the young will vote for the left, especially in areas like climate change and ‘socialism’, the young are on the record much less likely to turn up to vote than older citizens.

As always, it’s a fascinating circus, and one can’t help being intrigued by it. The outcomes are important to Australians, whether or not we realise it today. And unless you are a joint citizen of our two nations, there’s not much you can do about it, either.

Phase Three  (the story of the ureteric stone, and for earlier instalments, see here.

Phase Three passed quickly and without incident. I realised that I was having a different anaesthetic, through a canula, though I was now breathing oxygen through a mask, the usual prelude to general anaesthesia. Then came a severe pain (6 or so). I called out, and the anaesthetist said consolingly, ‘it will pass’. I responded , ‘it is subsiding’, and then woke up in Recovery. Outcomes have been uniformly good, and I feel a lot better too. End of the story of the ureteric stone. It seems that I may have more later, as the chemotherapy stuff breaks into substances that have a tendency to cluster and form crystals, and lead to more stones.

I hope not.

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