Awesome, but awfully confusing and complicated too. The US presidential election is awesome in its breathtaking detail, colour and drama. But it is also awfully time-consuming, frightfully expensive and, most irritatingly, complicated for the distant observer.
The process is also archaic and pregnant with all kinds of possibilities. The election stretches on for far too long and, considering the time it consumes, it is so much sound and fury signifying so little, leaving the final outcome to a handful of battleground states and to electors who mostly remain nameless. But then, the US Constitution was framed all of 225 years ago, when the population was below 4,00,000. Today, it is a country of 308 million (the total number of voters in the UP polls was 120 million, by and large the same number that turned out for the US election).
For the uninitiated, the next US President will actually be elected in December, on the “first Monday after the second Wednesday”. That is when the 538 electors of the electoral college will cast votes in the state capitals and elect the president and the vice-president. What American voters do on a similarly determined Tuesday in November every four years is to elect these ‘electors’, as listed by the parties and candidates. If the electoral college arrives at a tie, the decision is left to Congress, with the Senate electing the vice-president and the House of Representatives the president.
In other words, in a tie, the Democrats would have a vice-president of their choice if they control the Senate, while the Republican nominee would be president if the gop has a majority in the House. If that is not convoluted enough, nothing in the US Constitution binds electors to cast their votes on party lines. Alarmed at past betrayals, some states have enacted laws to penalise ‘faithless electors’, some with a fine, others with disqualification. But constitutional experts are by no means sure the penal provisions are constitutionally valid and won’t be struck down by the Supreme Court.
The framers of the Constitution were unsure whether the people or Congress would be better suited to make the wise choice. They opted for a compromise and an indirect election via the electoral college. Each state is allotted a number of electors along census lines, with California getting 55 and North Dakota getting just three. But the “winner takes all” provision ensures the party that gets more electors in a state gets all its listed electors into the electoral college. So, with Obama’s win in California, all the state’s 55 Democratic electors get to cast their votes for him next month, though they are not legally obliged to. In 2008, John McCain secured over five million votes in California, but it amounted to nothing since Obama took a slender lead and bagged all the electors.
In 2000, Al Gore actually secured 5,00,000 more popular votes than George W. Bush, but fell short of getting the required 270 majority of the 538 electors into the electoral college, which made Bush president. Gore wasn’t the first ‘winner’ to have lost, but since such results have been rare (four times out of 51), the US believes the model works well. The bottomline: a candidate can lose the popular vote and yet win the presidential race; conversely, they might win the popular vote and still lose the presidency!
Even American politics can be confusing. The Republicans oppose government spending, would leave it to the free market to create jobs and provide healthcare. Yet, the party’s contender, Governor Romney, pioneered Obama’s vision of universal healthcare in his own state. Massachusetts remains the only state to have implemented it so far. So what were they sparring about? The Blue states, we are told, are wealthier and lean Democrat-wards; the Red states are poorer and yet deeply Republican, though the latter are believed to favour the rich! The Blue ones, therefore, could well be better off with far less taxation and less federal spending on poorer states. But they seem to favour spending in poorer states because of a shared ‘America above all’ vision.
The ‘beauty’ of the election is the variety of issues put on the ballot in states for approval. Most of these get there only after lobbying, which requires funds. This year they ranged from repealing the death penalty and constitutional protection for hunting and fishing, to targeting those cruel to animals, to a pledge to improve grammar in the Constitution.
Despite the complexities, it was fun to follow the election, not only because it was a spectacle, but also due to the sophisticated math models used by the psephologists, the campaign micro-management, Jay Leno’s jokes and a dogged media who pursued the candidates relentlessly. Who wouldn’t follow the “Truth Meter” of the St Petersburg Times, which had a slot named “Liar, Liar, Pants on fire” for the most outrageous statements made by candidates. Mitt Romney, it turned out, was four times more prone to utter a lie than Obama!