The four weirdest things about US elections

21:45, Sep 18 2012

If all goes to plan, I will be a citizen of the United States of America at some point in 2016. This means that there's a good chance I could cast my very own, legitimate ballot in an American election in four years' time.

It is 51 days to the US presidential election. All of this current focus on the coming election, doubled with my own thoughts about maybe voting in the next presidential election, has got me thinking about the mechanics of the American political system.

Despite my enthusiasm to vote in another country's election (it feels oddly meddling?) there are a few systemic issues with American elections that I'm not sure I could ever get used to.

The arcane strangeness of the Electoral College

In the self-appointed "best democracy on Earth" any presidential candidate is campaigning for votes in order to win the popular vote within the 50 individual states (plus Washington DC) of America. The election is scored in seats at the Electoral College. Individual states are assigned a proportional number of seats and each state (aside from Nebraska) allocates these seats winner-takes-all. There are 538 seats at the Electoral College, and the winning candidate has to claim 270 for a majority. In the event of a tie, the House of Representatives choose the winner, with each state's congressional delegation allowed to place one vote (making it best of 51).


But the Electoral College is not some arbitrary points system. Each state has a physical delegation representing the number of seats it is apportioned, which actually gets together in person to cast the outcome of the election in the weeks afterward.

As needlessly complicated as that is, let's move right along.

Because each state is apportioned a winner-take-all allotment of seats, it changes the different value of a vote across the country. If you're in a Republican-leaning district in California, or a Democrat-leaning area of Texas, it puts a disincentive on you to vote.

Elections don't really happen in 50 states of America. Right now the election is happening in maybe nine states where the result could swing either way: Ohio, Florida, Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin, Virginia and North Carolina. Barack Obama only goes to New York to host fundraisers with Jay-Z and Beyonce, or comes to California to shoulder tap Silicon Valley millionaires and movie stars for a few bucks.

It's a bit silly. And it means that a candidate, as George W Bush did in 2000, can lose the popular vote and still win the Electoral College. Mitt Romney doesn't care if Obama runs up the scoreboard in Oregon, nor does Obama if Romney takes every single vote in Louisiana.     

How old and predominantly male American political representatives are

Do you remember when the Todd Akin/abortion drama hit and people remarked about how it was a weird American behaviour for old white men to trouble themselves with women's issues?

Well, that argument kind of stands for everything in America.

There are only eight US senators under the age of 50, and 65 per cent of the Senate is over 60. The House skews a little younger than this, with the average age of its members 55. But there are still 11 congressmen older than 80, and 44 in the 70s. Only 17 per cent of the entire House of Representatives are female.

I can't shake a feeling that if you were in your 20s and 30s during the civil rights movement, or are old enough to wax rhetorical about a time when women were only secretaries, it is time for you to retire from American government.  

In comparison (and I did all of the maths here): the average age of a New Zealand MP is a tick under 50. The Labour Party has the youngest average MP at 45, while the Maori Party has the oldest, at 65. Thirty per cent of our representatives are female.

The reality of how few people actually vote

In the last 100 years in the USA, voter participation has hovered between 48 and 63 per cent, languishing for most of that time in the 50s. Voter turnout has been falling in New Zealand steadily, but even our record 2011 low of 74 per cent greatly bettered the 57 per cent turnout in the USA in 2008, which was viewed as a sign of extreme voter enthusiasm.

Voter participation in America creates a huge power imbalance within a democratic system: in 2008 a little over 40 per cent of 18-24-year-olds voted (a historically energetic turnout) whereas almost 70 per cent of those over 65 cast a ballot. This imbalance is magnified even further when you consider that proportionately more white people actually vote than black or Hispanic. For instance, 76 per cent of voters were white, when only 65 per cent of the voting age population is white.

And then when voter participation also falls among those who are unemployed and less educated, this imbalance is increased again.

I believe that the most revolutionary thing that could happen to the American political system is if voter turnout among blacks, Hispanics, the unemployed and those without a high school education matched that of older, wealthier, more educated voters.

The level of ceremonial absurdity of major party conventions

Forty years ago a party convention was where each party actually came together to hash it out and choose its candidate. Now that the primary elections take care of that, by and large, a party convention is a four-day-long advertorial where every small nut and bolt is reported on with bated breath. It's about selling narratives and bending truths until they resemble fictions.

Mitt Romney sells it to America that he's been a good father and husband. Since when is this a selling point for a candidate? I could say the same of my own father, but it doesn't qualify him for higher office. (He's only just worked out how to send text messages and struggles mightily with the ideas that underpin the camera phone.) 

Or consider the deference given to someone like Michelle Obama. As nice a speech as she made, she has no credibility as an objective source on the subject of her speech, having literally had its babies.

It's somewhat telling that I read a lot of analysis this year about the corresponding merits of the production values of each party's convention. (Apparently the Democrats were better.)

It's much more about emotional manipulation than it is politics. Which is par for the course I guess, but then I'm always disoriented by how welcoming people are of the conventions in light of that.

But enough about me...

What throws you out the most about American elections? 

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